Thoughts to Ponder Number 70
2 Tevet, 5761; December 28, 2000

The Blessings of Ephraim and Menashe

"Man always dies before he is fully born." Erich Fromm

The certainty that one has succeeded in the education of one's children can only be established when one watches the conduct of one's grandchildren. And even then one cannot be sure.

This message is driven home to us in a most undeviating way, when we are informed about our forefather, Yacov's struggles and stumbling with the education of his children. Commentators are not afraid to point an accusing finger in the direction of Yacov for the way he handled the delicate relationship between his sons. (See Bereshith 37.) After his having shown a greater liking towards his son Yoseph, the family got involved in a major rift which ultimately led to one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history, the enslavement of the people of Israel in Egypt for 210 years.

One may forgive Yacov for having made such mistakes. His own inexperience in the field of education in his younger days may have been the root of the problem. But why did he make the mistake once more when dealing with his grandchildren? Why did he prefer the children of Yoseph over the children of his other sons? After all we never read a single word about them nor do we learn about Yacov's relationship with them. This complete silence is telling. Yacov's only interest seemed to be with the children of Yoseph: Efraim and Menashe. Only with them did he spend time on a frequent basis. Only with them did he seem to converse, and they are the only ones who, at the end of his life, received his special blessings.

And, if this is not enough, why did he favor one of Yoseph's sons over the other?

When blessing them, he blessed the younger one before the older! Did he not remember the disastrous outcome of such bias years earlier with his own sons? Should he not have learned his lesson by now? No longer is there the excuse of inexperience!

Rabbi Yacov Kamenetsky, in his monumental work "Emeth Le-Yaacov," calls our attention to the difference of names that Yoseph gave to his sons. Both, as is well known, were born in Egypt. When the oldest one was born, he called him Menashe," "ki nashini elokim" R. S. R. Hirsch translates this as, "because God has made my trouble and all my paternal house into creditors to me." When his second son is born he calls him Efraim, " because God has made me blossom ("ki hifrani elokim") in the land of my affliction" (Bereshith 41:51, 52)

There is a most remarkable difference between these two names. When giving a name to Menashe, Yoseph referred to his pain having to live in a foreign country with strong feelings of nostalgia for his paternal home. Although he was living in and even ruling a foreign land, yet his whole personality objected and protested against the culture of Egypt. He had no part in it, however much he was deeply involved in its governmental administration. But, by the time that he had to decide on a name for his second son Efraim, some kind of metamorphosis had taken place within him. While he was still aware of his unusual position as a Jew in a strange land, he had somehow come to feel at home in this new country called Egypt ("God has made me blossom in the land of my affliction.") (This can also be seen from the fact that Efraim is not so much a Jewish name as an Egyptian one. It is similar to the words, Pharao, Potifar, Shifra.)

The distinction is most telling. While there is little doubt that Yoseph stayed throughout all his life first and foremost a Jew, the anti-Jewish surroundings of Egypt obviously had some influence on him. He had to adapt himself towards his new environment and obviously this may have endangered his own identity. Often, a person himself is unaware of very slight changes. Assimilation is a slow and, at the start, an unrecognizable process. It is only when others make us aware of it, that we start to realize what has happened.

It is here that Yacov's role becomes clear: Efraim and Menashe were the only two grandchildren who were not born in Yacov's proximity. While the other grandchildren were raised in his own home and in the land of Israel, Menashe and Efraim were born in a foreign country and never had seen their grandfather and never experienced his thoroughly Jewish home.

Surely this must have worried Yacov greatly. The question how these grandchildren would stay Jewish in such surroundings must have been constantly on his mind.

It is for this reason that he proclaims to Yoseph: "Now your sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you to Egypt, are mine, Efraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon" (Bereshit 48:5) In other words: I will have to draw them back into the family before they are lost.

This, however, does not explain why he seems to favor Efraim over Menashe.

Looking closer, we must conclude that there was a major difference between the kind of education these two sons received. By the time Menashe was born, Yoseph, not yet fully involved with the administration of Egypt and still more of a foreigner, had consciously or subconsciously left a strong mark on his son Menashe: "Although I am the second ruler in this country, remember, that this does not effect my loyalty towards my God and my people. We are Jews and we will wait for the first opportunity to leave this country and return to our homeland."

But, by the time Efraim was born matters had changed. The feeling of being a foreigner had somehow faded, leaving him and his father more exposed to external influences.

It was for that reason that Yacov was much more worried about the education of Efraim than that of Menashe. Efraim was much more vulnerable to the "kulturgesellschaft" of Egypt and life at the palace of Pharao where Yoseph was deeply involved in, by now on a daily basis.

It is for that reason that Yacov gave more time to Efraim than to Menashe. He needed to strengthen him much more with Jewish values than his brother Menashe. The latter still came from a strong Jewish background and hence needed less special attention. Clearly this was even more true about all his other grandchildren. They were raised in his home and born in the land of Israel. No doubt all of them were well aware of the dangerous assimilating slope in which Efraim found himself and may have even have encouraged Yacov to give this child more attention.

This explains why he placed his right hand on the head of Efraim, who needed a stronger blessing since he was more exposed to the culture of Egypt and needed more encouragement. In taking this approach, we see that Yacov was not repeating his earlier mistake of favoring one child over the other without any proper reason and without an explanation. This time he fully understood what needed to be done and in fact had the full cooperation of all the members of the family.

Most interesting is the fact that the child which had been more open to external influences was to outgrow his older brother who received a much better Jewish education. When Yoseph protests and tells his father that Menashe is the older one and should therefore receive the stronger blessing, Yacov responds: "I know my son, I know. He will also become a people, and he also will be great, nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his seed shall become full to the nations." (Bereshith 48:19) This is indeed remarkable. Why should the child who was more exposed to the secular world have a greater future than the one who received a much more traditional and stronger Jewish education? In Thoughts to Ponder No. 41, we have already alluded to this problem in relationship to Moshe Rabenu. Why should a child, like Moshe, born in a totally assimilated background, and educated in the house of Pharao become the greatest Jewish leader in man's history? Would there not have been a better candidate, blessed with a proper Jewish educational background? Why take an assimilated Jewish boy who did not even know at the time of his youth that he was Jewish?

We explained that this may be due to the fact that he who has to fight harder for his Jewish identity may very well have more courage and strength to stand up against outside influences precisely because he has participated in the outside world. Moshe was the ideal leader because he was raised in a world that opposed Jewish values and had harnessed himself through many inner spiritual battles.

Looking into the blessing which Efraim received from his grandfather, we encounter a similar situation. Yacov tells him that he will "become full to the nations." While many explanations have been proposed for this unusual expression we may suggest that Efraim became the tribe which as no other tribe was able to stand up against the winds of assimilation in later days. Rashi clearly alludes to this is his commentary when he writes: All the world will be filled with the glory (of Yehoshua who was a descendant of Efraim) when there will go forth his fame and his name..."

It is most symptomatic that Jewish parents bless their children with the blessing suggested by Yacov: "With you shall Israel bless saying: May God make you as Efraim and Menashe."

Yacov expressed herewith the delicate balance between the need for a strong Jewish identity and the capacity to interact with the outside world. This is far from easy and has lead to numerous problems throughout Jewish history. Still there are no easy solutions. Too much introversion leads to dangerous isolation, too much adaptation brings on a loss of identity and ultimately to full assimilation and devastation. Nothing could be worse. To find the right equilibrium needs a special blessing indeed. This is what we pray for when we bless our children with the words of the grandfather par excellence.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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