Preceding the passing of his father Yaakov, Yosef brings his two sons Ephraim and Menashe to their venerated grandfather to receive his blessing. Although Menashe was Yosef’s first-born (and as such he had the “official” claim to the more prestigious blessing); Yaakov, in his profound wisdom, recognized that it was Ephraim who should receive the greater bracha.
“And Yisrael sent his right [hand] and he placed it upon the head of Ephraim, and he was the young[er one], and his left [hand] upon the head of Menashe…and he placed Ephraim before Menashe (Gen. 48:14-20).”
The Torah describes the discussion that transpired between Yaakov and Yosef about this seemingly peculiar act. Yosef, of course, thought that his father (who at that point had lost his eyesight) was simply making a mistake and thus attempted to correct the error.
However, “and his father refused and he said ‘I know, my son, I know. He (Menashe) will also be to a nation and he will also become great, and however his younger brother will become greater than him… (Gen. 48:19).”
The question that one may ask is what exactly is so significant about which hand he places on whose head? We would most likely assume that the relative power of a blessing depends solely on the content thereof and the intent behind it. Yet, the Torah is clearly teaching us the contrary; namely, that which hand he placed on which head did carry tremendous impact and significance as to the power of the respective blessings.
We find a similar concept regarding Yitzchak Avinu when he wanted to bless Eisav.(1) He commanded Eisav to bring him his favorite delicacies, and he said, “I will eat [them] in order that my soul will bless you (Gen. 27:4).” Here also, one cannot help but wonder, what does eating delicacies have to do with conveying a blessing on one’s son?
What we derive from this observation is one of the most fundamental principles of Torah and Judaism. Hashem created a universe that has a dual reality: the physical and material reality on the one hand, and the metaphysical/spiritual reality on the other. The human being is comprised of body and soul. One without the other is simply not a human being. As such, if we are to serve Hashem in the most optimal way it requires that we make usage of both facets of our existence together.
However, it goes even deeper. As human beings living in a physical world (the neshama [soul] is sent down to this physical plane of existence as opposed to the body being sent up to heaven), our primary mode of function is in the physical realm. Generally, we are only able to fully access the spiritual realm through proper usage of and functioning within the physical realm.
This is why placing the right hand on Ephraim’s head made such a profound difference. By utilizing his stronger arm in blessing Ephraim, Yaakov was actually accessing a powerful, inner, spiritual strength within himself. It is not only that there exists a direct correlation between the physical and the spiritual, but that the principal way by which and through which we can access and express our spiritual strength is by properly utilizing our physical capacities.
When Yitzchak partook of the delicacies that were brought to him by his son, the physical satisfaction and joy that he experienced became a conduit through which his spiritual enthusiasm could be accessed and expressed.
This harnessing of spiritual strength through physical actions is of course completely dependent upon the way that one uses physicality. If one uses physicality as an end in of itself then it will act as a blockage from spirituality, and cause one to sink into the coarseness of gross physicality. Only when one conducts one’s physical actions according to the Torah – and thereby infuses them with lofty purpose and meaning – does the physical become a mechanism by which to access and amplify the spiritual.
This concept greatly helps us to understand the Torah’s overarching emphasis on a practically endless list of mitzvos that revolve around physical actions. Every physical action that we do in worship of the Almighty serves to infuse our entire beings with spirituality, for it is through those physical actions that we are accessing spirituality. Internalizing this truth helps us to better appreciate how careful we must be with all of our physical actions, and how we must continuously try to infuse our physical actions with purpose and meaning through the meticulous fulfillment of the mitzvos.
There are religions out there that would like to profess that for the human being to achieve his pinnacle of greatness and spirituality he must deny his physicality (and of course, then, since abstinence would lead to the cessation of the human race only a select few are intended to achieve this “holiness” while all others must pay homage to them). We Jews say that that is absolute nonsense. We are taught by the Torah to be completely aware that our being has a full component of physicality to it, and that we must function and grow spiritually in a physical existence. We do not deny the physical, rather we channel it.
1. At the time, Yitzchak was intending to bentch Eisav, but Rivkah received a nevuah that Yaakov must receive the bracha. She therefore instructed Yaakov to deceive Yitzchak into thinking that he was Eisav.
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