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Rabbi Cardozo series considers weekly parsha


The focus of this week’s essay is “Cardozo on the Parashah: Genesis,” the latest work by the distinguished scholar, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo.

The founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Beit Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 15 books and numerous articles in English, Hebrew and his native Dutch. He heads a Jerusalem think tank that seeks new Halachic and theological approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity among Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. He previous book is “Jewish Law as Rebellion,” published by Urim Publications. The current work, the first of seven volumes on the Torah and the Jewish festivals, was published by Kasva Press.

The following is an excerpt from the essay, “The Great Educational Challenge,” a commentary on the last parsha of Bereshit.

By Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

A person can know with certainty that he succeeded in educating his children only when he sees the conduct of his grandchildren. And even then one cannot be entirely sure.

In the story of Yaakov’s struggles with his children’s upbringing, the Torah alerts us to the extreme difficulty of successful parenting. In particular, the way he handled his sons’ delicate relationships is a source of considerable controversy.

After demonstrating a greater level of love and devotion to his son Yosef, the brothers became embroiled in a major rift, which ultimately led to one of the great tragedies in Jewish history — the enslavement of the people of Israel in Egypt for 210 years. One would readily be able to forgive Yaakov for making this mistake if the root of the problem lay in his relative inexperience in the field of education. But if that were the case, why then did he make the same mistake when dealing with his grandchildren?

Why did he openly favor Yosef ’s children over the children of his other sons? Indeed, Yaakov only seems interested in Yosef ’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe. … [And] when blessing Ephraim and Menashe, Yaakov went out of his way to bless the younger (Ephraim) before the older (Menashe)! Did he not remember the disastrous consequences of showing this sort of bias in front of his own sons? …

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, in his monumental work “Emet Le-Yaakov,” calls our attention to the difference between the names that Yosef gave his two sons. Both, as is well known, were born in Egypt. When the oldest was born, Yosef called him Menashe, ki nashani Elokim. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch translates this verse as, “because G-d has made my trouble and all my paternal house into creditors to me.” When his second son was born, Yosef named him Ephraim, “because G-d has made me blossom ki hifrani Elokim) in the land of my affliction.”

There is a remarkable difference between these two names. When naming Menashe, Yosef made reference to the pain of living in a foreign country, with strong feelings of nostalgia for his father’s house. … By the time Yosef had to choose a name for his second son Ephraim, however, it seems that some kind of metamorphosis had taken place within him. While he was still aware of his unusual position as an Israelite in a strange land, he had somehow come to feel more comfortable in his new home. “G-d has made me blossom in the land of my affliction.”

The distinction is most telling. While there is little doubt that Yosef remained, throughout all his life, first and foremost an Israelite, the hostile climate of Egypt obviously exerted an influence. Yosef had to adapt himself, at least externally, to survive and succeed in his new environment. … Assimilation is a slow and, at the start, unrecognizable process. It is only when others make us aware, that we realize what we have become.

From this perspective Yaakov’s choices as a grandfather become more comprehensible. Ephraim and Menashe were the only two grandchildren who were not born and raised in close proximity to Yaakov. While the other grandchildren grew up in Yaakov’s home, nurtured by the land of Israel, Ephraim and Menashe came of age in a foreign country and never got to experience their grandfather and the nurturing environment of his thoroughly “Jewish” home.

Surely this must have worried Yaakov greatly. The question of how these grandchildren would maintain their “Jewish” identities in such spiritually hostile surroundings must have been on his mind constantly. Yaakov therefore proclaims to Yosef, “Now your sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon.” In other words, I will have to draw them back into the family before they are lost.

This interpretation, however, does not explain why he favored Ephraim over Menashe.

By looking beneath the surface, we can conclude that there must have been a major difference in the education these two sons received. By the time Ephraim was born, Yosef, not yet fully involved with the administration of Egypt and still more of a foreigner, had already made an indelible mark on his son Menashe’s young psyche. Surely Yosef communicated clearly that, although I am the second ruler in this country, always remember that this does not affect my loyalty towards my G-d and my people. We are first and foremost Israelites.

But by the time Ephraim was born, Yosef ’s feelings of being a foreigner had faded somewhat, and without the constant reinforcement of a strong and unwavering message of Jewish identification, his younger son’s development was necessarily more vulnerable to external influences. …

This could also explain why Yaakov placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and gave him a stronger blessing than his older brother. Since he was more exposed to the culture of Egypt, he and his descendants would need a greater level of encouragement and Divine assistance. In taking this approach, we see that Yaakov in fact, did not repeat the mistake of favoring one child over another without specific cause and proper reason.

Most interesting is the fact that the child who suffered more from exposure to external influences was destined to overtake his brother, who received a much better “Jewish” education. Yaakov explicitly states about Menashe that, “He will also become a people, and he also will be great, nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his seed shall become full to the nations.”

Why should the child who was more exposed to the secular world have a brighter future than the one who received a much stronger and more traditional education?

In fact, this also seems to be the case with Moshe Rabbenu, who was raised by a non-Jewish mother and educated in Pharaoh’s palace, and nevertheless grew up to become the greatest Jew in history, as well as the greatest Jewish prophet and leader. …

The answer is that a person who has to fight for his Jewish identity will, in the end, have more courage and strength to stand up to outside influences precisely because he has participated in, and gained a familiarity with, the outside world. Moshe was the ideal leader because he was raised in a culture that opposed Jewish values and thus had to prove and build his character through many inner spiritual battles.

Looking into the blessing that Yaakov gave to Ephraim, we encounter a similar idea. Yaakov tells him that he will “become full to the nations.” While there exist many possible explanations for this unusual expression, we may suggest that Ephraim’s tribe would, more than any other, possess the power to stand strong against the forces of assimilation. Rashi clearly alludes to this in his commentary when he writes, “All the world will be filled with the glory [of Yehoshua who was a descendant of Ephraim] when his fame and his name will go forth.” It is most revealing that Jewish parents [still bless] their children with the blessing suggested by Yaakov Avinu: “With you shall Israel bless, saying: May G-d make you as Ephraim and Menashe.”

Yaakov’s blessing expresses the delicate balance between the need for a strong “Jewish” identity and the capacity to interact with the outside world. Finding this middle path is far from easy, and trying to do so has been a source of constant problems throughout Jewish history.

Too much introversion leads to dangerous isolation, because it soon becomes impossible to relate to the greater community of human beings, which in turn prevents us from fulfilling our function as a “light unto the nations.” Too much adaptation, however, brings with it an essential loss of identity which leads inevitably to assimilation and devastation. To locate the right equilibrium requires a special blessing indeed, and this is precisely what we hope for our children when we bless them with the words of Yaakov Avinu, grandfather par excellence.