A pessimist was asked, what is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist. To which he replied: "An optimist says, 'we've hit the lowest point, the situation can't get any worse.' A pessimist says, 'No, it can still get worse.'"
The story of the two brothers Menasheh and Ephraim competing over the same blessings fits well with the many cases of sibling rivalry depicted throughout the book of Genesis. This, perhaps, would explain why Joseph, himself a victim of extreme sibling animosity, was so sensitive to what his father was about to do with his own two children.
The story, in brief, goes like this (1): Prior to Jacob's death, his son Joseph brings his own two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim, to be blessed by their grandfather.
Joseph places his older son, Menasheh, at Jacob's right side and his younger son, Ephraim, at Jacob's left, so that the older boy would receive the more intense blessing flowing through Jacob's right hand, and the younger would receive the left-handed blessing.
What happened next came as a shock to Joseph: Jacob crossed his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim's head and his left hand on Menasheh's head. Joseph attempted to protest, even lifting his father's right hand and restoring it to its "rightful" position on Menasheh's head.
"Not so, my father!" Joseph exclaimed, "for this is the firstborn; put your right hand upon his head." But Jacob refused, telling Joseph, "I know, my son, I know. He, too, will become a nation; he, too, will be great. But his younger brother shall be even greater than he (2)."
Yet, something seems amiss in the story. If an oldest child possesses a unique burden of responsibility or a spiritual prominence and thus deserves to receive the primary blessing, why was Menasheh, the oldest son, excluded from this blessing? And if Ephraim indeed replaced his older brother and assumed Menasheh's prominence or responsibility, why did Joseph expect Menasheh to receive the right-handed blessing (3)? And why was it that Menasheh - not Ephraim - was the first born child?
Joseph: A Life Of Adversity
Joseph, we know, lived a life replete with pain and abuse. At the age of eight he was orphaned -- his mother, Rachel, died while giving birth to his baby brother, Benjamin (she was thirty-six at the time of her death (4)).
When Joseph was a teen his brothers kidnapped him, threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery to Arab merchants en route to Egypt. Once there, they sold him as a slave to an Egyptian officer (5).
The Midrash relates (6) how Joseph, being taken from Israel to Egypt, was weeping uncontrollably, and the Arabs were whipping him. When they passed Bethlehem, where his mother Rachel was buried nine years earlier, Joseph ran to his mother's grave and threw himself down on it. "Mother, mother," Joseph cried, "why did you abandon me; mother, mother, please rise from your sleep and see my pain."
In Egypt, he was falsely accused of attempting to violate his master's wife. He was convicted and sentenced to a twelve-year prison term. From the age of eighteen until the age of thirty, Joseph lived in a dungeon without a single visitor or friend in the world (7).
One can only imagine how much bitterness and resentment such a man would ordinarily harbor in his heart. Yet, upon reading the biography of Joseph recorded in detail in the Bible, one never gets the impression of a rough and hateful human being. Quite the contrary, Joseph is portrayed as a delightful and inspired young man, filled with a zest for life, a love of the world and boundless charm.
Joseph's heart never becomes -- as we would expect it to become -- numb and stone-like. In fact, among all of the great figures of the Bible, nobody is portrayed to be as vulnerable and impressionable as Joseph. In the biblical narrative about him, we watch him weep excessively on eight occasions (8).
The Torah's portrait of Joseph leaves us with the impression of a man who, coupled with an iron will and tremendous ambition, remains as tender and innocent as a young child cradled in the warm embrace of his mother.
But how does one retain a sense of innocence and cheerfulness in the face of such demoralizing circumstances? How does one remain a happy human being when one has been robbed of the love, nurture, warmth and freedom that is the basic right of every human on earth?
Two Paths Of Healing
It was Joseph's two children, Menasheh and Ephraim, who came to represent for him his personal triumph over adversity. Despite his horrific past, Joseph chose the path of love and faith rather than the perhaps justified attitude of cynicism and distrust. Joseph chose to get married and to bring two lovely children into a world that has been so cruel to him (9). The names Joseph chose to give his children reflected his twofold source of strength that sustained him throughout the entire debacle.
