I Know My Son, I Know: Insights on Suffering and Adversity

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL

When the Nazis came to our city and the Jews had to relinquish all their possessions, my father took my mother’s wedding ring and buried it inside a hollow wall. One day we got word that a boy became sick with tuberculosis and needed to be hospitalized. The family needed money to save his life, so my father and mother dug out the ring and sold it to save the boy. Others said that my parents were crazy, but it was a case of pikuach nefesh, a Jewish life was endangered.

As it turned out, the boy was admitted to the hospital but shortly thereafter died. When he was originally admitted into the hospital, however, he was not allowed to do so under his own name. Instead he needed an alias, so he used my father’s name.

When the boy died the death certificate was issued in my father’s name. Not long after this my father received orders to report to a labor camp. My mother simply sent in a copy of the death certificate and my father’s life was saved. (Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, Darkness Before Dawn)

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Vast cosmic secrets appear couched in the dramatic events surrounding the deathbed blessings bestowed upon Yosef’s two sons Menashe and Ephraim by our saintly forebear Yaakov. The cryptic narrative seems to alert the reader to uncanny Divine insight on the part of Yaakov, the purveyor of the blessings, regarding the future of the two emerging tribes and the nation of Israel as a whole.

When Yaakov was 147 years old, word reached his son Yosef that he was waxing ill.  Yosef, along with his sons Menashe and Ephraim, rushed over to his bedside. Despite his weakness, Yaakov strengthened himself to sit upright.

Not able to see very well, he asks Yosef who the youngsters are. “They are the two sons born to me in Egypt, Menashe and Ephraim,” replies Yosef. Yaakov then expresses his desire to bless them. In preparation of the blessings, Yosef places Menashe and Ephraim in front of Yaakov.

According to Jewish tradition the right side is considered the more dominant. Given the fact that Menashe was older, Yosef placed him in front of Yaakov’s right hand so that he would receive the more prominent blessing. Ephraim, who was younger, was to receive the secondary blessing and hence was placed opposite his left hand.

To Yosef’s chagrin, Yaakov proceeds to maneuver his hands in such a way that his right hand ends up on the head of the younger son and vice-a-versa. Certain that there was some type of error, Yosef attempts to redirect Yaakov’s hand, saying: “Not so father, this is the older son, place your right hand over his head.”

Un-swayed by Yosef’s well meaning efforts, Yaakov refuses to be corrected. He assures Yosef that his action was intentional, stating: “I know my son, I know. Although the older brother, Menashe, will be great, the descendants of the younger Ephraim were to be even greater.”

This narrative gives rise to a number of difficulties, not the least of which is the perpetuation of the disturbing pattern of parental favoritism. So much of our early history has been fraught with the strife resulting from one child currying more favor than the other, that its reoccurrence seems unconscionable.

Haven’t we already witnessed the consequences of preferential treatment on the part of parents? Have we not already seen the destructive results of tampering with the first born rights? Why does this scenario keep reoccurring within our ancestral family?

Most perplexing, however, is the notion that Yaakov, of all people, would partake in this type of activity. Himself the casualty of a bitter rivalry with his own brother Eisav, Yaakov was no doubt keenly aware of the ensuing pain and anguish. Add to this the untold pain and sorrow provoked by the prevailing competition amongst his own sons, he ought surely to have been extremely mindful of the resulting misery and grief.

Given the above, one might expect him to be more sensitive to the problem; to be more perceptive than to stir up more trouble. Why would Yaakov, of all people, continue to plant the seeds of sibling discord; this time among his grandchildren?

It is, in fact, quite plausible that this is precisely what was going through the mind of Yosef, who was the consummate victim of sibling enmity, in his passionate protest: “Not so father! This is the older son; place your right hand over his head.” In other words: “Oh no father, this can’t be happening again! Hasn’t this family seen its share of sibling rivalry? Haven’t we both suffered enough as a result of this ugly trait?

But rather than address Yosef’s valid concerns, Yaakov seems to dismiss him with an answer that amounts to “This is how it is my son; papa knows best.”  What do we make of this bizarre phenomenon?

Spiritual Science

The answer to this question on the most basic level is that, much as there are rules of reality pertaining to the natural sphere of existence, there are similar rules in the realm of the Para-natural. We all know and accept the immutable nature of math and science, as the saying goes “Numbers don’t lie.” We are not quite as aware, however, of the fact that there is a spiritual science as well.

For many of us spirituality is a fuzzy and malleable type of reality that is always supposed to make us feel-good and never make us uncomfortable. For if it is to cause any pain or discomfort, how is it spiritual? We, in other words, associate the definition of spirituality with a sense of ease and serenity, albeit of a more refined nature than say, corporeal pleasure and comfort. This definition of spirituality, however, is plain wrong. Spirituality is G-d‘s truth and will. This is precisely what Yaakov was conveying to his son, Yosef:

You may be tired of the adversity caused by sibling rivalry, you may prefer peace and harmony over the strife caused by the younger brother’s spirit outshining the older, but it is a reality that you just cannot change, much as you can’t change the fact that 2+2=4.

Avraham was not wrong or selfish when he recognized Yitzchak’s spiritual virtue over Yishmael. My receiving the preferred blessings over my brother Eisav, your superiority over your brothers, and now the advantage of Ephraim over Menashe; are not arbitrary choices designed to suit some particular interest. They are rather matters of Divine reality that you and I can’t help.

You can be certain that of all people I share your frustration. Still, sometimes one must look at the bigger picture. Althoughfrom your vantage point my actions may seem unreasonable and even objectionable, it does not mean that there is not a deeper reality. Just because there is strife on the outside, does not mean there is not even greater purpose and good on the inside.”

