This week’s parashah takes place in the midst of the dramatic ceremony of the Covenant at Sinai. The Israelites have accepted the terms and conditions and now stand poised to sign on the dotted line. Now comes the small print: the actual terms and conditions they are to keep. But there’s something very odd about the way the names of God come up in presenting these laws….
The receiving of the Torah marks the official incorporation of Am Yisrael—the final step in the transition from disparate individuals with a common kinship and history into a people, bound to each other by irrevocable decree. And yet, there is some question of whether the Covenant was a voluntary agreement.
The Exodus from Egypt is a story of miracles from beginning to end. But the greatest miracle of all is hidden in plain sight. God tells Moshe that Pharoah will not listen to him, and will inevitably bring about the next escalation, until finally, the results can no longer be reasoned away. By highlighting the institutionalization of the slavery, the eventual emancipation is shown for the miracle that it is.
This week’s Parashah, though couched in a terminology that may seem unfamiliar to modern ears, deals with issues that are topical for every age–issues of guilt and redress, wrong-doing and atonement. What is especially striking is that these issues are first brought up in the Torah in the context of unwitting transgression. The focus throughout this first parasha of Vayikra is on mistakes and cases of doubt. There is an important message in this: we seldom know for sure if what we’re doing is wrong. And yet, only one who can acknowledge responsibility for his past actions is in a position to change his future actions.
“With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh,’ ”
And so it is to this day; on Erev Shabbat, it is customary for fathers to bless their sons with this blessing. But why? Why do we ask that God make them like Ephraim and like Menashe? Why not like Yehuda, from whom Israel’s kings were descended? Or like Levy, from whom the priests are descended? What is special about Yoseph’s sons?