Gently it flows, swift and silent over its smooth, unobstructed bed. What power lies in these waters? Still waters run deep, we are told. We can only guess, looking at the picturesque little stream.

But lay a dam across these tranquil waters. A wall of heavy stones, sealed with mortar, buttressed with thick wooden pilings. Watch the accumulating water press against it, watch its fury mount, its pent-up energies rise to the challenge. Watch the picturesque little stream burst through the obstruction, pulverize the mortar, splinter the timbers, scatter the stones.

Look again. The raging waters are dragging the stones, bouncing them along the riverbed like so many little rubber balls. The stones gain a momentum of their own: the dam has joined forces with the river, merging with it to become a mighty avalanche of water and rock. The stones, heavier than the water, are now driving the river along, increasing its ferocity, compounding its power.

Challenge and Opportunity

Manasseh and Ephraim: the only two of Jacob's grandchildren to be born in a foreign land, in depraved and alien Egypt. And yet, he feels a special kinship with them. As Jacob tells Joseph: "And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you, to Egypt, they are mine: Ephraim and Manasseh, as Reuben and Simon they shall be to me." Because they were born in Egypt, they are mine more than the others.

Jacob in the Holy Land is a gently flowing stream: its powers latent, its potential unprovoked. Joseph is Jacob in Egypt — a Jacob dammed, his integrity tested, his energies challenged. In the galut of Egypt, Joseph gives birth to Manasseh and Ephraim.

Manasseh and Ephraim represent the two dividends of galut: challenge and opportunity. In naming his first son Manasseh ("forgetting"), Joseph referred to his struggles in an alien environment, in an Egypt intent on eradicating all memory of home and roots. In his battle against forgetting and disconnection, the Jew in exile uncovers his deepest and strongest potentials. He brings to light reserves of commitment and determination never tapped in his days as a tranquil stream flowing along an unobstructed bed.

But exile is more than a stimulant for unrealized potential. It is also a resource. It is a dam to be overcome and then enlisted as an ally — an obstruction whose very mass enables the soul to achieve even more than the optimum of its own finer prowess. So after the Manasseh challenge is met, Ephraim is born — Ephraim, so named because "G‑d has caused me to be fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my affliction." The land of affliction itself is made to be fruitful and productive.

The Younger Brother

Many years later, after Jacob and his sons had joined Joseph in Egypt, Joseph brings his two sons to Jacob to be blessed.

And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim's head, [though] he was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh's head, [though] Manasseh was the firstborn, crossing his hands...

And Joseph ... said to his father: "Not so, my father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head."

But his father refused, and said: "I know, my son, I know. He, too, will become a nation; he, too, will be great. But his younger brother shall be even greater than he." (Genesis 48:14-19)

Manasseh is the firstborn. First, the soul must amass its own resources to confront the rootlessness and forgetting of galut. When it comes to the initial task of bursting the dam, the river can hardly enlist the weight of its stones; it can only use the challenge they present to agitate and focus its own dormant energies.

But his younger brother is even greater than he. For the purpose of the trials and obstructions of life is more than the optimization of one's spiritual capital. Ephraim represents the windfall of our investment in the corporeality of Egypt: the profit exacted from a challenger turned ally, from a mundane environment transformed into a G‑dly force.