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NAME THAT CHILD

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Put yourself in the following situation for just a moment: You have come to the end of a very difficult life, climaxed by twenty-two years of agonizing separation from your favorite son. Not only were you detached from him, but you yourself may have contributed to that separation through your preferential treatment of him, arousing jealousy in his brothers.

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Put yourself in the following situation for just a moment: You have come to the end of a very difficult life, climaxed by twenty-two years of agonizing separation from your favorite son. Not only were you detached from him, but you yourself may have contributed to that separation through your preferential treatment of him, arousing jealousy in his brothers. And you now find yourself and your family in a foreign land as a result of that jealousy. Keeping all that in mind, which one midah, human character trait, would you be most keenly aware of in attempting to prevent it from surfacing again? Jealousy.

Now, let's examine Jacob's behavior in this week's Torah portion. He finds himself and his family in exile in the land of Egypt, and as the Talmud relates, it was because of the striped coat that Jacob gave Joseph that our ancestors eventually ended up in Egypt (Tractate Megillah 16b). Yet, we apparently find Jacob making the same exact mistake of showing preference to one son over the others, as he calls Joseph's two sons before him. Menashe and Ephraim are to be singled out from amongst Jacob's many other grandchildren to be the recipients of a special blessing. How could Jacob have risked creating jealousy in his family, after everything that he has experienced, for a simple blessing? On top of that, it has become the custom for a father to bless his son every Friday night with the same blessing Jacob gave Joseph's sons. Why was this blessing singled out as the one with which we bless our children?

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, one of the most respected rabbis of the past generation, answers as follows: The brothers and their children understood that Joseph's sons were in a uniquely difficult situation, as they were Jacob's only grandchildren to be born in Egypt. Menashe and Ephraim even spent their early years separated from the positive influences of Jacob and were raised, instead, surrounded by the corrupting influence of Egyptian society. Even with their father being the righteous Joseph, it was inevitable that they would absorb some of the negative influences from their environment. It was, therefore, clear to the entire family that Joseph's sons required an extra special blessing if they were to be capable of overcoming their handicap and prevent the assimilation of their own descendants.

Rav Kamenetzky offers a fascinating explanation, along these same lines, as to why Jacob afforded Ephraim with the revered right-hand status for the ensuing blessing, in place of the first born Menashe who rightfully deserved that higher position. Joseph gave his eldest son the name Menashe, which is purely a Hebrew name. On the other hand, his younger son's name Ephraim, although it has a Hebrew meaning, seems to have within it the same characteristics of many Egyptian names. If you examine the Egyptian names found in the Torah, almost every one bares an amazing resemblance to the name Pharaoh. They are each composed of at least two of the same Hebrew letters in Pharaoh's name, namely pay, ayin, resh, and hei. Potiphar's (the Egyptian minister to whom Joseph was sold in verse 37:36) name includes pay and resh and Potiphera's (Joseph's father-in-law in verse 41:50) name includes pay, resh, and ayin. Pharaoh gives Joseph the Egyptian name Pane'ach (in verse 41:45) which includes pay and ayin. The two midwives' names, (Exodus 1:15) Shifrah (pay, resh, and hei) and Puah (pay, ayin, and hei), are also excellent examples of the composition of Egyptian names. Ephraim's name is composed of two of the "Egyptian" letters, pay and resh. For this and other reasons which are too lengthy to discuss here, it seems that Ephraim was inherently a little more assimilated into the Egyptian culture than his brother Menashe. It was for this reason that Ephraim was given priority for Jacob's blessing.

This blessing transcends time. Every Friday night we recall Jacob's blessing as we pass it on to our children. Living in exile, we, like Joseph's sons, need all of the blessings we can get.

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Michael Alterman, a founding editor of Torah from Dixie, writes from Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Vayechi articles.

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