On Friday night, parents bless their children. Our matriarchs serve as the model for our daughters. “ישימך אלקים כשרה, רבקה, רחל, ולאה” “May God bless you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.” This makes sense, since each one represents important qualities with which we want to imbue our children. Accordingly, one might think that the patriarchs would serve as the model for our sons. Instead, we say, “ישימך אלקים כאפריים וכמנשה.” “May God bless you like Efraim and Menasseh.” This is not a parallel blessing to daughters. We choose not to express our wish for our sons to emulate the patriarchs. We need to explore how Joseph’s sons, Efraim and Menasseh, two generations later, serve as the model for our sons.
In this week’s parasha, Miketz, Efraim and Menasseh are introduced. We learn of their births and about the names that Joseph chooses for them. What Efraim and Menasseh’s names symbolize gives us the reason for the Friday night blessing. Through his choice of names, Joseph teaches us important lessons about how to live our lives after experiencing pain and hurt, and how to release ourselves from our pain.
The Rabbis addressed the topic of pain through the story of the Garden of Eden. When God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for eating from the tree of knowledge, God laments that human-beings will now experience pain. The classic Jewish understanding of God’s lament explains that God cries with us. We see God portrayed as the parent who mourns the fact that he/she can no longer protect his/her child from every bump and scrape. Indeed, ever since the Garden of Eden, everyone experiences adversity. Joseph teaches us how to navigate through the pain.
Cher says it best. In her song, Believe, she expresses Joseph’s struggle. Cher sings, “Do you believe in life after love?” Rather than ask about another love, Cher simply wants to know how to keep on living after a love affair ends. This love affair represents shattered expectations and dreams.
Joseph’s first son, Menasseh’s name comes from the Hebrew root which means forget. Joseph explains, “For God has made me forget all my trouble I endured in my father’s household.” At first glance, this name seems contradictory. After all, if you name your son for your past suffering, are you really forgetting? Why does Joseph choose a name that constantly serves as reminder of his suffering, thereby preventing him from forgetting?
Joseph, in fact, does not forget. We see, later in the parasha, that Joseph remembers all that happened to him in his father’s house. Joseph encounters his brothers making them suffer until they prove that they have changed. First, he imprisons them all. Then, he forces them to leave one brother behind in jail while they return to bring Benjamin with them. Finally, he threatens to imprison Benjamin for life.
If Joseph remembers everything, then, why does he name his son Menasseh, to forget?
I have long contemplated this seeming contradiction. I want to share with you what I have come to understand. Joseph does not forget the past. Instead, Joseph remembers the past. However, Joseph releases himself from the burden of the past. He no longer holds onto the hurt and learns to thrive despite the pain that he suffered. He forgives but does not, in fact, forget.
Judaism teaches the paradox that remembering leads to healing. Remembering, in Hebrew, comes from the root zayin-kaf-reish. We observe a special Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, before Purim. God obligates us to remember what Amalek did to us. They attacked us from behind, killing the old and the weak. We take that Shabbat to remind ourselves of their actions. You may ask why we carve out time to remember something so painful. We do what is necessary to continue our lives. By setting a specific time for remembering, we don’t spend all of our time dwelling on it. This is a paradigm for how to continue after we experience emotional or physical trauma. We easily fall into the trap of keeping that memory with us constantly, blaming someone else for wronging us. However, holding a grudge against someone else is like drinking the poison and expecting them to die. We know that doesn’t work with the poison but we often need to be reminded that when we carry around those dark feelings toward someone else, we aren’t hurting them in any way, but rather wasting our own precious time and energy.
We now move on to examine Efraim’s name. Joseph explains Efraim’s name, stating “For, God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Joseph moved on and is now fruitful. He marries a wife who bears him two sons and he serves as second in command to Pharaoh. He achieves much in Egypt despite his brothers’ attempt to destroy him physically by killing him or emotionally by selling him into slavery. Joseph learned to move forward with his life. He learned to heal himself so that that life after pain exists. He thrives in the face of pain. The names he bestows upon his two sons demonstrate how to journey from pain to healing.
I work with the L’Chaim Center which carries out community outreach and education in creative ways. The mission statement is “finding joy in the midst of adversity.” They do not suggest, in any way, that everything is for the better. We all wish that we, and even more so our loved ones, would not have to suffer at all. However, we know that difficulties, pain, and trauma are inevitable. Instead, while suffering, we can still find moments of joy, lessons for growth, and reasons to keep going.
This reminds me of a cartoon that shows a train heading into a dark tunnel. The caption reads, “due to budgetary constraints, the light at the end of the tunnel is temporarily out of order.” We laugh now but sometimes we look at things this way. We become so bogged down by our own suffering that we fail to see the positive in front of us.
Tradition teaches us that four angels surround us to help us through difficult times. Michael (literally, who is like God) stands on the right. He is on the right which indicates favored, close status, so he brings us closer to God. On our left is Gavriel (from the root Gibur, meaning power). He provides us with strength and stands, therefore, on our left, our weaker side. In front of us. is Uriel. His name comes from Or, light, and he guides us on our path. Finally, behind us is Refael, the angel of healing, from refuah. Refael stands behind us because, sometimes, when we are sick, either physically or emotionally, we can become overwhelmed, exhausted, and literally stuck. Refael behind us can give us a good kick in the rear to make sure that we continue to move forward. Also, with Refael behind us, we feel that our suffering lies behind us.
Further explanation of healing comes from the reverse order of Efraim and Menasseh in the Friday night blessing. Menasseh, the eldest, belongs first. Yet, when Jacob blesses his grandsons just before his death, he switches his hands, thereby giving Efraim the blessing of the firstborn. This provides another insight into the way in which these sons serve as a model for our children and ourselves. Efraim stands for moving forward in the face of adversity and Menasseh symbolizes forgetting by forgiving those who made us suffer. We begin to move forward even as we struggle to forgive and let go of the past.
The Torah teaches us the message that, through Joseph’s naming of his sons, we can, and should, move on after hardship and pain, though we may never forget the afflictions in our lives. Joseph demonstrates this incredibly important value when he tests his brothers and their loyalty to each other and to their father. Eventually he reveals his identity to them and in the end he rescues them from the famine.
We can apply this lesson today. The burdens we carry with us in life — our past hardships and afflictions — weigh us down only as long as we let them. Instead, allow past experiences to help shape future actions in positive ways. We make a difference in our lives and in the lives of our friends and family by doing this. In naming his sons, Joseph allows his past to constantly remind him, despite the literal meaning of his sons’ names, and ultimately his past inspires him to do good for others.
This blessing we want give to our children. May they not suffer any pain. But this is unrealistic, so when they do, may they learn from it, move past the suffering, and continue forward. This, after all, defines healing. We feel shalem, whole, through healing, and we then find shalom, peace.