A small, weakened nation, without a land or an army but possessed of a wonderful and important tradition needs to survive in a hostile environment. For more than two thousand years the Jewish nation has tried to maintain its identity despite the vicissitudes of exile, persecution and hatred. The result has been incredible: the survival of the Jewish people with its traditions intact, its spirit unbowed and its vitality constantly revitalized. True, we have lost many to assimilation, intermarriage, ignorance and Holocausts, but the Jewish people lives.
The secret of this wondrous phenomenon has often been discussed and analyzed. In the Bible, we find an interesting discussion regarding the best strategy for retaining Jewish identity and preventing a devastating assimilation. At the end of the book of Beresheet (Genesis), we find a strange story that bears on this issue. Yaakov is deathly ill and Joseph decides to bring his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to receive a blessing from their grandfather Yaacov/Yisrael.
“Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand, to Israel’s left, and Menashe with his left, to Israel’s right, and he came close to him. But Israel extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head though he was the younger and the left hand on Menashe’s head, he crossed his hands….” As Joseph notices this strange movement by his father, he tries to dislodge his father’s hand away from Ephraim onto Menashe’s and he says, “Not so, Father, for this is the first born.” But Yaacov refused and says, “I know, my son, I know….yet his younger brother shall become greater than he..” ( Genesis 48:13ff)
What is the disagreement between Joseph and his father? What is the essence of their dispute? The Netivot Shalom quotes the Divre Shmuel explaining this discussion as concerning the ways of survival in exile. Ephraim and Menashe are the first Jews born outside the and of Israel and so they represent the future generations of Jews who will be exposed to the influences and difficulties of maintaining a Jewish identity in a foreign soil. The discussion between Joseph and Yaacov is which is the best strategy for survival and preventing assimilation. Menashe—as his name implies—represents a preventive measure, a protective attitude to discourage assimilation. Emphasizing the aspects of fear and awe of G-d, are the best weapons against assimilation. This is Joseph’s argument. Hence he is the one that should be favored.
But Yaacov sees it differently. He argues that the method of Ephraim—meaning a positive attitude of love of G-d—will also be effective in maintaining our identity and preventing intermarriage and assimilation. We should not only emphasize the fear of G-d but also understand and expand on the beauty of our tradition, on the wisdom of our laws and ultimately on developing a love relationship with Hashem. This will insure the continuity of our people: their realization of how beautiful is our tradition, how glorious and meaningful the words of our rabbis!
At a time when our children are exposed to a barrage of information from science and technology, aesthetic stimulation from the arts and literature, and other influences that can be tantalizing to them, it is important to show the beauty and depth of our Torah and to develop our love for G-d. When we study our sources and analyze their message, we will fall in love with them and this is the best defense against assimilation and loss of identity. This is Yaacov’s lesson: we need fear and love of G-d in the struggle for survival, but give the priority to the love, the quality of Ephraim. Discovering the beauty of the Torah and our legacy, just as the sight of a beautiful landscape can be the best armor in our struggle to keep our children, and to insure the future of Am Israel.