At the sunset of Yaakov's life he begins making the final arrangements for his burial and the future of his descendants. First he asks his son Yosef to bury him in the Maarat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron. And then unexpectedly the father bows to the son.
To understand why Yaakov bowed to Yosef we need to take a step forward first. As his father Yaakov has fallen ill, Yosef brings his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to Yaakov for a blessing. And famously, their grandfather places his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the younger son, and his left hand on the head of Menashe, the elder son. Yosef objects, but Yaakov tells him, "Yaadati Bni, Yaadati. I Know My Son, I Know."
Why is Yaadati repeated twice? Yaadati Bni, Yaakov tells Yosef. Just as I knew you were my special son and gave you a special place, so too I know that Ephraim is the special son, and I have given him a special place as well.
What is the parallel between Yosef and his son Ephraim? When Yosef's first born son, Menashe was born, the name he was given meant, Ki Nasani Elohim Et Kol Amoli VeEt Kol Beit Avi, "For God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house".
This represented Menashe's role in helping his father and eventually uncles adapt to Egypt. Menashe served as Yosef's chief of staff, he made the Egyptian exile they were living in comfortable. With Menashe they were able to forget about the land they had come from and live comfortably in Egypt.
By contrast Yosef named his second son, Ephraim, Ki Hifrani Elohim Baeretz Oni, "for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction". Hifrani echoes Yosef's own name, in that they both refer to increase. Yet unlike Menashe's name, Ephraim's name does not deny that this is the land of the exile, a land of affliction, Eretz Oni.
The primacy of Menashe and Ephraim was not a mere matter of ego, just as the primacy of Yaakov and Esav was not a mere brother's quarrel. Menashe and Ephraim represented different attributes and different futures. While Yosef gave primacy to Menashe who made the exile comfortable, Yaakov instead gave primacy to Ephraim, whose name foreshadowed the harshness of the exile to come and the great expansion that the House of Jacob would experience even in Egyptian slavery. As indeed God would make the Hebrew slaves fruitful, even in the land of their affliction.
Yaakov avinu understood that the future would speak more to Ephraim than to Menashe and that dark times were coming. The shelter that Yosef had provided would soon enough become a pharaoh's cage, and the land that had come to seem like a dream of exile, would become a nightmare of slavery and degradation.
It was the blessing of Ephraim that would keep the people alive in this exile and in future exiles. And since until the end of days, the times of exile would outnumber the years of homeland dwelling, the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe was set down in eternity for the sons of the Jewish people... with Ephraim placed first. For there may be times when we are comfortable in exile, the blessing of Menashe, but more often we must survive the exile by living another day despite the oppression placed on us, and this is the blessing of Ephraim. A blessing all the more poignant as Ephraim's exile has outweighed that of our own.
Now to return to Yaakov's bow. The bow was the final fulfillment of Yosef's dreams. The first dream involved the stalks of wheat, which was fulfilled earlier when his brothers had come to buy food from him. Now the second dream was waiting to be fulfilled. But unlike the wheat, this dream did not symbolize a mere material dominance, but a spiritual dominance. The stars represented the lineage of the family of Abraham as ascending to reach their spiritual potential. Stars rather than dust. For the sun that was Yaakov to bow to the star that was Yosef, more than wheat, more than miracles and more than even love was needed.
And so Yaakov made a request of Yosef that seems at once trivial, but that struck at the core of whether his son was worthy of leadership in the line of the Family of Avraham. Yosef had become great in exile as Viceroy to Pharaoh. His brothers had bowed to him and his work had fed all of Egypt and Canaan. And now Yaakov asked him to turn his back on that, to bury his father in Israel, and by doing so communicate what his true priority must be. When Yosef agreed to fulfill his father's wish, at the risk of being considered a traitor by Pharaoh, he demonstrated that he was more than a sheaf, he was a star by showing that he could look past the material glory and power, to see where his family's greater destiny lay. Only then did Yaakov bow to him and in doing so pass on his leadership to him, along with the later message, Pakod Yifkod, the message with which G-d would send their redemption from exile and into freedom.