Jacob gives some blessing to Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and crosses his arms so as to effect a modification of the precedence of the firstborn (Genesis 48:13-19) — not altogether surprising, since anyone paying attention for the last few months can plainly see that the firstborn status among the children of Abraham has yet to actually follow the norm — in fact, a reversal of the norm happens to be the norm.
A few verses earlier, Jacob states that Ephraim and Menashe will be counted among the tribes — “like Reuvein and Shimon.” (48:5) The plain understanding of the verse is that Jacob means to compare Joseph’s sons to his own: just like Reuvein and Shimon are tribe-leaders, so too will Ephraim and Menashe be tribe-leaders, with all the privileges and responsibilities that come along with such a distinction — desert encampment and troop configurations, sacrificial obligations in the Mishkan and eventually even land apportionment.
But perhaps a look back at the Genesis, so to speak, of the Jewish nation so far will reveal an eerie reversal of meaning. Without yet an obligation from Sinai, it may seem to some that the distinction made between followers of the tradition and those that have seemingly strayed is a bit ambiguous, at least from the text. In fact, the status of Esau seems more like a contemporary yeshiva-style faker than an outright heretic — according to the midrash, he tried to fool his his father into thinking he was so pious by putting forward queries regarding the tithing rules for salt and straw, and when Jacob sought a wife from within the family, he, too, sought another wife from within the family, albeit keeping his previous marriage(s) to Canaanite women intact.
So it’s sort of intriguing to look back at some of the individuals who seemed to violate the unspoken family traditions and wonder what makes them still a part of the, well, tradition. Reuvein famously engaged in some sort of sexual indiscretion (Genesis 35:22), and Shimon and Levi engaged in mass murder (34:25) and Judah intended to consort with a harlot, only to incidentally and unwittingly commit incest with his daughter-in-law (38:15-18). The midrashic literature tell of Joseph’s defense of the his brothers who had come forth from the handmaidens, and so one may suggest that it was Shimon, Levi, Judah, Yissachar and Zevulun who were the real motivators behind torturing, intending to murder and eventually selling Joseph, as the text itself relates how Reuvein was secretly acting in his best interest. And yet, all of these activities failed to remove their perpetrators from the tradition.
But perhaps one was in doubt.
Another way to explain Jacob’s words to Joseph in regard to Ephraim and Menashe is that the reference was not to compare them to Reuvein and Shimon because it is so obvious that the latter are deemed virtuous and holy, but rather the other way around. Perhaps one may look at Ephraim and Menashe, raised in exile with no kosher pizza shops, yet following triumphantly in their father’s tradition, innocent and honest, and say that these two deserve to become pillars of integrity among the Jewish nation, to stand strong and tall and represent their descendants outright as tribe-leaders. But perhaps the original tribe-leaders themselves appear to not even deserve such a thing. Jacob therefore clears the air and absolves all of his sons of wrongdoing by mentioning Reuvein and Shimon, the quitenssential Sons of Jacob, in comparison to Ephraim and Menashe — not to introduce the latter’s parity but to emphasize the former’s adequacy.