Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Efraim and Menashe

When a congregant asks me to post a sermon, I'm happy to oblige so by request:

Vayechi: Ephraim and Menashe

December 17, 2010

When blessing children, there is a tradition to say, ysimcha elohim k’efraim u’menashe. May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe. Two questions may arise. Who were they and why them?

As we conclude Bereishit, Jacob is nearing the end of his life. Joseph hears his father is ill and takes his children, Ephraim and Menashe to visit. Jacob sees Joseph and the boys and asks, who are these? Joseph replies, they are mine. Jacob is overwhelmed. Having never expected to see his son again, now he is blessed to see his lost son’s children.

There are some interesting things that follow this moment. Some confusion that isn’t really confusion, for example. We’ll talk about tomorrow morning. We assume as well that there was some discussion, some chatting. We can imagine what the old grandfather would say to or ask of his young grandchildren. And then Jacob says, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: may God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Forever more, Jacob declares that future generations will invoke the names of Ephraim and Menashe when blessing children through the ages.

But why? Why them? Why not Joseph? Here is a man sold, lost and yet by his wits and God’s grace he rises to be second to Pharaoh. A self made man who defies fate and survives could be a good person through whom Israel is blessed. Or what about the other brothers? Are there none who have shown the sort of behavior we, the legacy of Jacob, could use for the blessing of our children? Not even Benjamin, Jacob’s favorite, the quiet one who is tossed around by Joseph but who always maintains his composure? Is he not worthy?

No. It is Ephraim and Menashe.

Rabbi Leib Ginsburg wrote a collection of commentary published in 1931 called the Yalkut Yehuda. He was born in Russia but served as a rabbi in Denver which may help to explain this comment:

Why specifically as Ephraim and Menashe? The reason is that Jacob realized that the time of the exile of his descendants was approaching and he knew that in exile, their Jewishness was in great danger. He therefore blessed them that they should be as Ephraim and Menashe – the first Jews who were born, grew up and educated in exile- and yet in spite of that, they “are mine”[as Jacob says]; they remained faithful to the House of Israel, as much as Reuben and Simeon.

The Land of Israel has always been a place of stability and inspiration and strength for the Jewish people. Gathered together we easily maintained our culture. We defended ourselves, built our towns and created our institutions. But once we left that place, once we were scattered, what would become of us? How could we survive without the ease that comes with all of us being together?

We all know that the Land of Israel still worked its magic. Our longing for it, dreaming of it served as a virtual gathering place. Jews who were alone were never really alone. Every Jew who faced towards Jerusalem was in concert with every other Jew facing Jerusalem and that was empowering. But that couldn’t be enough. Dreams and prayers alone just can’t be enough to keep Jews as Jews out in the Diaspora. So what was it? What did Joseph teach his children so that they would become the role model for blessing every other Jewish child to come?

This is the question every Diaspora community has debated ever since there was a first Diaspora and it is a very real question for us now. We are creating a vibrant community and yet are mystified why people don’t jump to join us. We are more mystified when those with us, leave us.

So what did Joseph teach his children?

He taught them to value and respect the high station they lived in, to be appreciative of their palace life but always value and respect their origins. He taught them to identify with the Jews who were workers, the Jews who were craftsmen, the Jews who were poor and the Jews who were rich. He taught his children to love the Jewish people even if some of the individual Jews could drive them crazy.

He taught them Hebrew, a window into culture and a language that feels like a secret code. It was a not a burden to learn along with their Egyptian studies but key to unlocking ideas and concepts that enriched them. He taught them that word shalom means peace but also wholeness, that one is at peace when one is whole and so we need to work to make sure people have what they need to be whole. He taught them that the word for peace is related to the word for pay, that we honor our debts, pay our workers quickly, that we don’t short change people or string them along so that they can provide for their families and so be whole. One Hebrew word shows how our ethical behavior brings wholeness to others and peace to the world.

Joseph taught them Jewish knowledge of values and ethics that gave a world view and a way to organize their thoughts in order to give them a place in that world.

He taught them to see themselves as part of a continuum. Ephraim and Menashe were not just kids alone out there but children honored to carry an amazing history. He taught them that his father was Jacob whose father was Isaac whose parents were Abraham and Sarah who gave up everything to follow a vision of a world with one God to unify all the peoples of the Earth.

He taught them that there was one God and not gods local to wherever one was. And that because there was just one God, we all came from that God and therefore, at our very core, we are all equal before that God and thus equal before each other. No one person is better than another, and so we need to treat each equally and fairly.

From that idea of one God, he taught a system of values and ethics that demanded the best of behavior to others. And perhaps he taught that to Pharaoh as well because our troubles in Egypt didn’t start until a new Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph.

He taught his children joy in Jewish life and pride in particular cultural moments. He taught how it was fun to play along the Nile with the Egyptian children and empowering to be back home with Jewish art and Jewish food and Jewish music filling their home.

Ephraim and Menashe learned that the world did not revolve around them or their interests but that they were part of a larger community, a community that loved them and a community that needed them. They learned amongst all their privilege to serve others and work to create a healthy community and they became better because of that. They were better people when they became more dedicated Jews because they learned to think of others.

They learned joy of the texture of Jewish living and the joy of being who they are. Joseph taught them to keep faith when trouble hits and be humble when success arrives. He taught them to be confident in their skills and defer the compliments when they come.

Ephraim and Menashe never worried if they were Egyptian or Israelite. They were both. They didn’t take out their Jewish self when needed and they didn’t pass as Egyptians the other time. Joseph made sure both were always there, side by side.

He taught them that Jewish living was important and crucial. It wasn’t just faith, it wasn’t just cultural decoration, it wasn’t an interesting history or a shared story, it was a covenant between God and those boys, an allegiance to understand that Jewish living would make those boys better men and that those men would complete God’s Creation by making the world a better place. The boys understood that feeling Jewish at our core is what makes us proud to accept the mission of carrying Abraham’s mission. Those boys understood that carrying two identities makes us stronger people.

Our task today is not to maintain a Jewish outpost of holidays and lifecycle events. Our task is not to create an oasis of Jewish culture that people stop by from time to time. Our task today is to create a corner of the Diaspora where Jews learn pride, take strength, stand tall and celebrate who we are. Our task is to create excitement and dedication and personal meaning. Our mission is to be like Ephraim and Menashe. Our mission is to live up to Ephraim and Menashe’s success.