At the beginning of this Parsha, Yaakov, on his deathbed, summons his son Yosef to his bedside. He tells Yosef that G-d had appeared to him years before in the land of Canaan and had said to him, “I will make you fruitful and numerous; I will make you a congregation of nations, and I will give this land to your offspring after you as an eternal possession. And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before my coming to you in Egypt shall be Mine; Ephraim and Menashe shall be Mine like Reuven and Shimon…Rachel died on Me in the land of Canaan, on the road…and I buried her there on the road to Efrat…’ (Ber. 48:3-7)
Abarbanel cites a number of difficulties with these verses. Why does Yaakov mention at this point the blessing that he received years earlier, and what is the connection between this blessing and Yosef’s sons? What does Yaakov mean that Efraim and Menashe will be his like Reuven and Shimon? Why would Yaakov consider these two as equal to his sons and not his other grandchildren from the rest of his sons? If they would represent Yosef’s portion of the eventual division of the land of Canaan amongst the tribes, there would be thirteen divisions instead of twelve. Finally, why does Yaakov mention Rachel’s death and place of burial at this point in time?
Abarbanel explains that Yaakov intended to transfer the rights of the first-born from Reuven to Yosef, as Reuven had forfeited the right to that honor and position. Since this could be interpreted as a perversion of justice, he emphasized that this was implied in the prophecy which he had received earlier in Canaan. He understood that the first three assurances in the blessing — “fruitful, numerous, and a congregation of nations” — were directed to him specifically, and referred to three additional sons who had not yet been born. Since he had only one additional son, Binyamin, he realized that the other two had to be Ephraim and Menashe. He knew this from the fact that the word ‘fruitful’ in the first assurance has the same root in Hebrew as the name ‘Ephraim’. The second assurance, ‘numerous’ is a reference to Menashe. Even though the name ‘Menashe’ is not rooted in the word for ‘numerous’ in Hebrew, this connection was not necessary, since as Yosef’s first born it was already fitting that he should be the head of one of the tribes. Ephraim, however, as the younger son, required the support of the prophecy to enable him to be the head of a separate tribe. The third assurance, ‘a congregation of nations’, referred to Binyamin.
The Torah compares Ephraim and Menashe to Reuven and Shimon to tell us that they would have equal status as two of the tribes in the division of the land. Furthermore, they would have the same population as Reuven and Shimon. Even though dividing Yosef into two tribes results in thirteen tribes instead of twelve, only twelve tribes take part in the division of the land, as the tribe of Levi is scattered throughout the land and receives no specific portion.
Finally, Yaakov mentions the burial of Rachel on the road to Efrat as another indication that Ephraim deserved to head a separate tribe who represented Yosef, in addition to Menashe who was the first-born of Rachel. The memory of Rachel would be preserved through the name of the son of her son. The root of the place-name ‘Efrat’ is the same as the root of the name ‘Ephriam’, just as we saw with the word ‘numerous’ in the prophecy. This gave Yaakov a second reason to counter any complaints about making Ephraim a tribal leader.