By Rabbi Dan Lewin
“Don’t forget where you came from!” When a parent says this, it usually means “Don’t forget the values with which we raised you.” Socially, it may imply that after you become successful or famous, don’t forget your humble beginnings. Or that people who helped you at the beginning of the journey should be appreciated, not overlooked. Either way, keeping in mind one’s origins helps maintain humility as well as motivation.
The same advice holds true in the journey of the Jewish people. Our customs and mitzvahs are filled with details that seem to call out — “Don’t forget where you came from.”
A famous Jewish blessing
This Shabbat, we will conclude the first of the five books of the Chumash — Beresheet (Genesis). The final portion is the culmination of all the beautiful stories, densely rich passages that speak to basic human struggles, wherein we get acquainted with the uniquely gallant personalities of our patriarchs and matriarchs, from whom came the 12 tribes, the select group who eventually form “the children of Israel.” What began as a story of one small family now becomes the history of the Jewish people.
It is fitting then that some of the most memorable imagery and profound lessons are contained in this portion. One of these sections — the only scene in this book with a grandfather and his grandchildren — occurs as Yaakov nears his last moments on earth. He calls his son Yosef to his bedside so that he may bless Yosef’s two sons. Yaakov then explains to Yosef that these two grandsons are as dear to him as his own children — “Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine in the same way as Reuven and Shimon” (Beresheet 48:5).
In a strange exchange, Yaakov reaches out and places his right hand on Ephraim’s head, although he is the younger child, and, crossing his arms, places his left hand on Menashe’s head. When Yosef tries to rearrange his father’s hands so that the right hand is on the head of Menashe, Yaakov refuses and says, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he…”
Yaakov then blesses the children and proceeds to deliver one of the most famous passages in the Torah: “With you Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.’” Indeed, for generations, it is customary for a Jewish parent to bless children using these words: “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”
When reading these verses, one is immediately bombarded with curious inquiries: Why are the names of specifically these two individuals used for the primary Jewish blessing? Why does Yaakov choose a blessing that is linked to his grandchildren, not his children, as the model used for future generations? Furthermore, why pick the qualities of these grandchildren, rather than his virtuous parents and grandparents? Finally, why was he so adamant that Ephraim should come before Menashe, the firstborn, something which ran contrary to the prevailing custom?
2 names, 2 accomplishments
A piece of the answer can be found in the precise meaning behind these key biblical names, which is provided earlier in the Torah: Yosef called the firstborn Menashe, for “G-d has caused me to forget all my toil and my father’s house.” Yet despite being thrust into this Egyptian culture, all alone, Yosef was able to survive — to remember his father’s house. The name of his firstborn son was a testimony to maintaining his identity, even in a harsh foreign land. The second one he named Ephraim for “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” This name then signified an even greater accomplishment: not only perseverance, against all odds, but also prosperity. He reigned in Egypt and gained the respect and admiration of all those around him — he influenced his surroundings.
So, these Hebrew names encapsulate the life accomplishments of Yosef. It is the ultimate success story, the peak of the book of Beresheet. Sold into slavery by his brothers, he begins his life in a new land as a servant for a wealthy owner. After resisting an affair with his master’s wife, he is thrown into prison for a crime he never committed, and through a series of exceptional events, he emerges to become the viceroy of Egypt.
Yet perhaps his greatest accomplishment lies in his character. He remains humble throughout, deflecting praise, never wanting to take credit for his wisdom, talents and insight. Through all the ordeals he remains faithful to the morals and ideals espoused by Yaakov. For this reason, he is immediately described by Pharaoh and by others as “a man of G-d.”
Despite being robbed of his youth and any family life, all at the hands of his jealous brothers, he shows no anger or resentment upon meeting them again. Instead, he reassures them that it was part of the divine plan, all to enable him to help sustain them during these hard times. He then provides them with the best land in Egypt.
Yosef was the epitome of a principled man whose values were unaffected by his environment, whose character withstood the most profound tests. On the outside he wore the garb of Egyptian royalty but inside he remained the G-d-fearing and refined man that his father had groomed.
The names chosen for Yosef’s sons, who followed in his footsteps, are also testimony to Yaakov’s ultimate success as a parent. Menashe and Ephraim were born before Yaakov’s arrival in Egypt, which the Torah makes a point of noting. For the dream of every educator or parent is to make the other independent — to give them the knowledge and skills to be free of assistance, without needing constant direction, or the physical presence of their role models, to ensure the proper practices. The ultimate test of whether any individual has internalized this guidance is how they will act in a threatening environment when the leader is absent and whether they will pass on their wisdom to the next generation.
Application to our lives
These two names also signify two distinct stages of the struggle, survival and miraculous success of Jews throughout history, of feeling alone in a foreign land. They relate a familiar story to all of us. Wherever Jewish communities have sprung up, there have been neighbors who wanted to erase the memory of the Torah and our rich history. And the commonly used expression of community leaders these days to ensure “Jewish continuity” or to “be a light unto the nations” must necessarily comprise two components: preservation and prosperity.
The same holds true on a personal level. Each soul is thrust into this world, a foreign environment that constantly challenges us to remember where we come from. And, as we go through life, we must remember that the deeper divine purpose in any exile — and blessing of our forebears — is that we, together with the children we raise, should not only survive all these challenges and “never forget” our humble beginnings, but also “multiply” and thrive.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.