Self-fulfilling prophecies are often crucial to the birth of a people. When Jews bless their sons on Friday night, they say, “May you be like Ephraim and like Menashe”. Why not “like Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yakov”? After all, we bless our daughters that they be like the four matriarch’s: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, so why not bless our sons that they be like the patriarchs? Why Ephraim and Menashe?
It’s been said that the first chapter of B’reishit (Genesis) contains polemics against just about every worldview common in the ancient world. One of those worldviews is the notion of destiny, that a person’s fate is written in the stars. B’reishit puts the emphasis from the very beginning on human free will.
The Egyptian experience, not as a historical fact, but as a deeply-felt cultural motif, penetrates and pervades all subsequent Jewish law. The commandment to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times in the Biblical text, and serves as the basis of derivation of countless later customs and laws. The relevance of the Exodus story goes beyond mere factual truth; its true significance lies in what we’ve built on it and how it has molded us as a people who, in every generation, have made it our own.
The Exodus from Egypt is a story of miracles from beginning to end. But the greatest miracle of all is hidden in plain sight. God tells Moshe that Pharoah will not listen to him, and will inevitably bring about the next escalation, until finally, the results can no longer be reasoned away. By highlighting the institutionalization of the slavery, the eventual emancipation is shown for the miracle that it is.
Parashat Shelah is the story of a spectacular failure–a failure of nerve. It is also the story of mob hysteria, illustrating how a frightened majority can undermine the will of a determined minority, to the detriment of an entire generation.
This week’s Parashah, though couched in a terminology that may seem unfamiliar to modern ears, deals with issues that are topical for every age–issues of guilt and redress, wrong-doing and atonement. What is especially striking is that these issues are first brought up in the Torah in the context of unwitting transgression. The focus throughout this first parasha of Vayikra is on mistakes and cases of doubt. There is an important message in this: we seldom know for sure if what we’re doing is wrong. And yet, only one who can acknowledge responsibility for his past actions is in a position to change his future actions.
“With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh,’ ”
And so it is to this day; on Erev Shabbat, it is customary for fathers to bless their sons with this blessing. But why? Why do we ask that God make them like Ephraim and like Menashe? Why not like Yehuda, from whom Israel’s kings were descended? Or like Levy, from whom the priests are descended? What is special about Yoseph’s sons?
Sefer B’reishit (the Book of Genesis) takes us into a frame of reference that is often inaccessible to us nowadays. It leads us into the deepest layers of human consciousness, before we were recognizably human. While paleontology can show us to ourselves only from the outside, B’reishit takes us inside our own seminal moments and shows us to ourselves from the position of what might have been.