A Russian-Israeli friend of mine living temporarily in Belarus told me on the phone recently about his young son’s utter enthrallment with the Christmas decorations in his city.
“Why didn’t we do this for Chanuka??” he asked. Their family had not made a big deal about Chanukah this year, my friend admitted. They lit their Chanukiah, but not much more.
My immediate response to him was – “So make a big deal about the next holiday!! On Tu b’Shvat and on Purim invite friends over, make a big meal, decorate the house!! Your kids shouldn’t miss the joy of Jewish holidays, just because they’re not in Israel! It all depends on you!”He agreed with me, and perhaps wondered why my reaction was so adamant. I think because my childhood was shaped by beautiful holiday memories, with the credit going to my creative parents, in a tiny Jewish community on the Jersey shore.
I remember distributing piles of Mishlochei Manot from the back of our station wagon every Purim, winning the Sukkah-Looking Contest almost every Sukkot (our Sukkah was built of real trees from the forest in our backyard!), and Grandpa Abe lining up all the grandchildren and distributing gelt at our Cousin Chanukah parties over the years.
After my Aliyah, my efforts to make hoopla on the holidays expanded to decorations, foods, songs and customs from Israel and inspiration from friends from all over the world.
The conversation with my friend in Belarus made me think about why we are taught to bless our kids to be like “Ephraim and Menashe” in this week’s Parasha. They are the first two brothers to be born and raised completely outside the land of Israel, disconnected from any monotheistic/Israelite community.
They are also the first Jewish children described explicitly in the Torah to have a close connection with their grandfather. Yaakov describes them as his own sons – like Reuven and Shimeon – and when blessing them, Rashi comments, he teaches Yosef that future generations should be blessed with the formula we know today: “God should bless you like Ephraim and Menashe.”
Yaakov spends his last years as a grandfather and great grandfather, albeit slightly far away in Goshen, after a long life of bitter family separation. Ephraim and Menashe directly inherit the love of the Land of their father and grandfather, whose dying requests are to be buried only in Eretz Yisrael.
Yosef and his wife Osnat – Dina’s daughter, according to the midrash – and later on grandfather Yaakov, imbue in Ephraim and Menashe such strong Jewish identities that their descendants merit to be redeemed from Egypt and receive an inheritance in the Land, many generations later.
Perhaps this is the essence of their blessing: that generations of families merit to stay together and maintain strong Jewish identities and love for Israel, even if temporarily in a culture not their own.
Twenty-five hundred years later, as an Olah who left her parents to come to Israel, the Friday night blessing over our children in my mind goes something like this:
May you be like Ephraim and Menashe. May your children grow up in the proximity of loving parents and grandparents. May their/our joyful embrace of Jewish tradition, wisdom, and values permeate your souls.
“May God lift up His face to you, and bring you peace!”
“יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם”