by Rabbi Alexander
There you are, sitting in class in what is known to be a sub-par school. Not that you normally would be going there, but circumstances have forced your parents to place you here temporarily.
There you are, sitting in class in what is known to be a sub-par school. Not that you normally would be going there, but circumstances have forced your parents to place you here temporarily. The teacher and you get along so-so, but you can live with that. The real problem is that your classmates are noisy, rowdy, and generally ill-behaved. This school has a reputation for that; in this town, calling someone a student of this particular school is about the worst insult possible!
Well, of course, you don't want to be tarred with that brush. You're a nice, decent kid, right? So the first thing you'll want to do is to make sure you always remember that you're not "a student of School X", but "a student who just happens to be temporarily attending School X". The point is, if you get the urge to copy your fellow students and join in on "rolling" someone's lawn or something of the sort, you'll be able to say to yourself, "Well, that's something that students of School X do, but I'm not one of them, so I'll stay out of it."
Another important strategy in maintaining your sanity while in exile is to put your time there to good use. You're going to have to be in that school for six months, so try to get six months' worth of learning out of it. At least that way the time won't be wasted. And maybe even some of your classmates will learn from your example.
Which of these two approaches is more important? Certainly both are necessary, but should one expend the majority of his effort in staying out of School X's crowd, or perhaps one should give priority to gaining as much as he can from the situation? Don't worry if you can't answer this question. Jacob and Joseph disagreed about it as well.
To Joseph, all alone and exiled in an immoral Egypt, it was most important to focus on where he really belonged - back at home under Jacob's guidance. "He called his firstborn Menashe, 'for Gd has removed me (nashani) from. . .my father's house'" (Genesis 41:51). That would keep him from being sucked into the Egyptian way of life. Only afterwards could he focus on the positive side of being in Egypt: "The second son he called Ephraim, 'for G-d has made me fruitful (hiphrani) in the land of my affliction" (ibid. 41:52).
When it came time for Jacob to bless Joseph's sons, as described in this week's Torah portion, Joseph still felt that his firstborn son Menashe and the idea he represents should come before Ephraim. Joseph therefore placed Menashe in position to receive the greater blessings because he fully expected that, in the dark days of exile ahead, the Jewish people would need to focus more on who they are, as represented by Menashe, than on what they could achieve in Egypt as represented by Ephraim.
But Jacob looked at it differently. "I know, my son, I know" (ibid. 48:19). Menashe is the bearer of our identity in a foreign environment, and his role is important; without him we would be totally lost in Egypt. "But his younger brother will be greater than he," because he shows us what to do as long as we are in Egypt - not just to sit and mope about it, but to utilize the experience itself to grow in our Judaism! As the old expression goes, "If life gives you lemons, make lem onade."
We, too, need both approaches. Sometimes it is all we can do in our society to maintain our Jewish identity without totally melting into American culture. But Jacob taught Joseph, and us, that we have to do more than that. We have to use our time here to deepen and broaden our Jewish identity through the dedicated observance of Torah and mitzvot.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer, who spent time in Atlanta, writes from New York.
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