The drama of younger and older brothers, which haunts the book of Bereishith from Cain and Abel onwards, reaches a strange climax in the story of Joseph’s children. Jacob/Israel is nearing the end of his life. Joseph visits him, bringing with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. It is the only scene of grandfather and grandchildren in the book. Jacob asks Joseph to bring them near so that he can bless them. What follows next is described in painstaking detail:
Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh in his left hand towards Israel’s right, and brought them near him. But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn. . . . . When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.” He blessed them that day, saying:
“In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”
So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. (48: 13-14, 17-20).
It is not difficult to understand the care Joseph took to ensure that Jacob would bless the firstborn first. Three times his father had set the younger before the elder, and each time it had resulted in tragedy. He, the younger, had sought to supplant his elder brother Esau. He favoured the younger sister Rachel over Leah. And he favoured the youngest of his children, Joseph and Benjamin, over the elder Reuben, Shimon and Levi. The consequences were catastrophic: estrangement from Esau, tension between the two sisters, and hostility among his sons. Joseph himself bore the scars: thrown into a well by his brothers, who initially planned to kill him and eventually sold him into Egypt as a slave. Had his father not learned? Or did he think that Ephraim – whom Joseph held in his right hand – was the elder? Did Jacob know what he was doing? Did he not realise that he was risking extending the family feuds into the next generation? Besides which, what possible reason could he have for favouring the younger of his grandchildren over the elder? He had not seen them before. He knew nothing about them. None of the factors that led to the earlier episodes were operative here. Why did Jacob favour Ephraim over Manasseh?
Jacob knew two things, and it is here that the explanation lies. He knew that the stay of his family in Egypt would not be a short one. Before leaving Canaan to see Joseph, G-d had appeared to him in a vision:
Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes. (46: 3-4)
This was, in other words, the start of the long exile which G-d had told Abraham would be the fate of his children (a vision the Torah describes as accompanied by “a deep and dreadful darkness” – 15: 12). The other thing Jacob knew was his grandsons’ names, Manasseh and Ephraim. The combination of these two facts was enough.
When Joseph finally emerged from prison to become prime minister of Egypt, he married and had two sons. This is how the Torah describes their birth:
Before the years of the famine came, two sons were born to Joseph by Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh, saying, “It is because G-d has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim, saying, “It is because G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (41: 50-52)
With the utmost brevity the Torah intimates an experience of exile that was to be repeated many times across the centuries. At first, Joseph felt relief. The years as a slave, then a prisoner, were over. He had risen to greatness. In Canaan, he had been the youngest of eleven brothers in a nomadic family of shepherds. Now, in Egypt, he was at the centre of the greatest civilization of the ancient world, second only to Pharaoh in rank and power. No one reminded him of his background. With his royal robes and ring and chariot, he was an Egyptian prince (as Moses was later to be). The past was a bitter memory he sought to remove from his mind. Manasseh means “forgetting.”
But as time passed, Joseph began to feel quite different emotions. Yes, he had arrived. But this people was not his; nor was its culture. To be sure, his family was, in any worldly terms, undistinguished, unsophisticated. Yet they remained his family. They were the matrix of who he was. Though they were no more than shepherds (a class the Egyptians despised), they had been spoken to by G-d – not the gods of the sun, the river and death, the Egyptian pantheon – but G-d, the creator of heaven and earth, who did not make His home in temples and pyramids and panoplies of power, but who spoke in the human heart as a voice, lifting a simple family to moral greatness. By the time his second son was born, Joseph had undergone a profound change of heart. To be sure, he had all the trappings of earthly success – “G-d has made me fruitful” – but Egypt had become “the land of my affliction.” Why? Because it was exile. There is a sociological observation about immigrant groups, known as Hansen’s Law: “The second generation seeks to remember what the first generation sought to forget.” Joseph went through this transformation very quickly. It was already complete by the time his second son was born. By calling him Ephraim, he was remembering what, when Manasseh was born, he was trying to forget: who he was, where he came from, where he belonged.
Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim over Manasseh had nothing to do with their ages and everything to do with their names. Knowing that these were the first two children of his family to be born in exile, knowing too that the exile would be prolonged and at times difficult and dark, Jacob sought to signal to all future generations that there would be a constant tension between the desire to forget (to assimilate, acculturate, anaesthetise the hope of a return) and the promptings of memory (the knowledge that this is “exile,” that we are part of another story, that ultimate home is somewhere else). The child of forgetting (Manasseh) may have blessings. But greater are the blessings of a child (Ephraim) who remembers the past and future of which he is a part.
The Fourth Generation
For several generations, indeed for more than a century, Jewish education was not at the forefront of our concerns…. Nevertheless, nothing devastating happened as a result. Jews continued to identify as Jews. They joined Synagogues. They married other Jews. They had Jewish children and raised them as Jews. Jewish life continued on the basis of habit, memory and tradition regardless of the fact that little was being done to renew it by Jewish study. If it could continue in this way for a century, why not longer, and indefinitely? We have only belatedly discovered that this is an illusion. What has changed? Why is this generation different from all other generations? The answer lies in what I call the fourth-generation phenomenon.
