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Thursday, 24 December, 2015 - 1:51 pm

An elderly woman called 911 on her cell phone to report that her car had been broken in to: "They stole the stereo, the steering wheel, the brake pedal and even the accelerator!" she cried. 
The dispatcher said, "Stay calm. An officer is on the way."

A few minutes later, the officer radioed in. "Disregard.

"She got in the back-seat by mistake."

In this week's portion, Vayechi, we see the uniquely intimate relationship between Joseph and his father Jacob climax in a powerful and touching scene. Joseph is told, "Behold, your father is ill." He takes his two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim, to receive their grandfather’s last blessings. In the Torah, a father’s last blessing to his son is not merely a parting wish or spiritual endorsement, but rather a historic event, affecting all future generations. What happens next is very mysterious:

Joseph specifically places the elder son Menasheh on Jacob’s right and more prestigious side, and the younger Ephraim on Jacob’s left. Jacob then crosses his hands and blesses Ephraim with his right hand and Menasheh with the left. Joseph objects, but his father assures him that he knows what he is doing.

We understand Joseph’s objection. After all, he suffered terribly from being the favored younger son, from the jealousy of his older brothers. So why does Jacob insist that Ephraim be blessed with his right hand?

What is the difference between receiving a blessing from the right or left hand? Why do both Jacob and Joseph make it a big deal?

If Jacob feels that Ephraim deserves the first-born blessing, why does he not ask Ephraim to come to his right side, instead of crossing his hands? He keeps Ephraim on his left, yet he places his right hand on him. Why?

The key to understanding what is happening here lies in understanding the spiritual profiles of Ephraim and Menasheh. They are not mere individuals; they embody two models, two paradigms, for Jews in all times. Until today, Jewish fathers bless their children on Yom Kippur and every Friday night to be like these two, as predicted by Jacob: “With you, Israel (i.e. the Jewish people) will bless [their own children], saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.'" Why do we bless our children, three millennia later, to be like these two boys? What was their uniqueness? We do not bless our children to be like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph or Judah! Only like Ephraim and Menasheh. Why?

They were the first generation of Jewish children not raised in the isolated cocoon of the Abrahamic family back in the Holy Land. Born in Egypt, and raised in royalty, they were the sons of the Prime Minister of the super power of the time, the man leading the entire economy of the Middle East. Surely they had received the finest education, and were acquainted with the best and brightest of Egyptian culture, the leading civilization, at the time. The rest of the family, by comparison, were from the backwaters of Canaan, where they served as shepherds, insulated and protected, bathing in the atmosphere created by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Hebron.

Still, they were just as loyal to the traditions and beliefs of Judaism as the children and grandchildren who grew up in Jacob's bosom.

This leads to a very contemporary question: How did they confront the modernity of the times? What gave them the courage and strength to be different?

Joseph understood that education must be tailor-made to each child individually. His successful approach in educating his children consisted of the fact that he educated them differently. The difference is expressed in their names:

Before the years of the famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Osnat, daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named his firstborn Menasheh, saying, "It is because G-d has made me not forget all my toil and all of my father’s household.” He names his second son Ephraim, saying, “It is because G-d made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

Joseph was saying, “In Egypt it is inevitable that we will forget. We will raise children who have never seen Jacob and have never been to the land of their forefathers. By naming his eldest son “forgetfulness,” he was ensuring that he never forget. Menasheh is the child of nostalgia.

This model of education still exists today. Many Jewish parents have instilled strong identities in their children by telling them what they do not have any longer.

A Jew once remarked: "I've started a band called 'Nostalgia.' If we don't make it, at least people will remember us fondly."

This is an education personified by memory. We are a people that remembers and refuses to forget. This is the first key to the Jewish existence in exile. We must remember where we came from. A nation without a history is a nation without a future.

But that is not enough.

A Judaism whose main incentive is to not allow our enemies to win lacks the force to create happy, passionate, wholesome, holistic Jews who embrace their faith with love and full commitment. When the entire incentive for religion is to keep an old family tradition alive, can it really compete with the forces of modernity and progressiveness?

Furthermore, what happens when new generations of Jews grow up who know nothing of their past?

Here enters Ephraim. Ephraim means that "G-d has made me fruitful and productive in the land of my pain." Ephraim's message is a revolutionary one. The Torah is as relevant today, here and now, as it was in the ancient past, and perhaps even more. Ephraim is not only not taken aback by modernity, he sees modernity as a catalyst for a Jewish renaissance that is unprecedented. Ephraim is not apologetic, insecure, or even nostalgic. For him, the G-d of Israel is as alive as ever; the Torah of Israel is as fresh as ever; the mitzvot of Israel are as timely as ever; the faith of Israel is as challenging as ever.

Menasheh is the child of nostalgia while Ephraim is the child of creativity. Menasheh is our link to our past, while Ephraim embraces the present and the future.

Who is right? Both of them. And this is the rule: Ephraim must follow Menasheh. Menasheh must be the first-born because he is the foundation, but on the shoulders of Ephraim rests the cosmic fate, the messianic conclusion. Ephraim has the power to not only escape exile but transform it. Jacob knows this and blesses Ephraim with his right hand and Menasheh with his left.

A little boy went into a drug store and dragged a crate over to the telephone. He climbed on the crate to reach the buttons and punched in a number.

Boy: "Lady, can you give me the job of cutting your lawn?

Woman: "I already have someone cutting my lawn."

Boy: "Lady, I will cut your lawn for half the price of this person."

Woman: "I'm very satisfied with the person who is cutting my lawn now."

Boy (persevering): "Lady, I'll sweep your curb and your sidewalk, so on Sunday you will have the prettiest lawn in all of Palm Beach, Florida."

Woman: "No, thank you."

With a smile on his face, the little boy replaced the receiver. The store-owner, who had heard the conversation, walked over to the boy.

Store Owner: "Son, I like your attitude. I like that positive spirit and want to offer you a job."

Boy: "No, thanks."

Store Owner: "But you were really pleading for one."

Boy: "No, sir, I was just checking my performance at the job I already have. I am the one who mows the lawn of the lady I was talking to!"

We all need a little bit of this boy’s confidence. We all need to internalize and say to ourselves and our loved ones the truth: I am good. I am part of Hashem. I am part of infinity. I am G-d’s child whom he loves and cherishes unconditionally.

This is a Jewish father’s greatest wish for his child: "May G-d make you like Menasheh and Ephraim." May you learn how to faithfully carry on the torch of tradition in the darkest of times. May you hold on to your past with dignity, sensitivity, and wisdom. But even more: May you develop the courage, confidence and wisdom to discover the voice of G-d here, now, in your life; may you not only tell over the story of the past—but recreate the story in your world today.



Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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