“And now your two sons, Efrayim and Menashe, who were born to you in the land of Mitzrayim, before I came to you into Mitzrayim, are mine; as Reuven and Shimon they shall be mine” (Bereishit 48/5)
On this verse Rashi comments that the two sons of Yosef were promised equal portions in the land of Israel, as if they were themselves sons of Yaacov.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky comments:
Surely Yosef should have immediately pointed out to his father that Menashe was the first born – why did Yaacov mention Efraim first? Why did Yosef only mention the change in order later on, when Yaakov blesses Efraim before Menashe?
Furthermore, has Yaakov not yet learned his lesson? Why should the sons of Yosef get a better portion than the sons of Yehuda or the sons of Dan? Hasn’t enough trouble been caused already by favoring one brother over the next?”
In relating to the above questions Rav Yaakov comments:
These sons of Yosef needed a specific blessing, because they had been born and bred in Egypt. They had never seen the house of Jacob in Eretz Yisrael. Yaakov was particularly worried with regards Efraim and Menashe, that they would not make it through the exile, because they were lacking the right background, and fundamental mentality of a son of Jacob brought up in Eretz Hakodesh. Why should they dream of a redemption, to travel from a place that they were born to a place that they have never seen?
Therefore, Yaakov took it upon himself to treat them as if they were his very own sons – as ‘Reuven and Shimon’. This idea can easily be derived from the verse quoted above – since your sons were born to you in Mitzrayim, they shall be to me as Reuven and Shimon.
If we accept this thesis, then we can also understand why Efraim needs to precede Menashe:
If we study their two names carefully, we see that inherent in the name of Menashe is the fact that Yosef still had some kind of connection with his Fathers’ house – ‘For G-d, has made me forget (Neshani-Menashe) all my toil, and all my father’s house’ (Bereishit 41/51). However, when naming Efraim – ‘For G-d has caused me to be fruitful (Hifrani-Efraim) in the land of my affliction’ (ibid 52), there is no longer any mention whatsoever of the house of Yaakov. On the contrary, in naming his second son, Yosef is already thanking Hashem for his successes, in exile.
It would appear that Efraim and Menashe were true Egyptian Jews. Efraim being the second born, growing up in a settled prosperous environment, being extremely Egyptian in character. It is therefore of particular importance to give these two grandsons extra attention, specifically with regards to the Land of Israel, a Land that they have never even seen. Yaakov, has to instill within these young exiles a love for a Land that they know little of, he thus takes an unprecedented step by giving his two grandsons portions in the land, as if they were his own sons.
Extra attention is paid towards Efraim, he is mentioned prior to his elder brother, and he also studies with Yaakov. Yosef is aware of the extra attention that Efraim needs, and thus when Yaakov mentions Efraim before Menashe it is fully understood. It is only later when giving out the Berachot, that Yosef fails to understand why the second born should precede the first born. There is also no worry of favoritism, the other sons of Yaakov are totally aware of the educational needs of their exilic nephews, without a special connection to their Homeland, they will surely assimilate.
Rav Yaakov adds an exceptional comment:
Chazal explain, that the tribe of Efraim, tried to leave Egypt thirty years before the redemption. They were caught and killed by the Mitzrim. These are, in fact, ‘the dry bones’ spoken of by Ezekiel. Why was it the tribe of Efraim that tried to escape earlier? According to our thesis, the answer is simple. Efraim considered themselves to be Egyptian Jews, more so than any other of the tribes. When ‘their own people’ turned on them, enslaving them, it was a trauma difficult to overcome. The other tribes came as outsiders and remained outsiders, but Efraim were insiders, thrown out. They were more desperate to escape Mitzrayim than anyone else.
The lessons for us today are obvious. Over half the Jewish people today live in exile, the vast majority of them have been born and bred in Chutz Laaretz. One of our biggest problems is that most Jews do not even understand that they are in exile. My Rabbi (Rabbi Bernstein, of Blessed memory), would often say: ‘Galut is a station not a destination’. Yet how many of us are truly aware that this is the case? How many of us are in the danger that Efraim finds himself in? Are we American Jews or Jewish Americans or simply Jews in Exile? This is a tough question that everyone of us is obliged to ask, now more than ever before. When fighting our old enemy of assimilation, we must put extra emphasis, on Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the Land of Israel to the People of Israel. Every Jew, all over the world, must be educated in Torat Eretz Yisrael. The issues that we face today in Israel are not simply the problems of those of us who have come to live in the promised land, they are the problems of every Jew everywhere in the world.