The Torah devotes the end of the parsha to detailing the korbanos and gifts brought by the Nesiim for the Chanukas Ha’Mizbayach, dedication of the Altar. Each of the twelve Nesiim brought an identical set of presents. The Midrash addresses the connotations of each of the gifts. Chazal make an intriguing statement concerning the gift of Elishama, the Nasi of Shevet Efraim. They cite the pasuk in Tehillim 60:9, in which it is stated, “Efraim is the strength of my head.” This is considered a reference to the Nasi of Shevet Efraim who brought his offering on Shabbos. The Shem Mishmuel explains that the pasuk relates to the incident at the end of Yaakov Avinu’s life, when he blessed Efraim before Menashe, the older brother. The pasuk implies that in favoring Efraim over Menashe, Yaakov legitimized Elishama for offering his korban on Shabbos. Under normal circumstances, no korban yachid, offering of an individual, could override the laws of Shabbos. Somehow, Yaakov invested Efraim with a power so unique that it enabled his descendant to offer his korban on Shabbos. What was that power?
What makes this Midrash even more enigmatic is the fact that the Sifri claims that any of the Nesiim had the ability to “push aside” the laws of Shabbos or tumah, ritual contamination, and offer his korban. How are we to understand this? What was the attribute of Yaakov Avinu’s blessings that gave such strength to Efraim — and to all the tribes — that their korbanos superceded Shabbos?
The Shem MiShmuel begins by analyzing the characters of Menashe and Efraim, as well as the symbolism of their names. One’s name reveals his essence. Thus, the name Menashe, which was given to him, “for Hashem has made me forget all of my trouble and all of my father’s house,” denotes forgetting or distancing oneself from the past. This represents a form of serving Hashem in which one divests himself of his prior bad habits in his quest towards achieving perfection before the Almighty. Efraim’s name has another implication: “For Hashem has made me fruitful in the land of my oppression.” With its root in the concept of fruitfulness, Efraim’s name denotes a positive approach towards serving Hashem, in which one focuses upon developing good character traits and takes a more affirmative attitude toward mitzvah observance.
David Ha’Melech in Sefer Tehillim (34:15) says, “Sur meira va’asei tov,” “Depart from evil and do good.” In the context of Menashe and Efraim’s names, Menashe alludes to “departing from evil,” while Efraim will signifies the more positive act of “doing good.”
Yosef’s desire to have Menashe, the older brother, blessed first, and Yaakov’s confusing choice to bless Efraim first, is symbolic of the continuing dialogue between father and son concerning the most correct manner to approach the Divine and serve the Almighty. Yosef wanted to follow the pattern of the pasuk in which a departure from evil precedes mitzvah performance. Hence, he felt that Menashe, the symbol of “sur meira,” should be blessed first. Indeed, Yosef’s entire life was a struggle with evil, constantly battling to ward off the obstacles set before him by his yetzer hora, evil inclination.
Yaakov Avinu’s perspective was different. He felt one should concentrate on performing mitzvos, rather than waiting for the evil from within to dissipate. The holiness engendered by mitzvah performance would serve as the vehicle for the evil to be expunged. Yaakov’s approach is the accepted path. The general rule in Jewish life is to begin by serving Hashem, performing mitzvos, doing good deeds and assigning a secondary role to eradicating evil. If the mitzvah observance is truly sincere, the evil will self-destruct.
It is evident from the mitzvah of Shabbos observance that Yosef’s approach, first dispelling evil, is not effective. Shabbos is the epitome of kedushah, holiness. Consequently, one might never feel “competent” enough to observe it. Is one ever truly ready to greet kedushas Shabbos? The inevitable result of this perspective is that one would never observe Shabbos! According to Yaakov’s approach, we just do whatever we can during the week to prepare ourselves as well as possible to greet the holy Shabbos – and it just comes! If we follow Yosef’s approach, we will be stuck in the “sur meira” mode and never observe Shabbos. Yaakov instructs us to get on with a life of Torah and mitzvos, and the rest will just happen.
Yaakov’s selection of Efraim over Menashe constituted a statement. He was telling us that the emphasis in Jewish life must be on the “asei tov,” doing good. It was, therefore, appropriate that the Nasi of Shevet Efraim offered his korban on Shabbos. By doing this, he underscored the significance of starting the Divine worship of one’s tribe with a positive act. Even though it was Shabbos, the Divine imperative guided this departure from halachah in order to emphasize the importance of the “asei tov” perspective in Jewish life.
The Sifri supplements this idea by saying that any tribe could have taken the initiative and brought the korban on Shabbos. Once Yaakov had administered the blessings, it became a universal rule for all of Klal Yisrael. Once the correct path for serving Hashem had been established, any one of them could have brought the korban on Shabbos.