It was finally the day. After over a year of training, I was finally about to get my bars and join the family of IDF officers. My parents had flown in from the US for the occasion, along with my younger brother, and were on their way down for the ceremony in the desert on the Shizafon Armored Corps base.
We were being inspected by the base sergeant-major an hour before the ceremony. The Army Chief of Staff, Moshe Levy, would be attending, so everything had to be perfect. The sergeant-major stopped in front of me and, looking down, saw my tzitzit. He snapped an order: “Tuck those in immediately! I had better not see those hanging out during the ceremony!”
I don’t normally wear my tzitzitout. But in the army, the challenging environment had made me realize I needed to take an extreme position. So I started wearing my tzitzitout as a reminder to be careful not to cross any red lines. It was also an easy way to send the message to those around me that I was religious.
His harsh command took me by surprise. I could easily have been detained and prevented from standing on the parade ground if the sergeant-major so decided. It would have been a simple thing to just tuck the tzitzitin for a few hours. But there was a principle at stake here much larger than my tzitzit: Was I an Israeli Jew, or a Jewish Israeli?
• • •
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Vayechi, Yaakov takes ill and realizes his death is near. Hearing that his father’s life nears its end, Yosef brings his sons for a blessing. It is one of the strangest interactions in the entire Torah:
“And Yaakov said to Yosef: ‘G-d appeared to me in Luz in the land of Canaan, and blessed me. And He said to me: I will make you fruitful and numerous; I will make you a congregation of nations, and I will give this land to your offspring after you as an eternal possession. And now, your two sons born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon’” (48:5).
This is the introduction to the famous blessing of Menashe and Ephraim. But it is strange that Yaakov at first seems to ignore them. And one wonders about the significance of Yaakov reminding Yosef of the blessings he received from G-d long ago as he fled Esav. Why is this important right now, as he is about to bless these grandsons?
And then comes the strangest part of the entire story: after telling Yosef that both “Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon,” Yaakov suddenly sees the two boys: “Who are these?” he asks.
“They are my sons whom G-d has given me here,” Yosef answers.
“Take them to me, and I will bless them” (48:8-10).
What is going on here? How could Yaakov not recognize his grandsons — especially since he had just told Yosef that they were like sons to him!
And what is the meaning of Yosef’s response? What is he trying to communicate by saying that “They are my sons whom G-d has given me here”? Does he have other sons? Why the need to remind Yaakov that the boys are Egyptian-born? Why not just say: ‘This is Menashe, and this is Ephraim’?
What is hidden here beneath the surface?
Rashi, who normally helps us make sense of these questions, offers a rather puzzling comment quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, which suggests that Yaakov temporarily lost his prophetic vision “because in the future Yeravam and Achav would descend from the tribe of Ephraim, and Yehu and his sons from Menashe.”
These three individuals (Yeravam, Achav, and Yehu) were all kings of Israel who led the Jewish people astray by spreading idol worship throughout the kingdom. Which, of course, leaves us wondering what these sorry periods in Jewish history have to do with Yaakov’s blessing some five hundred years earlier.
The story of Yeravam is particularly fascinating, and may help to shed some light on this puzzling Midrash.
When Shlomo, the heir of King David, died, his son Rechavam inherited the throne. Unfortunately, Rechavam seems not to have been a chip off the old block. Choosing not to listen to his father’s older advisors, he heeded the advice of a younger group of confidants, committing a classic error in raising taxes. Coming so soon after the completion of the Temple, which saw heavy taxes levied on the Jewish people, his actions ultimately allowed Yeravam to mount a rebellion, resulting in the secession of ten tribes to a northern Kingdom of Israel.
Yeravam crowned himself king of the new kingdom, opposite the southern tribes of Yehudah, Binyamin, and Levites who remained loyal to the rightful king from the House of David. Jerusalem and the Temple remained under the control of the southern kingdom.
