Accidents of Birth
D’var Torah for Vayechi (January 11, 2020); Beth Israel Center, Madison, WI
It’s a pleasure to have another opportunity to talk at you. Today, I’m taking advantage of Rabbi Forester’s absence to engage in dialogue with her d’var for Vayeishev.
In that d’var, the rabbi anticipated today’s parsha, invoking Joseph and his sons, Ephraim and Menashe to ponder what it means to be a Jew today in America: as a nation dwelling within another; and also as a family.
I’m going to pick up on those themes, and as Rabbi Forester did, I’ll reference recent legal scholarship, as well as New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. And fair warning, I’m going to geek out again. Last time I spoke, I cited Star Trek. Today: Star Wars.
First, to family. Last night, like every Friday night, Michal and I blessed our six-year old twin sons Ziv and Stav:
יְשִׂימְךָ אֱלהיִם כְּאֶפְרַיְם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה
“May the Holy One make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”
Today’s third aliyah, which Aaron Rock-Singer leyned beautifully, reveals the origin of this tradition:
וַיְבָ֨רֲכֵ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַהוּא֮ לֵאמוֹר֒ בְּךָ֗ יְבָרֵ֤ךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה
“So [Jacob] blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May the Holy One make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’”
This blessing positions Joseph’s sons as exemplars for our own. But as Rabbi Forester pointed out in her d’var, the Torah tells us next to nothing about them. They’re practically ciphers. So why Ephraim and Menashe? Why not Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — paralleling the bracha for daughters, which invokes as its models the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah? Or Joseph and Judah? Or Moses and Aaron? The Torah tells us so much more about all of them.
There are two popular explanations.
The first is that Ephraim and Menashe avoided the fratricidal conflict that plagued their predecessors. Recall that during his blessing, Jacob gave Ephraim a greater portion than his older brother Menashe.
“Despite this,” wrote the 19th-century Hasidic Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, “Ephraim did not exalt himself over Menashe and Menashe was not jealous of Ephraim.” This distinguishes them from the other brothers of Bereshit: Cain and Abel; Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; and Jacob’s sons — including, of course, Joseph himself.
The second explanation is that Ephraim and Menashe avoided assimilation. As Rabbi Forester noted in her d’var, the two boys were Egyptian royalty. And yet they remained children of Yisrael. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German founder of modern orthodoxy, emphasizes this by playing off a line of Jacob’s blessing:
וְיִדְגּ֥וּ לָרֹ֖ב בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ
“May they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”
Rabbi Hirsch notes that the root of the verb וְיִדְגּ֥וּ, “teeming,” is דָּג, “fish.” By this, he says, we can understand that while Ephraim and Menashe were “fish out of water” in the land of Egypt, they remained immersed in their family and nation.
These two explanations are pretty to think together. Through their loyalty to each other and to their people, Ephraim and Menashe merited Jacob’s blessing and their birthright. Perfect role models for American Jews like Ziv and Stav. And so each Friday night, we tell them: “Be like Ephraim and Menashe! Get along with your brother!”
But there’s a third explanation, advanced seven centuries earlier, by Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg, better known as Rav Yehuda HeHasid. Rav Yehuda argued that Jacob’s blessing is what today’s scholars call a vāticinium ex ēventū: a “prophecy from the event.” It was added to the Torah, he asserted, as a proof-text explaining the tribe of Ephraim’s prominence in ancient Israel. Explaining the tribe’s power by constructing stories about the merit of its namesake helped justify, and perhaps even maintain, that power.
We might find this post-hoc rationalization objectionable. But how different are we?
Historically, Jews have leaned heavily on the value of yichus: we’ve judged merit not just on the basis of our own individual actions, but also our lineage. We see this in today’s haftarah (which Susie Drazen just delivered, gorgeously), in which Solomon inherits the throne from David, complete with instructions on whom to eat with, and whom to have assassinated — all on the basis of services or insults rendered to the father.
We might like to think we’ve left that behind. But have we?
Consider Bret Stephens’ controversial December 27 New York Times column. Its headline, “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” ran above a photograph of Albert Einstein. In the op-ed, Stephens (who is Jewish) asks, “how is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?”
