“And Joseph named [his] firstborn Manasseh, for "G-d has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house."” In last week’s Torah portion, Joseph is shown to have suffered greatly the price of being his father’s favorite, and letting that favoritism go to his head and ego. This week, he is redeemed, appointed a position of power, his dreams literally come true, and, additionally, he has two children. These two children are not given much stage time in our stories; they are not the lead roles in any Hebrew school plays, but they are important. Every Friday night, around the world, parents bless their sons by saying, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” because they supposedly are the only two siblings in the Bible who don’t have any fierce rivalries. And yet, here we read that Manasseh’s name is derived from a wish for Joseph to forget all his father’s house. While it is more than understandable that he would want to forget his brothers, and even understandable for Joseph to blame his father for the way his brothers mistreated him, it sounds harsh for Joseph to pass onto his child his desire to forget his former life and family. In contrast, he names his second son Ephraim, “G-d has made me to prosper in the land of my affliction,” showing that while he does not want to remember his father’s home, the place he currently lives does not quite feel like his home either.
There is much to learn from the Joseph story, and one lesson among many is on the question of respecting our parents even when it’s hard. Many of you are still very young and hopefully still revere and trust your parents and try your best to obey their rules. Those of you who are now parents probably see your parents differently now than you did before having children yourself, and hopefully can better appreciate all they did for you. But there are a few in this room who are of an age notorious for not showing proper respect for their parents. Speaking from purely anecdotal evidence and personal observations, I’d say starting at about 12 and peaking at 16 for girls, starting at about 15 and peaking closer to 20 for boys, the angst of adolescence starts to get in the way of appreciating the things your parents do for you. Often times, it feels like everything is all wrong and it’s all your parents fault and they’ll just never understand you and you just can’t wait to be grown up and out of their house and then you can forget all about this!
Joseph is considerably past this age when he names his firstborn child “G-d caused me to forget my toils and all my father’s house,” but since time in the Bible is generally very different than the way we view time now, let’s assume it’s safe to compare his attitude with that of a teenager’s. He does not want to acknowledge his connection to his father and family, he plays tricks on his brothers, and he cries a lot. Sounds like being 16 to me. In his tears, there is the implication that he wishes he could be close to them again, let his brothers know who he is, reunite the family. But he is afraid and distrustful, and understandably so. So he waits. In next week’s parasha – spoiler alerts – he does make himself known, and his whole family comes to live in Egypt and live off his success, and everyone lives happily ever after [at least until a new Pharoah arises who enslaves all the Hebrew people, but that’s not for quite a while].
Although it’s not shown explicitly, I think there is something in this on how we can show parents and family respect even when there is still anger and mistrust. It’s not easy, and the parasha certainly doesn’t tell us how to do it, but I think it can be done, and the parasha is at least saying that much. It’s okay to hold your cards close to your chest and still be gracious. Our Jewish law commands us to always show honor and respect our fathers and mothers, not to feel honor and reverence for them all time. Joseph messed with his brothers a little bit, but he still fed them, and ultimately welcomed them into his new life. Although he may have wanted to forget the pain of his childhood, he didn’t. He remembered and when the time was right, he re-embraced them all. Occasionally, people come to a point where they start to feel that as much as they love their family, they don’t like them so much right now. This generally passes, and it’s important to not to burn your bridges, since you might want to cross back at some point. Or in Joseph’s case, invite the rest of the family over to your side of the bridge. Either way, the bridge needs to still be in working condition, even if a little shaky.
May you always remember where you came from, who brought you up, and all they did to help make you the person you are today. May you survive your teenage angst and reunite in love with your family. And may G-d make us all like Ephraim and Manasseh, able to put aside our differences and just get along. Amen.