I have always had an affinity for my namesake, the biblical Yoseif/ Joseph. But it’s hard to know what to make of this character, since we rarely know what he’s thinking. An exception is his response to the birth of his sons (Genesis 41:50-52):
Joseph had two sons before the famine years came, borne to him by Asenath, daughter of Poti Phera, priest of On. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh (Me-nasheh) – ‘because God has made me forget (nasheh) all my travail and all of my father’s house.’ He named his second son Ephraim – ‘Because God has made me fruitful (p’ri) in the land of my suffering.’
At first glance, Joseph’s declarations seem contradictory. If Manasseh’s name indicates how relieved he is to forget his past, that would seem to indicate that Joseph views Egypt as his home. But in the next line, we hear that Joseph, even as he rules over the land of the pharaohs, sees it as hostile territory.
So let’s take a second look, particularly at Manasseh. Using the term “nasheh” to denote forgetting is profoundly bizarre, as the usual term is “shakhach.” Indeed, Joseph himself uses this term just a few verses earlier (v. 30), “All the satiety in Egypt will be forgotten (nishkach).” It’s also the final word of the previous chapter, in which the cup-bearer “forgets” Joseph after he gets out of prison, and so Joseph languishes in the dungeon for two more years.
Where does the term nasheh come from then? It only appears one other time in Genesis, 32:32:
The Israelites therefore do not eat the gid ha-nasheh on the hip joint to this very day. This is because [the stranger] touched Jacob’s thigh on the gid ha-nasheh.
This verse is the first time the term “Israelite” is used, and it describes the first dietary law: not to eat the sciatic nerve (gid) of an animal, where Jacob was injured when he wrestled a mysterious assailant. Thus, Joseph gives his firstborn a name which recalls the first rule of keeping kosher.
What about Ephraim? That name recalls the earliest mitzva in the Torah, “Be fruitful (p’ru) and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), which the School of Shammai interprets as having two boys (Mishna, Yevamot 6:6).
Thus, Joseph picks names which remind him of the commandments given to his forebears. Even in exile, in the land of his suffering, these are the “road signs” (as in Jeremiah 31:21, see Sifrei Ekev 43) which connect him to the land he identifies with, to the culture he claims, to the territory he will return to, even if only in death. This is the same Joseph who declares to the cup-bearer in jail (Genesis 40:15): “For I have surely been stolen from the land of the Hebrews.”
If we think about it, there is no contradiction between the naming of Manasseh and the naming of Ephraim. After the severe trauma Joseph undergoes at the hands of his brothers, he indeed wants to put the experience of his father’s house behind him. At the same time, Egypt remains not his home, but the land of his suffering. Joseph identifies as an Israelite, but not a son of Jacob. He keeps the traditions of his faith, but he cannot forgive his family.
We know that Joseph’s story has a happy ending, but we must not elide the decades of suffering which he undergoes. As a survivor of abuse, he has to forge a new identity. Eventually, this allows him to reconcile with his brothers and with his father. But the trauma never goes away. It is Manasseh and Ephraim who become tribes alongside their uncles, but Joseph himself never returns to the status of his youth, as another son of Jacob.