Parashah Ponderings

Learning in Egypt and the Survival of the Jewish People

Parashat Vayigash / פרשת ויגש
Torah Portion: Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

The history of Israel’s 400-plus year exile in Egypt, foretold in a divine revelation to Abraham earlier in the Book of Genesis (15:13), begins in this week’s Torah reading, Vayigash. The reading opens with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, who had journeyed to Egypt in search of sustenance during the famine in Canaan (45:4). Prior to now, the band of brothers had been unaware that the Pharaoh’s vizier, to whom they were pleading and who put them through a series of nerve-wracking trials, was the brother whom they had long ago sold into slavery and about whom they told their father, Jacob, had been devoured by a ravenous beast.

All seems to end well in this parasha. Pharaoh invites the brothers to resettle their clan in Egypt. Jacob learns that Joseph is alive and well. Father and son are reunited. And all 70 members of Jacob’s household emigrates to Egypt, where they will wait out the famine and eventually thrive. Still, the Children of Israel are in exile in Israel. They literally “went down” to Egypt.

The exile motif has already appeared in the Torah several times. Recall that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden in chapter 3 of Genesis. Later, Cain would be exiled (4:16). Then, each of the patriarchs would experience dislocation in one way or another either within Canaan or without. All these stories are part and parcel of Israel’s national story, serving to define Israel’s relationship with God and the land of Israel and giving shape to their mission in the world.

The exile of Jacob and his family, however, would last much longer than all the others and prove to be a great test of Israel’s ability to maintain its self-identity. By the time God liberates the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, they will have preserved a modicum of identity with their past as told through the stories of Genesis, but they will have effectively switched allegiance from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the gods of the Egyptians (see the article entitled “The Religion of the Israelites in Egypt” by Michael Alan Stein at While the extended sojourn in Egypt would engrave the experience of servitude upon Israel’s consciousness, the Hebrews’ link to their ancestral religion would become tenuous, at best.

Rather than discount Israel’s flimsy identification with the God of their ancestors and focus on their assimilation into Egyptian culture – an assimilation which might have been complete had not the experience of bondage brought them together as an oppressed people – we ought to celebrate that our enslaved forebears retained any identity as the People of Israel at all. In fact, on the eve of Israel’s liberation, the Hebrews’ response to Moses’s command to ready themselves for the exodus suggests they had recovered, at least in part, from the amnesia induced by centuries of disconnection from the Promised Land and the halt in progress of their nation’s narrative.

In looking for clues to the survival of Israel’s identity during their exile in Egypt, we find light in the commentary of Rashi, the preeminent medieval French commentator. As Jacob prepared to relocate his family, he sent his son Judah ahead to “show (le’harot) the way before him to Goshen” (46:28). Rashi shares a rabbinic midrash on the word “le’harot,” which can be translated as “to teach or instruct,” that says that Jacob had sent Judah ahead in order to establish in advance a house of study, from which teaching would go forth. The idea that Jacob would have a house of study established before his arrival to Goshen reflects the sages’ wisdom that for diaspora Jewry Jewish learning is essential to continuity and survival. It certainly is the case that traditions survive because one generation teaches them to the next. When there is no transmission of a people’s narrative or creative myths, there can be no lasting memory and the people’s identity is doomed to fade away. The rabbis of old understood that for Judaism to flourish, Jews need to teach their children and grandchildren what it means to be Jewish.

The midrash that Rashi shares is surely a projection of the rabbinic mind onto the Torah, but while it is unlikely that there were houses of Israelite study in Egypt prior to the exodus, it is not at all unlikely that Jacob’s sons told the story of their people to their children and their children’s children. Thus began an oral tradition that helped preserve the Hebrews’ identity as B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.

In an age when the demographics of Jews in America continue to show waning commitments to Jewish religion and institutional affiliation, we ought to heed the lesson embedded in this week’s Torah portion. Without houses of study or, at least, houses in which parents and grandparents actively relate Jewish wisdom to their heirs, Jewish identity is doomed to dissolve. Such dissolution of identity may have been total for our ancestors in Egypt were it not for those elders who saw to it that the stories of the Children of Israel would be taught from generation to generation.

It is my hope that the American Jewish community will always find “Judahs” in each generation to safeguard Jewish learning and set up teachers for our children who will transmit to them the stories of our past and visions for our future. In this way, the People of Israel will live.

Parashah Ponderings

The Real Miracle of Joseph and the Maccabees

Parashat Miketz / פרשת מקץ
Torah Portion: Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

One of the great ironies of Hanukkah is that on the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read in Genesis, chapters 41-44, about the rise of Joseph in Pharaoh’s court and about his reunion with his brothers. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. The story of Joseph tells of the assimilated Israelite extraordinaire. How do we reconcile these two contrasting tales?