This phenomenon is best summed up by Rashi in the book of Bamidbar/Numbers, Parshas Korach (16:5). In response to Korach‘s mutiny against the leadership structure of the Priesthood and Levites, Moshe says to him: “In the morning G-d will make known who is His own and who is holy…” Commenting on the words “In the morning G-d will make known,” Rashi quoting the Midrash states:

“Moshe said to Korach, The Holy One, blessed is He, assigned boundaries to His world, as it says: ‘It was evening and it was morning… and the Lord separated…’ (Gen. 1:5, 7).  Similarly Aaron was set apart to sanctify Him.” Are you able to transform morning into evening? That is how possible it is for you to undo this matter.

This Rashi is as clear as can be regarding the temperament of holiness and the characteristic of spirituality. It is essentially Divine reality and truth, of which we mortals have very little say. We can like it or dislike it but we can’t change it, much as we can’t change the fact that fire is hot. This is the essential point of the narrative and the message which Yaakov relates to Yosef vis-à-vis the blessings of Menashe and Ephraim. It is why the Torah deems it necessary to relate this narrative in all its detail.

The Reward Of Adversity And Darkness

Chassidic thought regarding the essential qualities of Menashe and Ephraim, as reflected in their names, offers deeper insight into Yaakov’s perplexing conduct vis-a-vis Menashe and Ephraim.

Menashe, as the name implies, represents the ability to survive and overcome privation and adversity, as Yosef declared upon choosing the name: “G-d has made me forget my hardship.” Ephraim, on the other hand, signifies the idea of growing through pain and misfortune: “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

Accordingly, there is deep cosmic significance in Yaakov’s insistence that Ephraim be the principal recipient of the blessings. By this Yaakov intended to insure that itnot suffice for his descendants to survive their harsh challenges, i.e. exile – to endure and forget – but that they possess the capacity to grow and reap the rich rewards buried within their pain and misfortune.

As much as I understand where you’re coming from, insisted Yaakov; as much as I share your passion for brotherly love and sibling harmony, there is something infinitely greater at stake here. The entire remuneration and bounty intrinsic to life’s trials and tribulations hangs in the balance.

The dramatic narrative concerning the blessings which our ailing forbear bestowed upon Yosef’s two sons; born and raised in a foreign land steeped in impurity and decadence, contains fundamental insights regarding the very nature of challenge and adversity; a conundrum that is as old as time itself.

No single issue so impacts man’s personal and collective ideology, vis-à-vis G-d and religion, as does the issue of human calamity and misfortune. The struggle to reconcile the prevalence of pain and misfortune with the belief in an all mighty and supreme Creator, especially one that is compassionate and merciful, has captivated the attention of man of every creed and culture throughout the ages.

This disquieting issue has been wrestled with by historical icons such as Moshe, King David and Job, as well as countless others throughout the vast expanse of history. Each generation has produced its own gurus and pervading philosophies, yet no particular philosophy ever pleases everyone and the issue continues to fester. No wonder it evokes such deep emotion.

Only recently was there an article published in a prominent newspaper quoting the words of Yale University chaplain, William Sloane Coffin (1924 – April 12, 2006), in a sermon delivered 10 days after his son Alex was killed in a car accident:

“Nothing so infuriates me. As the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that G-d doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. . . . The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of G-d.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of G-d that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, G-d’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break…”

Notice how he says “The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of G-d.’ ‘Never do we know enough to say that.’” Yet he immediately goes on to say that “My own consolation lies in ‘knowing’ that it was not the will of G-d.” How interesting. It would probably be more reasonable for him to have said that we will never know enough to be sure either way.

Be that as it may, while no one should profess to know the exact reason for human suffering, especially someone else’s, I myself take “Consolation” in the fact that our adversity in life is indeed G-d’s will – that there is deeper meaning and Divine purpose in our life, our struggles and even (or especially) in death. I could not imagine having to endure suffering and calamity (Heaven forbid) otherwise.

It helps even more to know that there is actually enormous personal benefit and remuneration to be derived from challenge and adversity on many levels, much like the blessings that result from the pangs of birth, as we see from the episode of Menashe and Ephraim.

What’s best about this ideology however, is that it is not my own or anyone else’s home grown, like so many of the others’, but that it is of the Almighty creator of heaven and earth and everything in between, as revealed in Judaism; the mother of all religion.

The name of our Parsha is “Vayechi” – And he lived, referring to the life of Yaakov. Yet in actuality it discusses his demise and the events that preceded his final days in this world. However, since the life of a Tzaddik is not defined by his physical existence but rather by his holy accomplishments and impact on humanity, the events in our Parsha represent Yaakov’s true and eternal legacy, notwithstanding their connection with his physical demise.

In fact, his final acts in the physical world are most reflective of his spiritual and eternal essence; hence it is specifically this final chapter of his life that is given the name Vayechi. It is likewise the chapter over which we chant the words: “Chazak. . .” Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened!

Accordingly, the lessons derived from the blessings that Yaakov bestowed on Menashe and Ephraim, one of the final acts of his life, embodies his innermost legacy, his ultimate gift to his progeny. It is a message that contains the secrets of how to survive and prosper in Galus, despite its intensity, as well as, the key to the final redemption. May it be very soon with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.

2 Comments

  • 1. Michael Paskin wrote:

    Great piece! I think of Menashe & Ephraim and how their father must have tried to protect them from the evil people in Mitzraim… Something parents today still struggle with..

    Reply

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