In a dramatic moment in this week’s Parshat Vayechi Jacob summons Joseph with his sons Ephraim and Menashe to receive a final blessing before his passing (Genesis 48:20): “So he blessed them on that day, saying: “…With you Israel will bless, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.” In later centuries it became customary for fathers to bless their sons using these words on every Shabbat, on Yom Kippur and sometimes on other occasions as well.
Hence, the question is: why are Ephraim and Menashe so special, deserving of such a blessing? One answer is that they are the first second-generation Diaspora Hebrews, born in Egypt, which was the greatest and most prosperous and advanced empire of the ancient world. At that time, Egypt was also clearly tolerant and accepting toward the Hebrews in its midst. Furthermore, the two sons were brought up in the circles of the royal palace, when their father rose to the greatest possible heights of affluence and influence.
Nonetheless, Ephraim and Menashe would remain a part of the Jewish People, which existed as a distinct community within Egyptian society. They were able, and thus came to symbolize the ability to preserve what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls Jewish ‘otherness’. Rabbi Sacks frames otherness as a condition that is essential not only for Jewish survival throughout the centuries, outside of the Land of Israel and among the nations, but also for making the unique Jewish contribution to humanity.
The Hebrew community in ancient Egypt was the first of many great Jewish Diasporas, all of which began with a trickle of a handful and ultimately grew in numbers and rose to significant material success and often outsized influence. This happened in places far and wide such as Persia, Poland, Spain and Germany for periods that may have lasted from decades to centuries. All of these societies and many others offered their Jews freedom of religion, ability to incorporate their communities, relative security and the opportunity to prosper. Unfortunately, without exception, these ‘golden periods’ ended in slow decline or a massive catastrophe.
These periods of Jewish prosperity, represent the big paradox of Jewish life in the Diasporas. On the one hand, there was the ability to assimilate by marrying out, to integrate into society and to embrace local culture and religion. Indeed, many Jews would pursue that path, and it is believed that ultimately so did eighty percent of the Jews of Egypt, as did eighty percent of the Jews of Spain. On the other hand, that very societal tolerance allowed Jews to preserve and develop their unique ways, which often led to breakthrough and long-lasting ideas, customs and community institutions.
In other words, tolerant and accepting societies have challenged our communities but also offered us tremendous opportunities for progress. In its journey through the Diaspora over millennia, the Jewish People has withstood many periods of physical threats and affliction, but also transcended multiple periods of acceptance and prosperity.
This is evidently the case in the United States of America, which is the home for what is probably the greatest, most affluent and influential Jewish community in history. In recent decades, the USA has been fully accepting of its Jews in all echelons of society, to a point where Jews are probably the most influential minority relative to its size. So much so that in the last Presidential elections, both candidates had Jewish in-laws and grandchildren. This openness allows for very high levels of assimilation and intermarriage often estimated at seventy percent in some sectors. While intermarriage and assimilation obviously represent a significant challenge for American Jewry, it is also important to acknowledge that
American society houses bewildering richness of unique Jewish ways across the entire religious spectrum, from flourishing Haredi communities to a full range of progressive ones. Unfortunately, it is often the case that those who insist on framing the challenge of assimilation as an existential threat to the future of Diaspora Jewry fail to appreciate the flip side of the story: the evident cultural and religious prosperity of American Jewish communities that enhances their longevity and seeds the Jewish future.
For those living in Israel, there is even a bigger message in the story of Ephraim and Menashe. Israeli leaders often dismiss the future of Diaspora Jewry, which they view as spiritually and demographically unsustainable. This outlook, fueled by Zionism’s historical negation of Diaspora Jewish life, is in fact inconsistent with Jewish history. This outlook ignores the remarkable vitality of world Jewry within and across the Diaspora, failing to acknowledge that Jewish society has developed mechanisms to ensure its ‘survival’ not only through crisis but also among welcoming societies that offer personal and communal freedoms and abundance. These mechanisms emerged in Egypt with Ephraim and Menashe, were developed over centuries of Diasporic existence and prevail today around the Jewish world, and especially in the USA.
Hence, the blessing of Jacob to his grandchildren is as relevant to Diaspora Jews today as it was about thirty-five centuries ago in Egypt. Namely, being like Ephraim and Menashe means knowing how to be full members of a welcoming society yet to remain special in our ways.
Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Group and Author of Flexigidity: the Secret of Jewish Adaptability.