In memory of Yakov
Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi
For easy printing,
By Rabbi Yaakov
Our parasha begins with the
restless Pharaoh and the dreams that torment his sleep. Upon reading that two visions plague the
king, the reader immediately senses that Yosef will soon be called upon to
provide the interpretation, for dual dreams accompany Yosef throughout the
narrative: he himself
dreamt the dreams of the wheat bundles and
the heavenly bodies, and the butler and baker had divulged their two visions to
him as well.
Yosef is shaven and clothed and
brought to hear the monarch's dreams.
Not only does he successfully interpret them, he also provides Pharaoh
with the only advice that can prevent the grim future that the dreams predict
from destroying Egypt. He advises the king to appoint "a man of
discernment and wisdom" in a manner that leaves Pharaoh with almost no choice
but to respond, "There is none as discerning and wise as you." Pharaoh bestows upon Yosef the trappings
of power, changes his name, and gives him the necessary authority to perform his
charge gathering grain against the famine. Yosef sets about his task with alacrity,
with immediate success:
And Yosef collected produce in very
large quantity, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it
could not be measured. (41:49)
Among the actions that Pharaoh takes
to strengthen Yosef's position is marrying him into one of Egypt's aristocratic
families: "And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-Paneah; and he gave him as
a wife Osnat the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On (41:45)." Unexpectedly, as if to stamp Yosef's new
status with approval, we read almost immediately:
50 And unto Yosef were born two sons before
the year of famine came, whom Osnath the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On,
bore unto him.
51 And Yosef called the name of the
first-born Menashe, "For God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father's
52 And the name of the second he
called Efraim, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."
Rashi, quoting the Talmud, comments on
the subtle qualifier that the children arrived "before the year of famine came,"
suggesting that procreation and even marital relations are forbidden in time
of famine. However, this side point does not eliminate the impression that
Yosef's fortunes seems inexorably tied to those of Egypt. As Egypt's storehouses fill themselves,
in imagery parallel to the blessings once promised to Avraham's descendants
("the sands of the sea", "for it could not be measured"), Yosef also enjoys
ease, wealth, and plenty. His
personal fertility parallels the prosperity around him.
How does Yosef feels about his new
success? Through the names he gives
him children, we can see how Yosef feels about his own
FIRST SON MENASHE
Both of the names that Yosef gives his
children are laden with meaning and paradox. They nakedly reflect Yosef's wrestling
with the vicissitudes of his life.
More than any other character in Sefer Bereishit, his path is a
story of dramatic rise and fall, of unbelievable successes and the lowest of
failures, with more twists and bends than any other's path. Once the unchallenged favorite of his
aged father, his brothers strip him of all. He rises to a position of importance
in Potiphar's house, only to be cast into a dungeon. There he rises again to leadership, but
among criminals and convicts.
Unexpectedly called upon to interpret the sleepless Pharaoh's dreams, he
becomes the second most powerful figure in the land. Now, with the birth of his first child,
he attempts to come to grips with it all:
Menashe - for God has made me forget all my
toil and all my father's house.
What emotion is Yosef expressing
here? And if a person is aware that
he has forgotten, has he really forgotten?
In his Ha-Emek Davar, Rabbi
Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin makes an interesting suggestion. Given the horrors
that have accompanied him throughout his life, Yosef is grateful not to be
burdened and haunted by memory. For
an ordinary person, the events that transpired in Yosef's life would be
incapacitating. Now responsible for
the survival of Egypt, indeed the entire civilized world, Yosef is forced to
concentrate solely on providing food for the masses; reflection upon his past
has become a luxury that he cannot afford.
Forgetfulness here does not mean a lack of intellectual or emotional
awareness. It means that the
tribulations of Yosef's past can not be allowed to affect his present.
SECOND SON EFRAIM
Like his eldest, Yosef's naming of his
second son is enveloped in his overwhelming concern for his survival:
Efraim for God has made me fertile in the
land of my affliction.
This verse articulates the paradox
that represents Yosef's life his is a life of both fruitfulness and
affliction, of success and failure together. He finally has a secure position, a
wife, and heirs yet he is brutally aware that this is a land of affliction to
him. His life is a paradigm for the
experience of the Jewish people in Egypt:
And the people were fruitful and
multiplied, and the increased and waxed mightily. And there arose a king who knew not
(Shemot 1:6, 7)
Ironically, the blessings of creation
given to mankind, to be fruitful and multiply and spread out over the land,
reach their fruition with the Jewish people in the alien land of Egypt.
Clearly, at the moment of Yosef's
greatest triumph, he cannot help but ruminate on the irony and paradox that
accompany his every success. His
triumphs and fruitfulness come with a cost that of his own identity. This is a tension that he manages to
suppress until, during the famine, he spots his brethren among the hungry
gathered outside the vizier's doors.
Twice and then thrice, with great effort, he overcomes his natural
emotions and "made himself a stranger unto them." However, he could not avoid the
confrontation and maintain his façade forever. Yehuda's speech pierces his armor; but
the reader, aware of the torment that surrounded Yosef even when naming his
children, recognizes that the outpouring was inevitable.
Reading about the birth of Yosef's two
sons, we also hear echoes of the character who will serve to undo the effects of
Yosef's actions, Moshe. Like Yosef,
Moshe has two children, born to him after a series of ups and downs. Like Yosef, Moshe must leave his
family. Both Moshe and Yosef find a
measure of comfort in their surroundings, an Egyptian house (Potiphar and
Pharaoh). Finally, both of them
find refuge in a family after providing a service for that family's leader
(Yosef interprets Pharaoh's dreams and is married to one of the daughters of
Pharaoh's courtiers; Moshe saves Reuel's daughters at the well and is married to
Zippora in return).
In Parashat Yitro, when Zippora
returns to Moshe after the exodus, we discover the reasons behind the names of
Moshe's two children:
And her two sons; of whom the name of
the one was Gershom; for he said: "I have been a stranger in a strange land;"
And the name of the
other was Eliezer, "For the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from
the sword of Pharaoh." (Shemot 18:3, 4)
If Yosef experiences the dangers of
acculturation and acclimatizing to Egypt, Moshe clearly understands the dangers
that it represents to his identity both physically ("the sword of Pharaoh")
and spiritually ("a strange land").
What motivates Yosef to relate to
Egypt differently from others? To
answer this question, we must appreciate that Yosef has one central role in the
story to ensure his family's simple survival. That Yosef is cognizant of this role is
evident from the numerous times he tells his brothers and family not to be
distressed over his sale because it clearly it was from God that Yosef was sent
to Egypt - "that we may live and not die" (43:8, 47:19). When faced with famine and destruction,
Yosef's steel-minded determination and ability to continue, becomes admirable,
even an asset. (Indeed, this
survival instinct overcomes even the principled Yaakov when the bread is gone
from the pantry and the larder is bare, his declaration that "Binyamin will not
accompany you to Egypt" yields to the necessity of feeding those remaining
Missing from Yosef's awareness, however, is the larger role he plays
within the Divine scheme. He
remembers his dreams, and acts on them - but not on the visions of his
fathers. God once appeared to
Avram, his great-grandfather, in a vision as well, informing him of what awaited
his descendants: "For your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs,
and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years"
(15:13). Despite his concentration
on the acts of day-to-day survival, Yosef is unable to appreciate the larger
plan that unfolds around him. He
sees his actions, correctly, as guaranteeing his family's survival. Only at the end of his life does he
realize that the short descent to Egypt will take centuries to