by HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
When Yaakov blessed his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, it says, "Yisrael extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Menashe’s head. He crossed his hands, because Menashe was the firstborn.” (Bereisheet 48:14) An obvious question arises here. Since by crossing his hands Yaakov negated the natural order, it should have said, “He crossed his hands, even though Menashe was the firstborn.”
Furthermore, the Netziv comments that it would have been more appropriate for Yaakov to switch the way the two lads stood, to place Ephraim opposite his right hand, and Menashe on his left side. Why did he leave them in position, and cross his hands instead?
The Netziv explains that Yaakov did not intend to negate Menashe’s status entirely, since he was the firstborn. Rather, Menashe’s primacy is expressed mainly in the material realm, whereas Ephraim excelled in the spiritual and Torah realm. Therefore, in the arrangement of the camps in the desert, which was patterned after the arrangement of the heavenly chariot, Ephraim came before Menashe, since he leads in the spiritual realm.
The hand serves the head, and belongs to the spiritual, lofty, aspect of man. In contrast, the foot serves the body, and acts unconsciously, instinctively. Therefore, Chazal say, “A son is the leg of his father.” The father’s qualities are expressed in the son as the father’s leg, i.e., in a natural manner without conscious thought.
Yaakov did not want to change the way in which the two lads stood, since then it would seem that Menashe's status of firstborn was entirely revoked. Instead, he stood them so that Menashe was opposite Yaakov’s right leg, and Ephraim was opposite the left leg, since this is their standing in the natural realm. Menashe has the primacy in the physical world, corresponding to the foot, whereas Ephraim was opposite Yaakov’s right hand, since he has the primacy in the spiritual world. Therefore Yaakov crossed his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim's head and his left hand on Menashe’s, instead of switching the way they stood – “because Menashe is the firstborn.”
With this he also explains the change in the order of the census in the desert. In the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, Ephraim appears first, whereas at the end of Bamidbar, in the second count, Menashe is first. This is because in the desert Israel lived in a miraculous fashion, and there Ephraim leads. However, as they are about to enter the Land of Israel, the manner of Divine guidance changed; the miracles ceased, and everything occurred in a natural manner. There, Menashe leads.
The Netziv correctly points out a slight variation in Parshat Bamidbar (2:18-20): “The banner of the camp of Ephraim according to their legions shall be to the west ... Upon him is the tribe of Menashe.” On the other hand, regarding the other tribes it says, “Those encamping near him are...” The latter phrase has the connotation of a little one who is dependent on the great one, so that the entire surrounding camp leans on him, on the center. On the other hand, the expression, “Upon him,” has the opposite connotation, that the second one is above, and looks after the little ones. Thus, "Upon him is the tribe of Menashe," means that Menashe is the greater one and worries about the needs of the little one, Ephraim. Even though Ephraim is the head of the camp, still, in regards to all that pertains to the natural course, Menashe is the leader, and he takes care of Ephraim.