It’s All in the Name
“Before the years of famine, two sons were born to Yosef, through Osnat the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. And Yosef named the firstborn, Menashe: ‘For God, said he, has made me forget (‘nashani’) all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And he named the second, Efrayim: ‘For God has caused me to be fruitful (‘hifrani’) in the land of my affliction.” (Bereishit 41:50-52)
As we know, names have important significance throughout the Tenach, and they are often used to describe a reality at a given time, or a character trait. We are therefore shocked when we hear the name that Yosef chooses for his firstborn, Menashe.
Menashe seems to have been named in light of the fact that Yosef has finally been able to leave his past behind. He is gracious to the Almighty for helping him forget his father’s house. In normal circumstances, we may have understood such gratitude, but Yosef’s father was Ya’akov, and Ya’akov represented the Abrahamic colony. Surely, despite the ‘sibling rivalry,’ he would not be particularly excited about cutting ties with his illustrious family? Moreover, even if he felt it necessary to sever his family ties, why ‘celebrate’ the fact through his son’s name for the rest of his life?
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains:
“… ‘Nashani’ is usually translated as ‘forget’ – but if one was to translate the verse as such, whose heart does not turn within him at this thought? Yosef names his firstborn because God has allowed him to forget his father and his family. That certainly would most easily solve the question why Yosef had not bothered about his father for such a long time – simply because Yosef had no heart.
Fortunately, however, ‘forget’ is not the only possible translation of ‘nashani.’ The root ‘nashe’ also means ‘a creditor,’ thus ‘nashani’ can just as well mean: God has made my misfortunes and my family into creditors. What had previously seemed to me misfortune and mishandling has been Divinely engineered in order to lead me to my greatest joy, so that I am deeply indebted to my misfortune and my family.”
The Malbim accepts the translation of ‘nashani’ as ‘forget’, but he interprets the verse in a more positive tone:
“From the manner in which Yosef chose to name his son, we can see how righteous he really was. By thus naming his son, he ensured that he would never forget the bad times, however good life would become for him. This is the way of true people; it is also for the exact same reason that we are commanded to eat matzah and maror together on Seder night, in order to remember the bad times during our celebration of redemption, because it is only through the bad times that we make it to redemption. Yosef thus named his firstborn ‘Menashe,’ concerned that over time, he may forget his toils and troubles in his father’s house.”
Rav Yosef Nechemia Kornitzer, the last Rav of Crakow before the Second World War, suggests that while he was in exile, Yosef could not be at peace. He was far from his father and from his home environment. He therefore lived off memories of the past. For days, weeks, months, and years, Yosef had stood alone, his only strength coming from whatever he could remember of his childhood days in the shadow of his father and grandfather. However, now that Yosef had children of his own, he could cease living in the past; he could himself go forward and create a future Beit Yisrael. Thus, Yosef thanks the Almighty for his children; he no longer needs the memories of his father’s house, for he will create new memories of his own.
To fully understand this idea, we must summarize Rav Yosef Nechemia’s introduction:
The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) tells us that a person’s inclination attacks him every day, even in the most positive of environments, but the attacks increase if a person is in a bad environment surrounded by evil people.
Such a person would be in even greater danger if he became materially successful in such an atmosphere. He would then simultaneously be exposed to all of the negative aspects of his society, whilst being constantly told by his inclination that his wealth was due to his efforts and his efforts alone. In most normal scenarios, such a combination of environmental and material influences could very well be a deadly threat to the soul.
So what is one to do in such a predicament? How can the righteous believer withstand the influences of wealth and promiscuity against all odds?
The battle plan must be to fight each of these influences separately, but simultaneously. In order to neutralize his ego in monetary matters, he would need to remember his days of poverty. Thus he would be constantly humbled, knowing his origins, and aware that he could easily return there. His wealth is not really his, but a gift from the Almighty; it is not his strength and his talent that has brought him material comfort, but rather it has come from God, and the Almighty can just as easily take it away from him.
In order to deal with the negative environment, he should constantly remind himself of his history; his fathers and forefathers. Yosef was on the verge of submitting to the wiles of Potiphar’s wife, when he saw the image of his father before him. This gave him the required strength to resist temptation. However, this need to draw inspiration from the past is only necessary when a person is fighting his battles alone. Once that person has children of his own, he has more reason to be strong and careful in his threatening surroundings.
Every parent wants the very best for their offspring, but this can only be achieved through education and personal example. Indeed, the first paragraph of the Shema instructs us to teach our children by speaking Torah “when we are sitting at home or walking on the road.” How do we teach our children? By our behavior at home and in the street. Our children see us at home every day; we can direct them again and again but they will ultimately be educated by watching us, not by what we tell them; by our own personal example.
Yosef found himself in a foreign country surrounded by evil influences. At first he was a poor slave, but in time he became a man of great importance, second only to Pharaoh. He was faced with two battles; the battle against his ego that would constantly nag away in an effort to convince him that he was source of his own success, and the battle against a people whose only purpose in life was to excel in their material wealth.
As we have mentioned above, Yosef had fallen back on his rich spiritual past to aid him in his battle against bad influences. However, now that Menashe is born, Yosef has a parental duty to educate his child in the right way, in the ways of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Yosef was no longer looking after himself; he was building a family, and he would henceforth find it ‘easier’ in his battles against the environment. Thus when Menashe is born, Yosef thanks the Almighty, for enabling him to ‘forget’ his father’s house; he will no longer need to recall distant memories to strengthen himself religiously. Because once Hashem gives him a son, he is inherently strengthened by the responsibility of protection and education. He no longer fears the dangers of the environment for himself.
When Efrayim is born, Yosef says “For God has caused me to be fruitful (‘hifrani’) in the land of my affliction.” Yosef publicizes the fact that he takes no credit whatsoever for his material situation – ‘it is the Almighty who has given me my wealth.’
By understanding the names that Yosef gave his children, we can understand the challenges that preoccupied him in Egypt. Maybe because of this, and the fact that he continued the derech of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov against all odds, despite the surrounding pressures, Chazal call him Yosef HaTzaddik.
We all know, perhaps too well, that the battles fought by Yosef are no different to the battles we face today. As the world develops more advanced technology, Western Man is becoming more and more self-confident. It is worrying to note that religion is at its most popular in countries that are generally not so scientifically advanced, or in communities that are poor. This need not be the case. Man can surge forward in the world of science and technology and still believe in God. Man can use his intellect to the full, but that need not trigger atheism! And it certainly should not trigger a presumptuous and misplaced self-confidence.
When life was harder to live; when humankind was slightly less accomplished in its understanding of the world, perhaps it was easier to believe. But just as Yosef, the successful Prime Minister, never faltered in his belief of the Almighty despite his unparalleled power and success, so we too must aim to achieve our human potential whilst simultaneously growing in our connection with Hashem. We must learn to appreciate Him, not only when we are at the door of despair, but even when we are on top of the world. The concept of ‘Efrayim’ – to never lose our heads and to always remember that we can never really succeed without God’s help – is essential for every believer.
We also face a Western world whose value system is often diametrically opposed to the moral and ethical standards of Torat Yisrael. Once again, we look to Yosef HaTzaddik for our inspiration; we look to the concept of ‘Menashe.’ We must aim to draw strength and conviction from our rich history and from the absolute moral guidelines set out for us by the Torah. And we must also know that through building strong families, through educating our children, we ultimately educate and strengthen ourselves.
Perhaps this is why we bless our children on Friday night. We pray that they emulate Efrayim and Menashe, and succeed in overcoming the two very contemporary battles that their names represent.