When Yaakov sees his grandchildren, Yosef’s sons, for the first time, he seems to commit a serious blunder. He sends his right hand to Ephraim, the younger grandson, and his left to Menashe, the elder. Yosef is understandably angry, for we remember that it was precisely Yaakov’s favoritism of the younger over the elder that caused the brothers to sell Yosef in the first place.
Why did Yaakov switch his hands? Yaakov himself explains that he does so because he foresees that Ephraim will grow up to be the greater nation. The commentaries all echo Yaakov’s words in explaining his actions. However, a question still lingers. What is the significance of this switch? Why does Ephraim merit becoming the greater of the two?
This episode must be understood in light of an earlier passage in the Torah. Back in Parshat Miketz, when Yosef names his two children, the Torah tells us why he chooses these names. “Menashe” means, “For Hashem has helped me forget all my troubles and the house of my father” (41:51). Yosef saw the birth of his first son as a kind of anesthetic to numb the pain of all the suffering caused by his brothers. Now it is time for him to start a new life in Egypt and abandon all thoughts of home. “Ephraim” means, “Hashem has made me prosper in the land of my affliction (41:52).” For some reason, by the time he has a second son, Yosef recognizes that Egypt is not his true home. Although he prospers there, it is still “the land of my affliction.” Yosef misses home.
Yaakov understood that each boy represented a fundamentally different attitude toward living prosperously outside of Israel. If the Jews were to survive in Egypt, they would have to be extremely cautious to avoid the attitude implied by Menashe’s name. They could never look at the exile as their true home, where they could forget the land of Israel from whence they came. Rather, the Jews had to adopt the attitude of the name Ephraim. Yes, they might prosper outside of Israel, but they must never forget that they are away from their true home in Israel. This message is crucial at this point in the Torah, when the Jews were going to be spending many generations in Egypt, and it is also a crucial message for all of us, who have found good living in places outside of Israel, today. We must never forget that our stay here is temporary, and Israel is our true home.