In the first year of his reign, Yeravam was faced with a dilemma: at Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the Jewish people would come up to Jerusalem to fulfill the Biblical command to visit the Temple three times a year on the festivals. No one save a rightful king from the House of David was allowed sit in the courtyard of the Temple. This would mean that while Rechavam, the grandson of King David, would sit, Yeravam, who was from the tribe of Ephraim, would stand like everyone else.
Realizing that this would be a reminder that he was not the rightful king, he had golden calves placed at central locations in the kingdom and discouraged the people from going up to Jerusalem, causing the people to fall back to their idolatrous ways. In Jewish history, Yeravam has come to represent the epitome of a good idea gone bad.
Indeed, this is the essence of the idolatry of ancient Egypt.
Paganism is the worship of nature in all its power and beauty. The pagan, more than anything else, immerses himself in the physical world of nature. In the end, in the world of nature, might makes right, everything inevitably dies, and there is no purpose beyond the here and now.
Judaism, however, suggests that there is a world of difference between one who eats to live and one who lives to eat. Ultimately, nature is not the goal; it is a vehicle to a higher purpose. Ancient Egypt, however, was all about the worship of nature, which is why its gods were symbols of nature. It was this that prompted Yaakov’s question to Yosef.
After twenty-two years in Egypt, Yaakov’s real question was who Yosef had become. Was he still the dreamer of dreams? Could he still see the creator of the sun, moon, and stars, even from the darkness of the pit, or was he now the ruler of Egypt immersed in the here and now?
Before blessing the next generation, he wanted to know where this generation stood. Was Yosef a Jewish Egyptian, or an Egyptian Jew? Had he become so immersed in the land of the Nile that he had forgotten that it was simply a vehicle to something greater?
The more powerful one becomes, the more challenging it is to recall that power is simply a tool of the source of all power: Hashem.
This is why Yaakov recalls the original blessing he received when running from Esav all those years ago. For the first time, he had confronted the world of the field and the hunt, of cruelty and nature. He had of necessity taken on the hands of Esav, and he struggled with who he himself had become.
On his way down to Lavan, Yaakov swore, “If G-d will be with me and watch over me on this journey, and He will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I will return in peace to the house of my father, then Hashem will be for me a G-d” (28:22-21). Essentially, as he left the tents of study, Yaakov recognized that his challenge was to remember, even when herding the flocks of Lavan, that bread comes from G-d, and that everything in the physical world is a means to achieve a higher purpose.
And perhaps this was Yaakov’s question regarding Menashe and Ephraim: who are these two young men? Are they Jews growing up in a palace, ever aware of their roles as vehicles for some great and wonderful destiny, or are they princes of Egypt, focused only on the here and now?
Indeed, this was the great tragedy of Yeravam, as well as Achav and Yehu. They were kings of Israel, with the potential to change the course of history, yet became so immersed in the trappings of kingship that they lost sight of the purpose behind it all.
Yaakov wanted to build a family into a nation that would change the course of human history and fulfill the mission of the Jewish people: to bring G-d into the world, to make the world a place full of all that G-d represents.
This is what we are doing when we bless our children on Friday night, invoking the names of Menashe and Ephraim. We run through the week, so immersed in the world of nature that we forget what it is really all about. On Shabbat, we get back in touch with our purpose.
What do we think of while we bless our children? Perhaps the greatest challenge in raising children is teaching them to become vehicles for increasing G-d’s presence in the world. We cannot expect them to get the message if we do not live it.
Which may well have been Yaakov’s challenge to Yosef: Living in the palace as ruler of Egypt, have you succeeded in teaching your children who really rules the world? Who are these? Are they princes of Egypt, or sons of Yaakov?
And this, indeed, is Yosef’s response: “They are my sons whom G-d has given me here.” Even here in Egypt, in the palace, they are still my sons, and they, like me, are still aware that all of this comes from Hashem as a gift with a higher purpose than filling the storehouses of Egypt.
Perhaps this Shabbat, as we bless our children, we can use the moment to think about where we are headed and whether our children, our ideas and our accomplishments are really contributing to a better world.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.