Parshat Vayechi, the last Parsha in the first Sefer (book) of Bereishit, is where Yaakov (Jacob) gives all of his sons their blessings. Ironically, though, Yaakov starts with the blessings for Ephraim and Menashe, who were Yosef’s sons that were born to him in Egypt. It all started when Yosef found out that Yaakov was sick (48:1), Yosef “took his two sons with him.” (presumably to bring them to Yaakov, although it doesn’t say that anywhere). When Yosef and his sons got there, Yaakov “strengthened himself” (48:5) (which also seems strange), sat up on the bed, and told Yosef that his two sons would now be considered like Yaakov’s children, and will get a portion in the land just like the rest of the brothers. Yaakov then called over the 2 children, placed his hands on their heads, and started blessing Yosef, giving him the famous “Hamalach” blessing (48:16), that the angel that protected Yaakov from evil should also protect Yosef’s sons, and that Yaakov’s name should be associated with them, along with Avraham and Yitzchak, and they should multiply in the land. All these events seem inconsistent, unless we put them in to perspective.
When Yaakov got sick, the Torah doesn’t say that Yosef brought his sons to Yaakov, but that Yosef took his sons with him. What it could mean is not that Yosef brought his sons physically to Yaakov (which they would benefit from, by seeing and visiting a righteous person), but that Yosef kept them close to himself, so that they wouldn’t be spiritually influenced by their non-Jewish surroundings. Yaakov recognized this, which is why he felt strengthened when Yosef came to him with his sons. That’s also why when Yaakov claimed the sons as his own, he made sure to stress that it was those two sons that were born in Egypt (48:5), because their greatness and Yosef’s greatness was that they were Jews despite living in Egypt. And finally, although his hands were on the two sons, Yaakov’s blessing was that Yosef’s children, and anyone who has to live in a non-Jewish world, should be protected throughout history so that we can all be proudly called the children of Avraham and Yitzchak. But it won’t happen unless we learn to put our hands on their heads and guide the next generation. The adults have a duty to take along and guide the kids, and the children have an equal responsibility to let themselves be guided.