In the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures, tucked in among the well-known stories of Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden and Abraham is a wonderful metaphysical lesson about rights and responsibilities.
The story of Jacob (renamed as Israel after wrestling with an angel) who after many years of believing that his son Joseph was dead (recall that Joseph had been Jacob’s youngest, and favorite son and was sold to slave traders by his jealous brothers years before), is reunited with his grown son and meets his 2 grandsons for the first time.
Being very old, Jacob desires to give the traditional blessing to Joseph and to his 2 sons. As was the custom, Joseph positioned his sons with the oldest (Manasseh) at Jacob’s right and Ephraim at Jacob’s left so that the oldest of his sons would receive the right hand and the blessing of the firstborn – the “better” blessing.
Jacob moves to place his hands on the young boys and crosses his arms, placing his right hand – to confer the primary blessing – on Ephraim, not Manasseh. Fearing his father was subject to his advanced years, Joseph reaches out to move Jacob’s hands, but Jacob resists.
17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a multitude of nations.”Genesis 48:17-19
Jacob foresaw that while Manasseh was talented, and would find success; Ephraim had a great deal more potential for good, and greater achievements for the Hebrew people. He then circumvented the traditional blessing process and laid his right hand, and bestowed the blessing on Ephraim – the grandson he knew would do great things.
There’s an important lesson in this somewhat obscure story for modern times. Modern as we are, we too are often bound by tradition. In organizations we get caught up in titles, length of service or affiliation and credentials. Mesmerized by these man-made measurements, we tend to defer to the people in these groups (the Manassehs) and ignore the Ephraims – those without the time in rank, the titles or credentials.
But at what cost?
If we choose our leaders based narrowly on time, rank and credentials; overlooking those with great energy, vision and the ability to create meaningful programming and lead strategic progress, but without the traditional position in the birth order, we deserve the results we get.
The wisdom in the story of the blessing of Ephraim is that traditions are meant to be challenged – especially when there is an obvious different choice. Too many times though, like Joseph, we try to micromanage the natural progression of things by insisting on blessing the firstborn, because – well, we always bless the first born!
Jacob saw the great benefit of giving his blessing to Ephraim – bucking the tradition, and making the decision based on the best interest of the movement, which for him was the people of Israel.
Jacob understood his rights and the rights of Manasseh. He also understood the heavy mantle of responsibility as the patriarch of the nation of Israel, and he chose carefully, intentionally and based on the best interest of the many – not on the feelings of, or fallout for, Manasseh.
Like much of the biblical canon and most ancient texts, this is another wisdom tale with no expiration date. And the lesson is that we get to choose: we can fall in line with those who’ve been here the longest, and doing things “the way we’ve always done them” or we can cross our arms and bestow our blessing on the ones whose contributions will seed “a multitude of nations“.
And so it is.
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