Stephens answered with a combination of biological, historical and cultural explanations. The immediate furor centered on his attribution of Jewish genius to genes — a biologically determinist claim inextricably bound up in eugenics, racism, and antisemitism. As scientist Stephen Jay Gould (yes, Jewish) — observed in his book, The Panda’s Thumb, we should be “less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Stephens and his editors later redacted the lines linking genetics and Jewish IQ. But the column remains vexing, because it conflates Jews being labelled genius, and genius being labelled Jewish. What’s remarkable isn’t, in other words, that so many geniuses are Jews; it’s that there’s such desire to point out that they are Jews, and to explain why: to render Jewish genius some sort of birthright. This is what leads to Jews viewing a photo of Einstein and seeing ourselves, our families, our people, in it. Our children. What does it mean to search for Jewish genius in them? What are the repercussions?
Those questions are at the heart of The Meritocracy Trap, a book published this past September by Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits. (Yes: also Jewish.) The trap of the title is that to maintain our positions in our meritocracy, we engage in an ever-intensifying competition, driving an ever-increasing gap between haves and have-nots. If we, or our children, decide that the constant antes — on better schools, more extracurriculars, tutors, networking — seem too high, then we don’t deserve the payoff. As the stakes keep going up, in a game that’s increasingly winner-take-all, we keep playing. And paying. What choice do we have? We owe it not just to our children, but our ancestors, whose sacrifices and successes gave us our seats at the table.
We want to find ourselves in their stories: our family’s stories, our people’s stories. We want to add ourselves, and our children, to them. Who doesn’t want to become an ancestor? Who doesn’t want their children blessing their children with thoughts of us in mind — to be, ourselves, like Ephraim and Menashe: to jealously guard our relationship with our jealous God; to remain loyal to each other and our people; to add to our yichus?
It’s a difficult tension to navigate, between claiming our own achievements and locating their causes in something larger than us. And an old one. If, like all the cool kids, you’re doing Daf Yomi — the daily study of one page of Talmud — then you’ll have Berachot 7 fresh in your head. There, we read that at Sinai, Moses had three requests for the Holy One. The first two are clear and coupled. Moses asked the Holy One to endow the nation (הַגּ֥וֹי) of Israel with the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, and to withhold the Shechinah from all other peoples (מִכָּ֨ל־הָעָ֔ם). But his third request was more complex. When he says to the Holy One, “let me know Your ways,” the Talmud explains, Moses was seeking an explanation for why some tzadikim, righteous people, are punished, and some wicked people, r’shaim, are rewarded.
One sage, Rabbi Meir, argued that the Holy One refused this third request: it was not for Moses, or any human, to comprehend fate. But Meir’s is a minority report. His colleagues detail God’s explanation, in multiple steps.
Their first is that these perverse outcomes are not the result of the actions of the tzadikim and r’shaim themselves, but of their parents. Even the righteous children of wicked people are punished for the sins of their parents. Many of us find this troubling at best — not least because of its prominence in Christian antisemitism.
It bothered the sages, too. They took pains to construe the text as a figurative warning against the unquestioning adoption of parental practices. Even tzadikim might adopt some of the practices of their wicked ancestors. Similarly, r’shaim might reject some of those wicked practices. And they are punished and rewarded accordingly. And, the sages insist, לָא קַשְׁיָא, הָא, “this is not difficult”: this is a straightforward interpretation.
The daf then moves on. And perhaps we should, too. It seems a satisfactory resolution, even for modern readers. It allows us to reconcile American and Jewish creeds: that our successes and failures should not be determined by accident of birth, but that we should also be able to claim our national birthrights. We are responsible for how we use our inheritances, both righteous and wicked. We can reject, not repeat, our ancestors’ errors. We can even rectify them: tikkun olam.
But this strikes me as too easy; when the sages insist, “this is not difficult,” they seem to be protesting too much. The meritocratic conviction that people are rewarded for making good choices appeals to six-year olds, and their parents. But is it an accurate causal description of how good works are rewarded? Or another after-the-fact answer to the question of why some people, and their families, get ahead — and others don’t?
The problem is that the alternative explanations are so unappealing. As much as we might militate against inherited advantages, we also struggle to accept that our good fortunes might be due to… well, good fortune. We resist concluding that, in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Or that, as Rabbi Meir insisted, the meaning of our fates is beyond our understanding. We’re driven to reason, to explain, to justify.
This is especially true when we consider the antisemitism that so many of our families, and our people as a whole, have so often faced, and overcome: despite attempts to exterminate us, despite the attractions of assimilation. How can we not try to find meaning in our successes, achieved against those odds? Why should we not try — and when it comes time to bless our children, remind them of our historical and cultural legacies, to encourage them to continue them, in the names of Ephraim and Menashe?
It’s not just us, of course. Consider what’s possibly our greatest modern American myth. I refer, of course, to Star Wars, which just concluded the Skywalker Saga with the eponymous The Rise of Skywalker. I’ll avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that in the previous movie, The Last Jedi, our hero Rey learned that her parents were “nobodies.” On that account, the villain, Kylo Ren informs her, “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.” This is remarkable, given the movies are all about birthright, fathers and sons, a mysterious Force passed down across generations. But Rise of Skywalker retcons Rey’s origins. It gives her a yichus and a “proper” birthright. She still has to choose: to righteously resist the seductive Dark Side; to remain a good Jew. (Ah. Jedi. I meant Jedi.) But her choice, and its galactic ramifications, are due to an accident of birth.
If you want more details, you can talk to Ziv and Stav during kiddush, For now, I want to ask: why did the writers of The Rise of Skywalker insist on making Rey a somebody? What would it mean, for the galaxy, for the universe, if she had remained a nobody?
Turning back to the parsha, this raises questions, questions I don’t have answers for, and so will have to leave with you:
What if Ephraim and Menashe hadn’t been Joseph’s sons; Jacob’s grandsons?
Could they have gone on to become the namesakes of tribes, the ancestors of kings, the fathers of a nation?
How many nobodies in Egypt never had the chance to have their names honored in our blessings?
Do we bless our children so that they won’t live and die in cotton fields and sweatshops, or because we already know they won’t?
Do we bless them so that they’ll become somebodies — even Jewish geniuses — or because we’re scared they’ll be nobodies?
Are we more scared for them, or for us?
. There’s not time today to discuss why Jacob elevated Ephraim over Menashe (וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־אֶפְרַ֖יִם לִפְנֵ֥י מְנַשֶּֽׁה — “thus Jacob put Ephraim before Menashe”), but one explanation is that Ephraim committed himself wholly to spiritual matters and study, while Menashe engaged more fully in life in Egypt; see http://bit.ly/sefariaem1, as well as https://www.thetorah.com/article/when-moses-placed-ephraim-before-manasseh and http://www.jewishtreats.org/2014/12/menashe-and-ephraim.html.
. See pages 67–68 in Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer’s Introduction to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Commentary on the Torah, Volume II (1948), accessible at https://web.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/rsrh/intro_rsrh_torah_2.pdf. For a similar explanation, minus the wordplay, from Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ginsburg (born the year Rabbi Hirsch died), see, again, https://reformjudaism.org/blessing-our-children. And also note Rashi’s explanation for why Ephraim and Menashe were allowed to help carry Jacob’s body to Machpelah, despite his insistence that “no Egyptian [nor] sons… from Canaanite women” be allowed to so participate: http://bit.ly/sefariaem2
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribe_of_Joseph, which share the assertion that these tribes represent “eponymous metaphor[s] providing an aetiology of the connectedness of the tribe[s] to others in the Israelite confederation.”
. “R. Judah — plausibly enough — deemed it impossible for Moses to have written them both. He simply had no choice but to conclude that the verse phrased in the third person was written by another author — perhaps Joshua, or the men of the Great Assembly” (https://www.thetorah.com/article/when-moses-placed-ephraim-before-manasseh). With more time, I’d discuss how the tribes of Joseph, and Ephraim in particular, lost their power to Judah (see Psalm 78, verses 67–68: “He rejected the clan of Joseph; He did not choose the tribe of Ephraim/ He did choose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which He loved”; https://www.sefaria.org/Psalms.78.67?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en); and how that fits into the post-diction.
 I appreciate Zackary Sholem Berger’s connection of Gould’s quote to this dvar.