First, let’s look at Hanukkah. On Hanukkah, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE after its desecraction by the Syrian-Greeks under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. During this momentous event, legend has it, the miniscule amount of oil to kindle the Temple’s menorah lasted eight days, rather than the one day it should have lasted. The Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, were then able to produce enough olive oil to keep the menorah lit perpetually once again.

The miracle of the oil parallels the history of the Jewish people. Though enemies like Antiochus have tried to wipe us out through forced assimilation and worse, we have survived. Our flame has never been extinguished. In fact, at times in our history, our flame has burned more brightly than ever before. Despite our struggles, we have maintained a sense of peoplehood informed with our own religion, culture, land, language, values, and sacred texts. At any moment in history, the nations of the world might have expected the Jewish nation to disappear, but we have continually rededicated ourselves to our mission to be a Holy People and a Light Unto the Nations.

In contrast to the story of Hanukkah, Joseph’s story seems to celebrate assimilation and disconnection from the Jewish people. Once Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, he ceases to be recognized as an Israelite. Joseph is endowed with the gift of insight. Not only does he interpret dreams, it is through his own dreams that he devises a solution for Egypt to ride out a terrible famine that will eventually befall it. Thanks to his gifts, Joseph achieves success and great power in Egypt.

The only way we know that Joseph is an Israelite is through utterances in which he speaks of the One God. In those utterances, however, Joseph never refers to the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Rather, he thanks God for simply enabling him to interpret dreams and also for enabling him to shed his Israelite past. Joseph’s gratitude to God for these self-centered reasons is seen clearly in the names he gives his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 41:51-52):

Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”
Indeed, Joseph had strayed from his ancestral roots that, when they first appear before Joseph, his own brothers fail to recognize him (42:8). How ironic that Joseph then attributes his nearly total assimilation to Egyptian society and culture to none other than God!

But the story of Joseph does not end there. It ends later, with Jacob bestowing a blessing on Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons (48:20). In essence, Jacob takes this measure to ensure that Joseph’s Israelite lineage will not die out after he is gone. Jacob reconnects Joseph to the story of his people through the blessing he gives Ephraim and Manasseh. The flame is stoked; Ephraim and Manasseh go on to head two of Israel’s tribes.

In today’s world, Judaism is a choice not only for those who would convert to Judaism but for those born Jewish, too. Every Jew can choose to leave the fold and become something else, but they can also choose to hold onto their Jewish identity. The great miracle of the Jewish people is that, despite oppression and temptation, Jews continue to choose to be Jewish and to keep the flame of Israel alive. The Jewish People could have gone the way of Joseph, but instead we’ve gone the way of Ephraim and Manasseh. In this way, we are very much like the flame of the menorah kindled by the Maccabees, a flame that didn’t seem to have a chance of staying lit.

On this Shabbat Hanukkah, may we celebrate the miracle that is the Jewish People today even as we celebrate the wonders that God wrought for our ancestors in days gone by.

Parashah Ponderings

Why Bless Our Sons as Ephraim and Manasseh?

Parashat Vayechi / פרשת ויחי
Torah Portion: Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Among the gems to be found in the final chapters of the Book of Genesis, Jacob’s blessing over Joseph’s sons has proven to be one of the brightest and most durable throughout Jewish history. Part of the blessing – May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:20) — continues to be heard in Jewish homes to this day as parents bless their children on Shabbat.

When I lead Shabbat dinner rituals for gatherings of Jewish families in synagogues and retreats, invariably someone will ask me: “Who are Ephraim and Manasseh and why do we want our sons to be like them?” These are excellent questions that deserve our attention. (The contemporary parallel blessing for girls asks God to make our daughters like our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. No one ever asks why we use this blessing. Who wouldn’t want their daughters to walk in the footsteps of these familiar and formidable women?)

First, here’s what we know about Ephraim and Manasseh: they are Joseph’s second and first sons, respectively, whom Jacob adopts as his own children shortly before his death[1]; their mother, a woman named Asenath, is the daughter of an Egyptian priest given to Joseph by Pharaoh (41:65); Joseph lives to see great-grandchildren from them (50:23); and they replace Joseph as a tribal leader among the tribes of Israel.[2] Beyond these simple facts, the Torah itself provides no more information.

On the surface, the information above tells us little about why Ephraim and Manasseh rise to such prominence in the development of Israelite religion and, later, Judaism. A little probing and a lot of imagination, however, reveal a number of reasons why we might chose to bless generations of Israelite/Jewish boys in their name. I offer the following explanations, but this list is probably not exhaustive:

1) Shalom Bayit – Family Peace

Ephraim and Mannaseh are the first pair of brothers to live together without fighting. Recall that Ishmael “mocked” (metzahek), Isaac (21:9), according to one understanding of the Hebrew metzahek, and that Jacob and Esau engaged in a struggle throughout their upbringing for their father’s attention and blessing. Thus, Ephraim and Mannaseh symbolize brotherhood and unity among the Children of Israel.

