This is a really long parasha. A lot happens in the hundred-plus verses that covers Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams all the way through the visits from Jospeh’s brothers twice, and the emotional moment when Joseph reveals his identity to his stunned brothers.
That’s a lot of drama. But earlier in the parasha, there is another dramatic moment that reminds us of other families in the Bible; the point at which a child is named, and what the name means. We’ve seen this mostly in the Leah/Rachel story. As each of the sons were born, his mother named him along with an explanation of that name. Perhaps Joseph knew of this family tradition, for when his sons are born, we see the same pattern.
In the midst of the bounty that was the first seven years of Pharaoh’s dreams, when the land was fertile, Joseph was also fertile. He had two sons. “Joseph named the first-born son Manasheh, for God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house. And he named the second one Ephraim, for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction. (Gen. 41:50-52)
Very interesting names. In her book, The Beginnings of Desire- Reflections on Genesis, Avivah Zornberg says in naming his first son, it was perfectly understandable that Joseph wanted to forget the troubles he had with his brothers; those struggles got him thrown into a pit and sold into Egypt. But, she writes, he also needed to forget his father’s love, the good parts of his time at home. Zornberg says that this was a survival technique. In order to survive in a foreign land, all alone, in prison or in the palace, he had to stop thinking of home. He had to block out the good times so he could live in “a mercy of oblivion.” As for Ephraim, there’s a paradox between the fertile and the affliction. Perhaps he wasn’t able to block out his former life completely, and so even surrounded by plenty of food and riches, in his new job, with his Egyptian princess-wife, he couldn’t shake the fact that he was far from home and away from his native culture.
The irony is that these two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim, become part of the 12 Israelite tribes and are the names with which many Jews bless their sons on Friday nights. It’s not Joseph that ends up leading one of the tribes of Israel, it is his sons. They are the symbols of life outside the Land; they were born outside the Land, into an intermarried mother and father. For all appearances, they lived in an Egyptian household, and it’s unclear from any text at all that Joseph retained any outward Israelite identity; a fully assimilated Israelite, wildly successful in another country. Yet, Menasheh and Ephraim became leaders of their own tribes when they left Egypt, and the model for our children each Shabbat?
It’s also notable that we usually read this parasha around Chanukah, which has, as core themes, assimilation and tradition. The upper class, successful Jews of the time, including those in the Priesthood, were eagerly adapting and adopting the ways of the outside Greek culture. The more rural, traditional Jews of the countryside were disturbed by this, and much of the struggle of the Jews against the Syrian/Greeks was also a struggle against the assimilation fellow Jews into the dominant culture. The Maccabees “threw the baggage out” and took a stand against the Jews who followed “their ways.”
So must we block out all memory of our own identity in order to succeed in a new land? Must we always live in abundance, but hold on to affliction? I don’t think so. I think the sons’ names remind us that while there is a balance between maintaining identities, it doesn’t have to be a struggle. That’s why we still use these specific names on Shabbat – we acknowledge the balance, and look to the sons of Joseph to tell us how to live with the balance. The other sons/tribes didn’t have to do this. Only Menasheh and Ephraim lived lives that are most like ours: outside the Land, in and among another culture, but still remaining tied to our tradition, our community, our past, and our future.