When Ephraim and Menashe are presented to Yisrael, he has the older grandson placed on his right side, while the younger is placed on his left. As Yisrael is in a bed, we can imagine that each young man (they are both are in their 20s) is on a different side of the bed.
Going against the natural setup, the Torah tells us that Yisrael put his right hand on Ephraim, who was to his left, and his left hand on Menashe. “He deliberately crossed his hands, even though Menashe was the firstborn.” (48:14)
In acting out this scene with children dozens of times while I was sitting in a chair (which is presumably not as wide as a bad), I can attest that the placement of Yisrael’s hands is extremely awkward and uncomfortable, not to mention very difficult to accomplish without saying to the persons, “Come closer as I can’t reach.” It is also VERY noticeable. The idea that Yosef did not notice this until after verses 48:15-16 had transpired is difficult to accept. And why didn’t Yisrael simply ask the boys to switch sides?
Kli Yakar asks this question in a slightly different way, “Why didn’t Yosef stop his father before he gave the blessing?” The first answer he gives is that perhaps Yosef thought the left was more important, and that Menashe was being given a blessing of intelligence, reflective of the heart (in those days thought to be the source of wisdom) which is on the left side. This is also hinted to in the word “sikel” et Yadav — the word “sikel” (switched), describing the move he did with his hands, is spelled the same as the word “sekhel” (intelligence). In this light, Yosef was expecting his father to give two separate blessings to his sons, with Ephraim getting a blessing of the physical world (gashmiyut), reflective of the liver, which is on the right side of the body, which was viewed as the source of physical desires. Only after seeing that his father gave the boys one shared blessing did he intervene to say this was incorrect.
Another view Kli Yakar shares is that Yosef surely had seen his father switch his hands around, but he assumed that his father thought Yosef had brought the first-born on his own (Yosef’s) right side, and the younger son on Yosef’s left, which is why his father switched the hands.
When Yosef realized that Yaakov was finished with the blessing and that the proper hands were on the incorrect heads, he told his father to take a mulligan and give the blessing over as Yosef had presented the young men in the way they should have come to Yisrael — with Menashe at his grandfather’s right, and Ephraim at his grandfather’s left. But Yisrael explained that he knew exactly what was going on, and it was deliberate. Perhaps in this sense, “sikel” means he used his own intelligence to give the blessings he wanted without asking the boys to switch sides (which would have been embarrassing to all).
Jumping on this idea of not embarrassing anyone through asking them to move, Malbim indicates that the word Sikel comes from the word Hiskil – he demonstrated that he knew Menashe was older by putting his left arm above the right arm in his switch-move, so that even though Ephraim gets the right hand, Menashe’s first-born status is indicated through Yisrael’s higher hand being on the Menashe. As the Torah depicts it, he put his right hand first on Ephraim, which would necessitate him to put his left hand on Menashe, which could really only be accomplished through having the left arm go over the right arm. The “Sekhel” demonstrated here becomes a logistical one, in realizing that the only way the left arm would be above the right arm is if he puts the right arm on the younger son first, instead of putting the hand he intended to put on the older one, his left arm, onto the older son first (read that again!).
The logistics of the matter still bother me as Yisrael, at age 147, could not have had an easy time doing this. But what do I know? When there’s a will, sometimes there’s a way. I’ve seen grandparents who can’t pick themselves up from the floor get down on the floor to play with their grandchildren.
And I know from personal experience that a grandmother can make each of her grandchildren think he or she is THE favorite. I think that in this story the only person who is insulted is Yosef, on behalf of Menashe. And I also have seen this to be the case with parents. They want to steamroll a path and protect their children.
I’ve had conversations with fathers who were livid over how they perceived their children being treated in circumstances that were objectively not a big deal (in school, in shul, at a social function), and when I asked the same children what they felt about it, they told me “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” In other words, everything was fine.
Sadly we can’t protect our children from everything. And, for better or for worse, we don’t always know what is absolutely best for our children, or what our children actually think about what happens to them in their lives, unless we ask them.
We can rely heavily on our own life experience and intuition, but our children also need to have failures and setbacks so they too can toughen up and grow to be the most equipped to face the world that we can raise them to be.