2) Yahadut – Jewish Identity

As Joseph rises from slavery and imprisonment in Egypt to a place of prominence in Pharaoh’s court, he sheds and/or loses any outward signs of connection to his ancestry. Though Joseph invokes the name of God (e.g. 45:5, 24; 50:19, 24), his brothers see him plainly as Egyptian royalty, having no reason to believe he is one of their own. Manasseh and Ephraim, however, seem to reclaim their identity as Israelites once their extended family joins them in Goshen. In fact, one midrash, in explaining why Ephraim receives the blessing of the firstborn instead of his older brother, Manasseh, by imagining Ephraim studying Torah with his grandfather, Jacob. Not only does Ephraim reclaim his identity as an Israelite, he actively learns about his people’s history, values and rituals. If Joseph represents a break from tradition, his sons, then, represent an eager return to and a proud association with that tradition.

3) Zechut – The Merit of Joseph

While Joseph may not have been a model Israelite, we as his descendents remember him for his righteousness and his achievements as Pharaoh’s. One commentator even sees the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim as a kind of reward that Jacob bestows upon Joseph. Joseph merits becoming the progenitor of two tribes, rather than one. Therefore, when we think of Manasseh and Ephraim, we should recall the greatness of their father.[3]

4) Zachor — Remembering Joseph Absence

The same commentator who sees Manasseh and Ephraim as symbols of Joseph’s greatness also sees in them a reminder that Joseph becomes disconnected from his family and his tradition. We shouldn’t forget that sometimes Jewish history presents tremendous challenges to our survival as a people, challenges which we have overcome. Had it not been for Joseph’s children, Joseph’s lineage may have been forever severed from Israel.

5) Dor l’Dor / Hiddur P’nai Zaken – From Generation to Generation / Giving Pleasure to Elders

One of the greatest pleasures for a parent is to see his or her family prosper. Imagine the joy Jacob must have felt not only upon reuniting with his son, whom he thought he’d lost forever, but then living to bless Joseph’s children. Along these lines, imagine Joseph’s elation as he sits his great grandsons, the grandchildren of Ephraim and Manasseh, on his knees (50: 23). The names Ephraim and Manasseh, thus, evoke for us the values of passing Judaism on from one generation to the next and of giving pleasure to our elders.

6) Manhigut — Leadership

Joshua, Moses’ successor as leader of the Jewish people, is from the tribe of Ephraim. It is Joshua, a brave and resolute warrior, who leads Israel to successfully conquer and settle Canaan. Another military leader, Gideon, whose story is recorded in chapters 6 through 8 of the Book of Judges, hails from the Tribe of Manasseh. Gideon proves to be a man of faith as he destroys the symbols of Midianite worship to foreign gods (Judges 6:25) and then declines the popular call to lead the people as their king, reminding them that only God is their ruler (Judges 8:22). Ephraim and Manasseh produce two of Israel’s greatest leaders. When we use their names to bless our children, we express our hope that our children, too, will demonstrate leadership among the Jewish people.

As you can see, there’s more to Ephraim and Manasseh than first meets the eye. They names have come to be associated not only with a formative period of our history but also with core Jewish values. It is my hope that when Jewish parents bless their sons for “God to make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” they will do so mindful of the values we have associate with these two otherwise common Israelites. Most of us, after all, are more like Ephraim and Manasseh than, say, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses. We are simply Jews. If nothing else, though, Ephraim and Manasseh remind us that even ordinary Jews stand for things that are quite extraordinary.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan

[1] “Intra-generational family adoptions are well attested in the ancient Near East…. A striking analogy to the present narrative is provided by an Akkadian legal document from Ugarit recording the adoption of a grandson by a grandfather who then makes him his heir.” Sarna, Nahum, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 325.

[2] There are actually two accounts of the 12 tribes. One includes both Levi and Joseph, but not Ephraim and Manasseh. In this case, the tribes represent the genealogical descendents of Jacob, each tribe corresponding to one of Jacob’s biological sons. The other, an undoubtedly later accounting, includes Ephraim and Manasseh, but not Levi and Joseph. Here, the tribes represent the religious, political and geographic confederation of the tribes seen in the arrangement of camps around the Tabernacle and in the division of territories in the Land of Israel. It is important to note that Levites were not exactly counted in this confederation as they were dedicated solely to the service of the Tabernacle and Temple and lived among and were supported by the other tribes.

[3] See excerpts from Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin at