This week’s Torah reading contains the traditional blessing that parents give their sons in Jewish homes: “May G‑d make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.” Why particularly this blessing?

Jacob had gone down to Egypt where his son Joseph was viceroy. There he saw that Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, were conducting themselves as Jewish children despite having been raised in the lap of Egyptian luxury. With prophetic vision, he saw that his descendants, the Jewish people throughout the ages, would be living in exile for extended periods during their history. He therefore ordained that parents bless their sons that they emulate the conduct of these two children.

When Joseph brought his children to his father so that he bless them, he positioned them before Jacob according to their order of birth: Menasheh on the right and Ephraim on the left. Jacob, however, crisscrossed his hands and placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head. When Joseph protested that Menasheh was older, Jacob told him that Menasheh will be great, but that Ephraim would surpass him.

The key to understanding this narrative lies in the names of the two brothers. Menasheh was given his name because “G‑d made me forget... the totality of my father’s house.” Menasheh refers to a Jew who continually reminds himself that he does not belong in the land that he lives, that his true home is “his father’s house” in Eretz Yisrael. True, “his father’s house” may be forgotten and in practice, he may know little about it, but he knows that is his home. That distinguishes him, setting him apart from the people among whom he lives.

Ephraim was given his name because “G‑d made me fruitful in the land of my oppression.” He is conscious that he is in “the land of my oppression,” but that does not bother him. Instead, he is “fruitful,” transforming the darkness of that environment into light, using the elements of the land in which he lives to further advance the Torah and its mitzvos.

For this reason, Jacob gave Ephraim the greater blessing, for he realized that the ultimate intent is to make the exile itself shine. If the only point of the exile was to recall our previous situation, then G‑d would not have sent us there. He sent us because there is an advantage that can be gained from the exile itself. Using its elements for a spiritual purpose brings the G‑dliness latent within them into expression. This is the purpose of the Jews being sent into exile and it is Ephraim who brings that purpose into realization.

On the other hand, there is a point in Joseph’s highlighting the virtues of Menasheh. When can Ephraim be successful in transforming the darkness of exile into light? When he knows that he has a brother Menasheh who continually reminds him of his Jewish identity and roots. On his own, Ephraim could be swallowed up by the exile; after all, he fits in. Menasheh makes him conscious that he is there for a purpose and that facilitates the accomplishment of that purpose.

On a consummate level, we must carry out the Divine service of both Menasheh and Ephraim. We start our day with prayer and study, connecting to our Jewish identity, the service of Menasheh. We then set out to accomplish our daily activities, carrying out the service of Ephraim and transforming darkness into light.

Looking to the Horizon

The concluding passage of this week’s Torah reading — which is also the concluding passage of the entire Book of Genesis — recounts how Joseph tells his brothers: “I am dying. G‑d will certainly remember you and will take you up from this land to the land that He swore [to give] Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Joseph as making it clear to his brothers that regardless of the positive achievements one can achieve while living in exile, it is still exile. It is not one’s natural place and it is not one’s ultimate place. It is merely a temporary dwelling. Obviously, while there, we must use everything we encounter for a Divine purpose as stated above, but that is not who we are or where we really belong.

This certainly applies in the present age when we are on the threshold of the ultimate Redemption and indeed, in the process of crossing that threshold. We must be aware of the temporary nature of our stay in exile and the ultimate purpose of the exile: that we refine the world and prepare it for the redemption.