When Yosef (Joseph) brings his two sons (Efraim and Menashe) to their grandfather Ya’akov (Jacob) for a special blessing, Ya’akov asks a very peculiar question:
"And Israel1 saw the sons of Yosef and he said: 'Who are these?' " (Gen 48:8).
Who are these?! They're your grandchildren, the children of your long-lost son who you were miraculously re-united with in Egypt. What's the problem? What is Ya'akov asking?
The answer given by Yosef is:
"They are my sons that God has given to me in this." Ya'akov then says: "Bring them to me and I shall bless them." (Gen 48:9)
So, Ya'akov didn't know that they were Yosef's sons? Only once their identity has been established does he consent to bless them? What's going on here?
It would be quite a stretch to say that Ya'akov didn't know these two young men. Surely, he doted on them as any grandfather would have, especially after missing their birth and early childhood. He would treasure them more than his other grandsons because he never even imagined he would see Yosef again, let alone his children. (See the particularly moving and emotional verse of 48:11.) The Midrash also says that Ya'akov was the boys' teacher, so they must have spent quite a lot of quality time together.
Some commentators (Rashbam, Radak) think it just means that he couldn't see them very well. We know that Ya'akov's eyesight had deteriorated and he may have been unable to identify the boys or be able to distinguish one from the other.2
Another intriguing possibility is that he was asking a more penetrating question than one of identity. The Or ha-Chayim ha-Kadosh (R. Chaim ibn Attar) suggests that he was not asking "what are their names?" or "who are they?" Rather, he was asking a leading question that would inspire Yosef to praise the boys -- to describe some of their deeper qualities -- before the blessing.3
As far as Yosef's answer, it is illuminating that he invokes God's name ("the sons that God has given to me"). He expresses to his father that his own beliefs have not changed as a result of being in Egypt for so long and that his sons are also truly new links in the chain of tradition. But it also unsatisfying, since it does not really tell us anything about the boys that we – or Ya'akov -- did not already know.
It also raises the follow-up question of why Ya'akov needs to ask this question at all, why he needs to know something deeper about them right at the moment before he blesses them.
There are a number of answers to this question, but (for the sake of brevity) I will suggest one: that he asked Yosef to praise the boys for the sake of the boys themselves.
Perhaps Ya'akov asked Yosef to praise his sons and reveal their inner qualities not for the sake of Ya'akov or Yosef, but so that the boys should hear their father saying nice things about them. Hearing their father praise them to a third party (in this case, their grandfather) would stir the boys themselves to aspire to the blessing they had been given.
This is a parenting technique that I think is valuable, though, as with all parenting, it requires some practice and artistry. My wife Shira will sometimes tell me in earshot of the children what a great job Rinat (4 years old) did helping her in the supermarket, how mature Nadav (7 years old) was in expressing his feelings, how well Nadav and Rinat sang the Birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals), how considerate Rinat was to share her cookies with Nadav or how well Nadav was taking care of Uriel (1.5 years old). These praises are not meant for me (though I do get nachas from them) and not for the sake of Shira. They are for our children, so they can hear what kinds of behaviors we value and admire and so that they can strive to be that way.
It is also not just for the children who are being praised, but for their siblings. Rinat should hear Abba (dad) and mommy praising Nadav and Nadav should hear about the virtues of Rinat. This is part of their learning to appreciate and be considerate of each other.4
Perhaps Ya'akov's obvious question – "who are these" – was just an opening for Yosef to express the love and admiration he had for his sons, so they would know that their father loved them and of what he thought them capable.
When I taught Nadav this week about the blessing given by Ya'akov to Menashe and Efraim, he smacked his head and said "Oh, so that's why you always say I should be like Menashe and Efraim," referring to the blessing of the children that I give him every Friday night. It reminded me of a comment in the siddur of R. Yaakov Emden where he encourages parents not only to say the blessing as it appears in the siddur, but to add on their own individual blessings each week. Perhaps from here, we could learn that one should first give a personalized blessing (the answer to "who are these" children really?), which can then serve to awaken the energy for the blessing ("May God make you like Efraim and Menashe") modeled after the blessing of Ya'akov to his grandchildren.
1. Israel is Ya'akov's other alias.
2. There are some problems with this theory. Among others, the question comes immediately after a soliloquy in which Ya'akov discusses "your two sons who were born to you in Egypt," when it clearly should have come before-hand. Also, the description of Ya'akov's myopia ("and Yisrael's eyes had grown heavy with age" comes afterwards as well; if it were meant to explain the question ("who are they") it should have come before as well. Also, it is not clear what the Torah means by "and Israel saw" if he did not recognize them. Both Rashi and Rashbam focus on answering this second question.
3. The K'li Yakar explains the question in a similar way to this, but with an interesting twist. Ya'akov sees that the future of the boys has both great good and great evil in it and so he asks: who are these boys? Are they incarnations of all the good that will come from them or all the evil. Yosef answers that we must focus on the good and Godliness that comes from them and not the evil. This has great ramifications for how we interact with and deal with people that have both attractive and repulsive qualities.
4. As a side note, we try never to point out mistakes and misbehaviors, only to encourage successes and good behavior.
Written by Rabbi Avi Heller, director of Jewish education
at Boston University Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayechi at MyJewishLearning.com.