The Twin Dangers of Exile

Contact Editor
Rabbi Josh Gerstein,

Rabbi Josh Gerstein
Rabbi Josh Gerstein

According to Jewish tradition, there is a well-known custom among the Jewish people to bless their sons and daughters on Friday night before reciting Kiddush. For many, the Friday night blessing is a moment when time stops, and where parents and children bond over the unique and incomparable joy that is the Shabbat experience.

In the case of the blessing over a son, the beginning statement is a verse whose source is found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayechi “May God make you like Efrayim and Menashe.” (Genesis 48:20) Over the generations, this blessing has become as much a part of the Shabbat table experience as the kiddush wine and warm challot.

On this blessing, many scholars have asked the obvious question: Why do we bless our children to be like Efrayim and Menashe? True, they were righteous individuals, but why from the annals of Torah personalities -- from our Patriarchs to Moses, from King David to Elijah the Prophet -- were these two seemingly random figures specifically chosen for the Friday night blessing? 

Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, in his work “Eretz Yisrael in the Parsha,” explains the reason that Menashe and Efrayim are especially appropriate individuals to be mentioned in the Friday night blessing. He writes, “Efrayim and Menashe were the first Jews born and raised on foreign soil, yet they managed to safeguard their traditions and retain their sanctity. Therefore they are the most fitting role models for us to emulate.” The message, therefore, that the Friday night blessing imparts to the next generation is the centrality and importance of retaining one’s Jewish identity even while dwelling in a dominant culture so far from home.

While we can understand this ideal, the matter of practical application is one that is easier said than done. How does one, with all of the outside influences encroaching on the Jewish home, maintain a distinctly Jewish character?

According to Rav Lichtman, the verses in Parshat Miketz read a few weeks ago which relate the naming of Joseph’s sons hold the key to unlocking this fundamental question. The verses state, “Joseph called the name of the firstborn son Menashe, for he said, God has made me forget all my toil and all the hardships of my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Efrayim, for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”(Genesis 41:51-52)

Rav Lichtman explains that from the fact that Joseph considered Egypt “the land of my affliction” even though he had risen to a position of second to the king, showed his understanding and internalization that the true home of a Jew is only in the Land of Israel. It was this outlook on life, which he passed on to his own children in their very names, which enabled them to withstand the difficulties of the exile and remain there unscathed.

And while the above is an insightful and inspiring explanation, there still is one question that remains -- why did Joseph have to be so uncomfortable in the land of Egypt, to the point where he felt that it was “the land of his affliction”? Wouldn’t a lesser degree of discomfort also have achieved the same goal?

I believe that there are two basic reasons why Joseph felt and needed to consider Egypt “the land of his affliction.” The first is that he understood very well the meaning and true nature of Galut—that no matter where on Earth exile takes the Jewish people, it is not an ideal but a punishment. No matter how rich the surroundings; no matter how exotic the scenery; no matter how tolerant the neighbors; unless settled in the Land of Israel, the wandering Jew must remember that he is not yet home.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden, in the introduction to his siddur Beit Yaackov, writes a fascinating piece on the unfortunate status quo of the Jew in exile. “…Jews genuinely believe that by living peacefully outside the land, they have found a different Land of Israel and a different Jerusalem.”  

This message is further highlighted by an idea expressed by Rabbi Moshe Sofer (d.1839), one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century. He writes, “One who builds a stone (permanent) house on order to expand his home outside the Land without giving thought to returning to the Land of Israel will… not be protected from danger when living in that house, since he is thereby extending his stay outside of the Land” (Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 138)

By naming his sons Menashe and Efrayim, Joseph was safeguarding himself from the Talmudic concept “Shtika KeHoda -- Silence is to Acquiesce.” The only way in which he, a man who was among the most privileged and powerful in all of Egypt, could show that he did not consent on his own volition to live there was by viewing his sojourning in the land as an affliction of the greatest kind.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, I believe that the reason for the necessity of Joseph’s deep discomfort can be found in the explanation of a very strongly worded statement by the Sages in Tractate Avodah Zarah 8a. The Talmud writes, “The people of Israel who are outside the Land worship false gods in purity.” B.Z.

Meyer, in the book “To Dwell in the Palace-Perspectives on Eretz Yisroel,” quotes Rav Avigdor Miller who offers a fascinating insight into this above statement of our Sages which also sheds light on our original question. Rav Miller explains, “Consider the most insulated religious Jewish community in the U.S…The pious, God fearing Jew…works six days and remembers the seventh day to keep it holy, as he is commanded. Nevertheless, despite his sincerest efforts, he cannot claim that his Sunday is the same as his Monday…That suggestion of specialness on the first day of the week is foreign to Torah…it has nothing to do with us –only with the land we are living in. It is a form of Avoda Zara.” 

According to Rabbi Avigdor Miller, just by living outside of the Land of Israel in a host country with a dominant culture whose values are so different to our own, it has become inevitable that certain seemingly harmless foreign practices have been incorporated and inculcated into the life of the Diaspora Jew. And it is in that kernel of innocent practice that Avoda Zara creeps into the Jewish home.

This is the reason Joseph named his sons Menashe and Efrayim, serving as a constant reminder of the need to regard Egypt, or any other land of exile, as “the land of his affliction.” Any lesser feeling would not be powerful enough to combat the sense of serenity of his environment, nor the steady, silent and seemingly harmless influences of the Egyptian culture from affecting him and his family.

This is why the Jewish people have had the custom to bless their sons every Friday evening to follow in the path of Efrayim and Menashe, so that they too can stay true to their roots and not fall prey to the pitfalls of life outside the Land of Israel.