Sermon: Vayechi: Be Like Ephraim and Manasseh

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 12 January 2012

I spent a good few years of my earlier life as a cub-scout and then a fully fledged scout – keeping sufficient enthusiasm for scouting that I even joined a venture scout unit.  My cub scout pack was based at my school in Harrow, but the scout troop was something rather different.  It was a Jewish scout troop – the 9th Pinner.  We were based at Pinner United Synagogue – where also there was the the 10th Pinner Jewish guide troop.

Now I don’t know whether all Jewish scout troops were like this and I am sure that the 11th Golders Green here at Alyth was made of stronger stuff in its 70 years of life – but although we rather enjoyed camping – meaning lots of dehydrated soya mince so that we could keep Kosher in the woods – we were not really into a lot of the other backwoods kind of things that more conventional scout troops engaged in.  We were not very interested in learning how to tie knots, nor were we into whittling with our scout knives.  We didn’t want to bivouac among the creepy crawlies and nor did we want to hike, or march in parades.

No our favourite activity which we did with great gusto each year was to get together and perform a gang show – we were all entertainers and actors manqué. Indeed one of our troop ended up as an adult in a world famous pop group as guitarist and another is the current editor of the Jewish Chronicle and a regular TV news interviewee.

We put a lot of effort into our gang shows.  Ours were rather schmaltzy.  I remember in particular one number in one of these gang shows that we did together with the 10th Pinner Jewish guides – we all learnt to sing songs from Fiddler on the Roof.

So I ask you to picture the scene.  Twenty or so Jewish scouts in uniform, Twenty or so Jewish guides in uniform – on the Bimah of Pinner United Synagogue with a hall full of adoring parents and grandparents singing the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof – taking the Tevye and his wife’s parts alternately –  “may the lord protect and defend you – may you be deserving of praise – may you come to be in Israel a shining name”

Then there was the line “May you be like Ruth and like Esther” – which Tevye in the film directs at his five daughters.  I wonder where the line came from.  You might assume that it is from our liturgy – part of the real traditional blessing of daughters from the traditional Shabbat Evening at home liturgy.shiur.  But its not.

In Seder Ha Tefillot, our prayerbook there are a number of home rituals for Shabbat, which is why I wish that every home in our congregation possessed a copy of the book.  They begin on page 435 of the book and include the Kiddush for a Shabbat Evening – welcoming the Shabbat at home.  This lovely ritual includes a parental blessing – which uses the blessing familiar I am sure to virtually all of us – May God bless you and keep you – in the fiddler on the roof song “may the Lord Protect and defend you”.  It includes the traditional blessing where the girls are compared to prominent biblical characters – thing is this is not actually may you be like Ruth and like Esther.  Instead as many of you will know it is actually “may you be like Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel and Leah.”

But I guess that that real traditional Friday night blessing would not have fitted the scanning of the line in the Fiddler  on the Roof Sabbath Prayer – so the writer of the lyrics, Sheldon Harnick, reluctant to choose just two of the women from the blessing substituted “May you be like Ruth and like Eshter”.

Of course it makes great sense to pray that our daughters be like the matriarchs who founded our Jewish religion – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah were the women without whom Judaism would never have existed – they overcame great trials in their lives and in the words of the “Artsroll Siddur” commentary on the service “surmounted infertility and other distress to become the mothers of the nation” (p344) – we Reform Jews include their names in the Avot, our prayer in every one of our services where we remember our history.

So you might assume, if you didn’t know otherwise that what we would pray for boys as counterpart on Shabbat Evening is that they be like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  But that is not the traditional wording.  Rather the traditional blessing for boys asks “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”.  It is a direct quotation from our Torah portion today where Jacob says, “in you shall Israel bless saying “may you be like Ephraim and Manasseh” in the episode just before the part of the portion which Izzy read for us today where the dying Jacob blesses his grandchildren preceding giving his blessing to each of his sons.

What did these two sons of Joseph do to deserve to be for thousands of years the example to which Jewish boys are asked to measure up?  Eprhaim and Menassah were the sons of Joseph, born to his wife Asenath, the daughter of Poti Phera the Egyptian preist of On.  Menassah was actually the first born son and in midrash is portrayed often as Joseph’s right hand man – the one who found the “stolen cup placed by Joseph” in Benjamin’s bag, who came and told Joseph that his father was ill in order that the Jacob would be able to give his final blessing.

