How do we deal with an unfamiliar, and even hostile, environment? You try to survive, yes. But in addition to that, a person also tries to preserve his or her sense of self, one’s own identity. “Don’t let the conditions make you forget who you are and what you are trying to achieve,” you tell yourself.

The next step is something more. You try to find a way to develop and grow, precisely in that unfamiliar environment. In fact, you discover ways to transform negativity into something wholesome. Finding the balance between preserving one’s identity and positive interaction with the environment is a subtle issue, which closely relates to the long experience of the Jewish people.

In order to keep one’s Jewish identity strong and healthy, a fair measure of restraint is needed. One may have to refuse that important dinner invitation, for any of a variety of reasons (the food will not be kosher, the event will be on Yom Kippur, and so on). On the other hand, in order to be a creative and positive force in society—in the way that we, the Jewish people, often are, transforming attitudes and opening up new frontiers—this restraint has to be combined with boldness, assertiveness and daring.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, points out that an intriguing scene in our Parshah can be understood in terms of these two pathways: struggling to preserve one’s own identity, and positively interacting with society.

The incident concerns an apparent disagreement between Joseph and his father Jacob. Joseph has brought his two sons to the elderly and blind Jacob, so that Jacob could give them his blessing. Joseph thought it would be appropriate that his father should place his right hand on the head of Manasseh, the older son, and his left hand on that of the younger brother, Ephraim. Surprisingly, Jacob crossed his arms so that his right hand was on the head of the younger son. When Joseph protested at this, his father insisted this was correct (Genesis 48:13–14, 18–20).

What was the disagreement between Joseph and his father Jacob? The usual explanation is that Jacob was aware that the great leader Joshua would be a descendant of Ephraim. However, the Rebbe provides another level of explanation, based on the meaning of the names of the two youths.

Joseph had named his older son Manasseh, saying, “G‑d has dislodged me from my father’s house.”1. The name “Manasseh” signifies Joseph’s attempt to preserve his identity as the son of his father Jacob. He was now in the immoral Egyptian environment, but was determined to retain his religious and moral identity—as we see in the incident involving Potiphar’s wife. The firstborn Manasseh signifies restraint. By contrast, he gave his second son the name Ephraim, saying, “G‑d has made me flourish in the land of my affliction.”2 Ephraim represents the second path, that of creative interaction.

Which approach is the most important? Joseph, whose own life was indeed one of struggle to preserve his identity, thought that Manasseh should be dominant. Jacob, looking ahead to the future, thought that Ephraim was more important. Certainly, the restraint of Manasseh is essential, and even must come first. But the ultimate goal is the positive transformation of the world—which is achieved through Ephraim.3

Thus, the traditional Jewish blessing that fathers give their children is, “May G‑d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Manasseh is essential. But after that level has been reached, Ephraim is the goal.