The Hebrew name Menasheh denotes "forgetting." The Torah relates (10) that Joseph named his son so, "Because G-d has made me forget all my hardship and all of (the pain inflicted upon me by) my father's house."
The Hebrew name Ephraim denotes "growth and prosperity." Joseph named his second son so, "Because G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering (11)."
The birth of these two children and their respective names represented two stages in Joseph's triumphant effort to rise above the misery and abuse that had become his lot. These two stages can be defined as "transcendence" and "transformation."
In the first stage, a man in pain must learn to exercise his freedom to "forget," symbolized by Manasseh, the first child born to Joseph and his wife Asnas. This does not denote forgetfulness in the literal sense of the word as much as it expresses amnesia in its conceptual sense. One may never be able to totally forget a dark past, but through much inner toil one often possesses the capacity to liberate his or her self from its debilitating impacts on their psyche and behavior.
Every human being owns a luminous spark of G-dliness that grants him the power to transcend the emotional scars impressed upon him. No matter the nature of the external circumstances, a person always has the ability to unearth an inner sense of joy and trust that is the inherent lot of every human soul, but which may have been repressed for many years.
The Ultimate Purpose
Following this first major step, one may reach a far deeper level of growth, represented by Joseph's second son, Ephraim. In this stage, we need not anymore "forget" our dark history, but can rather look back at a challenging past and be grateful for it.
When we come to realize how the very challenges and stumbling blocks that caused us so much grief served as the catalysts for momentous growth, we are compelled to declare, "G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering!" The very soil of suffering has become a source of fruitfulness and depth unattainable without the challenges.
It is in the second stage, which is far more difficult to attain, that the ultimate purpose of pain and adversity is realized. Because as the kabbalah often explains, the reason we must experience setbacks in life is not only that we transcend them but that we transform them (12). When darkness is exploited to serve as fuel for light, it produces a light that has a splendor and depth, never to be found in ordinary light.
Therefore, although the path of Menasheh must precede the path of Ephraim (that's why he was the first born son and Joseph placed him on Jacob's right side), it is Ephraim who represents the ultimate objective of life's challenges and therefore needs to receive the greater blessing and more assistance from above. This is the meaning behind Jacob's words to Joseph: "Menasheh, too, will be great; but his younger brother shall be even greater than he."
For it was Ephraim who allowed Joseph to look back at his entire life and genuinely say, "Thank you G-d for giving me such a blessed life."
(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbat Vayechi, 5730 (December 27, 1969) and Shabbat Vayigash 5734 (December 22, 1973) (13)).
E-mail the author at: YYJ@Algemeiner.org
1) Genesis 48:1-19.
2) Ibid. 48: 18-19.
3) Indeed, throughout the Bible we often find the younger brother being the greater one, as was the case with Cain and Able, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his older brothers, Aaron and Moses, etc. But it seems difficult to assume that Joseph had no inkling whatsoever into the great potential existing in his younger son's soul, particularly taking into account that Joseph was a Tzaddik. On the contrary, it should have been he more than anybody else who should have been keenly sensitive to the greatness that may be the lot of the younger member of the family.
4) Genesis 35:18-19. See Seder Hadoros year 2208. According to other opinions, Rachel was forty-five at her death (see Seder Hadoros ibid.).
5) Genesis 37: 23-36.
6) Sefer Hayashar to Genesis Ibid.
7) Genesis 39:14-41:14. Rashi to Genesis 37:34.
8) Genesis 42:24; ibid. 43:30; 45:2; 45:14; 45:15; 46:29; 50:1; 50:17. Cf. Genesis 42:21 and source quoted in footnote #6.
9) Genesis 41:45; 41:50-52.
10) ibid. 41:51.
11) Ibid. 41:52.
12) If the purpose of life was merely to transcend the darkness, we could have achieved it far better by our souls remaining in the higher spiritual worlds. The reason for our souls decent into this world is not only to escape the darkness, but to transform it into light, converting pain into growth and obstacles into opportunities. This objective could be achieved only here below.
13) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 pp. 459-462; ibid. vol. 15 pp. 432-438; Sichos Kodesh 5734 pp. 210-212. - For an alternative English rendition of the Rebbe's 1969 address, see The Inside Story (VHH, N.Y., 1997) pp. 108-112.