However the order that Jacob, their grandfather blesses them, raising their status to equivalent to  that of his own sons and that they are subsequently referred to whenever the two names are quoted elsewhere in the bible is Ephraim and Manasseh.  This may be because later in the history of the Jewish people the tribe named for or descended from Eprhaim became rather more prominent than that named for Manasseh.  Both were tribes based in the northern half of Israel – centred in the Hill Country between the river Jordan and whose territory ended short of the coastal plain of Israel.  Joshua was descended from Ephraim and Gideon from Manasseh.  But the tribe of Eprhaim’s ability to conquer the territory of the other tribes meant that from the second half of the eighth century BCE their name becomes figurative in the bible for the whole of the Northern tribes of Israel.  When Isaiah prophesies in the name of God – “how can I give you up Ephraim” – he means all of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel.

But of the lives of the original Ephraim and Manasseh we have precious little detail in the Torah or elsewhere in the Bible – nothing like the information that we pass down about Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel and Leah. Clearly we bless our boys to be like Eprhaim and Menasseh because that’s what it says in the Torah – but what is the significance of this tradition?

Rabbi Elimelech of Dinov suggested that the reason why is because of what happens when Jacob comes to bless them.  Jacob puts the younger Eprhaim before Menasseh but they don’t argue with one another.  Seeing the first generation of his family getting on with each other (remember the struggle between Joseph and his brothers that we heard about today, between Jacob himself and Esau and between Isaac and Ishmael) Jacob declares that these two brothers who are not broughus with each other are to be role models for all time!

There is another interpretation of the choice of Ephraim and Menassah as the role models for the future which is especially relavant for Jews in our time.   We are Jews who live like Ephraim and Meanasseh did – as part of a small minority within a majority culture.  The two of them were brought up amidst the grandeur of the Egyptian courts with all of the attractions of the culture around them.  We too practice our Judaism amongst a prevailing secular culture dedicated to the comfort of the individual, consumer satisfaction and entertainment on hand at all times.   But here we are in Synagogue celebrating God and the passing of Izzy into a Jewish community which will demand responsibility from her as well as providing so much to her.

Ephraim and Manasseh lived all of their lives in Egypt – in the Diaspora so to speak – but their grandfather knew that their Jewish identity was secure through their upbringing – enough so to name two of the tribes of Israel for them.  They were the first children of the Diaspora who chose Judaism.  But there is more in their Torah story of great relevance to today’s Jewish community.

Not only were Eprhaim and Manasseh Joseph’s children brought up to be Jews in Pharaoh’s Egypt, they were also the children of an interfaith marriage.  Their mother was Asenath, daughter of Potiphera the priest of On.  As the Torah tells it she never became a Jew.  Though Midrash converts her instantly to Judaism and even suggests she was the daughter of Joseph’s sister Dinah (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 35,37), the written Torah says no such thing.

Professor Barry Kosmin, the past director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research estimates from his studies that today’s intermarriage rate has risen to about 50% – even more if you include those who cohabit and never marry.   Fifty years ago around 450,000 people in Britain identified as Jews, the figure is now nearer 300,000.  The fall is not just related to intermarriage:  emigration and a wider lack of faith have played their part.  Yet if these trends continue Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University writes: “the UK’s Jewish population will decline to 240,000 in 2020, 180,000 in 2050 and 140,000 in 2080.”  But this is what will happen if and only if we fail to do what Jacob did.  This is what will happen if we fail to bring children of intermarried unions into Judaism – if we do not allow marrying out to become marrying in.

Every Jewish denomination needs to find its way to make more Eprhaims and Manassehs – the children of Joseph with his non-Jewish partner brought up in Egypt at the heart of the court.  In  them was successfully preserved Jewish identity and the ability to pass on Judaism to their future generations.  For all of us it is time to open up and to ensure that the full Jewish experience is offered to all children who could be Jews whether the children of Jewish mothers of fathers.

In Liberal Judaism and American Reform Judaism this is done by a principle of equilineality – whereby the children of a Jewish parent who are brought up as Jews are granted full Jewish status by their upbringing and acts of confirmation of their Judaism such as Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  In British Reform Judaism the children of a Jewish mother are straightforwardly considered Jewish and those of a Jewish father can convert to Judaism in infancy if their parents agree to raise them as Jews and their mother studies Judaism to understand what this will mean.   On the way their children are thoroughly welcome to participate in synagogue and Jewish life so that they learn its joy very early in life.
We need here at Alyth to be truly proud that this Synagogue and many others are places which carry on the heritage of the ten tribes founded by Jewish couples and that of Joseph who successfully brought up Jewish children with his Egyptian wife – and we need to tell those who feel that they are now beyond the Jewish community that there is a warm welcome home for them here and at any Synagogue.

May our children indeed be like Ephraim, Manasseh, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.