My grandparents were not born in this country. Many, even most, of the Jews in Britain had grandparents who came here in the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1914. We are Anglo-Jews of the third generation.
It is an almost universal law that inherited wealth lasts three generations, not more. The same applies to inherited Judaism. Ours is the last generation that can remember booba and zeida from the heim with their fluent Yiddish and undiminished Yiddishkeit. Ours is the last generation for whom Jewish identity can be sustained by memory alone.
The Rebbe of Ger once pointed out that the ‘four sons’ of the Haggadah represent four generations. The wise son is the immigrant generation who still lives the traditions of the ‘home’. The rebellious son is the second generation, forsaking Judaism for social integration. The ‘simple’ son is the third generation, confused by the mixed messages of religious grandparents and irreligious parents. But the child who cannot even ask the question is the fourth generation. For the child of the fourth generation no longer has memories of Jewish life in its full intensity.
Our children are children of the fourth generation. Already, it is clear that what we took for granted, they do not. They do not take it for granted that they will belong to an orthodox synagogue or indeed any synagogue. They do not take it for granted that they will marry, or that they will marry another Jew, or stay married. They do not take it for granted that they will have Jewish children or that it is important to do so. Nothing can be taken for granted in the fourth generation, least of all in a secular, open society in which even a common moral code is lacking.
The ‘fourth-generation phenomenon’ explains what is otherwise inexplicable, namely that the crisis of Jewish continuity has occurred in a single generation. The intermarriage rate among young Jews in the United States has risen from six per cent in 1960 to 57% in 1985. The rise in mixed marriage, non-marriage and divorce, and the corresponding fall in religious observance and Jewish affiliation, have occurred suddenly and with astonishing speed. There is no obvious explanation. There have been no dramatic shifts in the diaspora in respect of tolerance on the one hand, anti-Semitism on the other. The environment in which Jews live has not significantly changed. Why then have Jews changed? The answer is that the Jews who have chosen not to remain Jews are the great-grandchildren of those who arrived in Britain and America to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the 1880’s. They are the Jews of the fourth generation.
(From ‘Will we have Jewish Grandchildren?’ Published by Vallentine Mitchell 1994 – Pages 60-61)
What We Give Our Children
Fathers, according to a survey by the Rowntree foundation, are confused about their role. They find themselves caught between the twin demands of ‘providing’ and ‘being involved’, being a breadwinner and a carer. They want to do both – to give their children money and time – but it is getting harder, especially in a consumer culture. As one 6-year-old put it, ‘I think the biggest strain I am on my dad is that I’m constantly bugging him for money.’ It is a real dilemma. Is there an answer?
Within days of the report’s publication, I found myself at a very emotional public event. It was the sixtieth anniversary of Kindertransport, the operation to rescue thousands of Jewish children fro Germany and Austria where they faced almost certain death. More than 1,000 of those who made the journey had come together from across the world to remember. They recalled those fearful days when they waved goodbye to their parents, often never to see them again, and travelled to safety in a strange land.
The most moving speech that day came from the film producer Lord Attenborough. In 1939 he and his family were living in Leicester. His parents had offered refuge to a number of Jewish children escaping from Germany, on their way to the United States. When war was declared, two Jewish girls were staying with them. They realised that they would now be unable to cross the Atlantic. What was to be done?
The Attenboroughs decided that they would offer the girls a home for the duration of the war, but they felt that it was a decision that could only be made as a family. Richard described how his parents called him and his to brothers into the study and told them the situation. They explained that the two girls, Helga and Irene, were Jewish. Their parents had been sent to concentration camps and were unlikely to survive. The girls had no one to care for them and nowhere to go.
Sixty years on, Lord Attenborough recalled his parents’ words. ‘We want to adopt the girls. We think it is the right thing to do. But we will only do it if you agree. It will call for sacrifices. We were a family of five. No we will be a family of seven. There will be things we won’t be able to afford. There will be things you’ll have to share. One of those will be love. You know how much we love you. But now you will have to share that love with Helga and Irene. We will have to show them special affection, because you have a family, but now they have no one at all.’
The boys agreed. Thinking back to that day across six decades, Lord Attenborough described it as the most important day of his life. We in the audience knew what he meant. He had been invited by his parents to join them in an act of courage and generosity. He had been given the chance to sacrifice something for someone else. Was this, I wondered, where he first acquired that moral passion so evident in his subsequent films like Ghandi and Cry Freedom?
Not all of us face tests like these, but they tell us something important. It is not the things we buy our children that shape their lives, it is the value we give them and the way we invite them to be partners in building a better world. Wordsworth put it best:
What we have loved Others will love, and we will teach them how.
(From Celebrating Life – Published by Continuum 2000 – Pages 105-106)