VAYIGASH: Three fathers, two brothers, one blessing

It takes two men to make one brother – Israel Zangwill

A Jewish mother is walking down the street with her two young sons.

A passerby asks her how old the boys are.

“The doctor is three,” the mother answers, “and the lawyer is two.”

Us Jews have always placed huge expectations on our children, every child is our future, every child the next link in our unbroken chain of tradition. This focus dates back to Biblical times and perhaps finds its origins in the family of Jacob. Jacob recognised that his children were not only just his children but were the 12 Tribes of Israel, each child establishing the foundations for the future of the Jewish people.

It was with this in mind that Jacob, as the curtain falls on his epic life, calls to his children to bless them and instill in them an awareness of the responsibilities of the mantle of leadership which they must now shoulder both individually and collectively.

The highlight of the parsha, are the blessings that Jacob bestows on his children, in particular the blessings he confers on his grandsons, Efraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph.

Yet when Efraim and Menashe emerge there is hesitation on the part of Jacob. He quizzes Joseph – “who are these boys”. Jacob had lived for 17 years in Egypt and knew very well who Joseph’s sons were, so what then was it that Jacob was truly demanding to know?

Every Friday night we bless our children, praying that our boys should be like Efraim and Menashe. Is that really what we as parents wish for our children that every Jewish child should be identical to both Efraim and Menashe? And every girl to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah? How is that even possible? What are we asking from our children – to be clones? Why would we wish that for our children?

To address these issues, let us take a step back and gain an appreciation into  life itself and the delicate balance we attempt to tread.

As Jews, we thank the Almighty for every and any kindness we receive. There is a fascinating blessing we recite after relieving ourselves. The blessing is referred to as Asher Yatzar thanking G-d for enabling us to be able to take care of our basic needs.

The blessing concludes with a vague if not baffling phrase “Blessed is G-d who heals all flesh and performs wonders.”  What precisely are we referring to?

The Rav Moshe Isserlis known as the Remah the Halachic authority for Ashkenazi Jewry states that this phrase is alluding to the extraordinary union between body and soul and their ability to not only co-exist, but to become synthesized, a single unified entity during each of our lives.

The union of body and soul is something majestic. The essence of the body is to be made up of different components of the anatomy that function in tandem whilst the person is alive. As soon as a person dies, the body begins to deteriorate and disintegrate. It is only whilst the spirit of the Divine – the soul resides in the person that the disparate parts of the anatomy can function together.

The body, as Deepak Chopra a noted 21st century author and thinker writes, is constantly in a state of flux: “The skin replaces itself once a month, the stomach lining every five days, the liver every six weeks, and the skeleton every three months. To the naked eye, these organs look the same from moment to moment, but they are always in flux. By the end of this year, 98 percent of the atoms in your body will have been exchanged for new ones.”

The soul is the exact opposite, it is one entity rather than individual parts with no shape or form. It is only once it resides in the body that it has some type of shape and focus.

The odd couple of body and soul are comparable to two business partners. One partner is creative and full of imaginative ideas and blue sky thinking but does not have the wherewithal to implement reality in the details. The other partner is fastidious about details and minutiae, the practical day to day running of the business. Whereas, the second partner can keep things ticking over, lacking any creativity or vision he cannot expand the business but rather just keep things ticking over year after year.

Each on their own is a liability to the business but when they combine their synergy can take the company forwards in a responsible well-grounded fashion.

The same is true with regards to the partnership between the body and soul.  Each one on their own cannot effectively achieve success. The soul needs the body to give it form, focus, and purpose this is achieved through carrying out the mitzvot, actions in the physical world with a spiritual purpose enable them together to achieve their goal. If a person is just soul, just living a life moving from one moment of inspiration to the next one will feel exhilarated, but it will not necessarily be transformative and be an integrated part of one’s life, for that one needs the body which is the conduit to channel and perform individual mitzvot.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the American Great of the 20th century wrote in his seminal work Halakhic Man: “ontic pluralism is the very foundation of the worldview of homo religiosus.”  For the Rav, homo religiosus was only interested in the realm of the lofty and splendorous spirit. For the ‘Halakhic Man’, who we must strive to reflect in our own lives, the world is neither solvable through pragmatic or empirical analysis, nor experienced through the Platonic realm of idealism in isolation. Such attitudes have led to transcendental ascetic practices – the negation of life and of this world. The ‘Halakhic Man’ stands with the Torah in hand approaching reality with an a priori (eg. time, the self, number, causation) relation – looking to coordinate it with the posteriori (ie. subjective experience) phenomenon.

The challenge of life is striking that balance be it between body and soul or be it between the different worlds in which we live. It was this ability to balance elements in life that was the strength of Joseph and something he imbued in his children.

Returning to the blessings in the parsha.

Jacob, living in Egypt, a country that was antithetical to everything he and his family stood for and had known beforehand. Egypt at that time was a depraved, debased, and immoral culture. Jacob’s family had not chosen to settle in Egypt, but their hand had been forced because of the severe famine in Canaan It was for this reason Jacob and his family, unlike Joseph and his, lived an insulated life in Goshen for 17 years away from the gaze and adverse influence of Egyptian society.

Joseph on the other hand, through no fault of his own, had been thrust into the forefront of Egyptian society and culture by dint of his meteoric promotion to Viceroy of Egypt. Joseph had been forced to learn to adapt to living as a Jew with a foreign society and values around him. Yet he had succeeded in striking the delicate balance between remaining unswervingly loyal to his Jewish identity and yet playing a prominent role to the society around him. Joseph and his family had created a new path for the Jew in exile, a path of integration rather than splendid isolation.

For Jacob this was a radically different path to that which he and his family had been familiar with. Joseph’s sons had grown up in Egyptian culture, spoke and looked Egyptian.

It was this that caused the hesitancy on the part of Jacob to bless his grandsons and therefore he quizzed Joseph who are these boys really? Joseph’s response was unequivocal: they are my sons; they are identical in commitment and faith as me.  In essence, said Joseph, life is all about balance between the physical and spiritual so in this world we are able to strike that perfect balance in life.

Joseph continue to Jacob that each of his sons are different, however, each had found their balance in their own way, successfully being as steadfast in their faith as Joseph.  “my sons” said Joseph, as dedicated and committed to their faith as me – there is no generation gap.

It was on hearing this affirmation from Joseph that Jacob blessed his grandsons. As a parent it does not matter how old one’s children are, one does not stop worrying. For Jacob, his concern was not just as a father but as the father of the Jewish people. Knowing with confidence that he had borne witness to the establishment of the future of the Jewish people his life’s mission made it the most joyous period.

Joseph’s two sons were different from each other and chose very different paths in their service and faith, yet they were unequivocal in their commitment. It is perhaps for this reason that we adopted the practice of blessing our children to be like Efraim and Menashe. We want our children to be their own people like Joseph’s sons, different and yet united, able to emulate the attitude and commitment of our faith yet being individual.

That is the blessing we confer to our children.

Credits: The Weekly Parsha insights is co-authored by Mr Daniel Sher

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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