There is a tradition when we conclude a book of Torah or Talmud that we hold a Siyum, a celebration marking the successful conclusion of an entire section of Torah. At such occasions it is customary for the student/celebrant to deliver a talk where he or she connects the beginning of the book with the end, thus revealing a thematic thread that runs through the whole work.
This week's Parshah, Vayechi, concludes the entire Book of Genesis. What connection can we find between the beginning and end of the fist book of the Torah? The first part of the book tells the story of Creation while the end deals with the passing of Jacob and the Children of Israel down in Egypt.
What is Creation? Not just a Big Bang or even Intelligent Design, but an expression of a much higher and deeper purpose. The mystics teach that G‑d was not content to have angels in heaven singing His praises. He wanted earthly beings, men and women of flesh and blood with earthly passions and temperaments living physical lives, who will nevertheless be capable to rise above the moment to experience the spiritual purpose of it all. He desired human beings who would be exposed to all the distractions associated with the physical condition—from beach holidays to December sales—and still remain focused on the spiritual.
When we endow our material lives with spiritual value, with a sense of higher purpose, meaning, destiny and eternity, then we fulfill the Creator's original plan to bring heaven down to earth and build a home for G‑d in the physical, often crass, world below.
And therein lies the connection of the beginning of the Book of Genesis with its ending. To be a good Jew in the Holy Land is one thing. To remain holy and heavenly in the fleshpots of Egypt is another. Egypt represented the epitome of decadence of in that time. For the Children of Israel to go there and still remain faithful to the G‑dly way of life is bringing heaven down to earth big time. To live an upright, moral life in a morally degenerate society is to validate and justify the whole idea of creation and the Creator's decision to bring into existence mortal beings endowed with the freedom to choose how they will live their lives.
Perhaps this is the reason Jacob chose to bless the children of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, with the words, By you shall Israel bless (their children), saying May G‑d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. Indeed, this is the traditional blessing we give our children to this day, that they grow up to be like Ephraim and Manasseh. But why? Why should Jacob promise that for posterity Jews would bless their children to be like Joseph's children? Why not to be like his own children, the twelve tribes of Israel?
One answer is that of all the 70 children and grandchild of Jacob mention in the Torah, Ephraim and Manasseh were the only ones to have been born in Egypt and to have lived there all their lives. Jacob knew that in generations to come Jews would again be wandering through their own Egypts and exiles. He understood that Jewish history was destined to be filled with hostility and challenge. Thus, the role models for young Jews would need to be people like Ephraim and Manasseh who were born and bred in Egypt and yet remained faithful to the traditions of Jacob; who courted with the Pharaoh and still lived righteous Jewish lives.
iPod kids and even Generation X'ers need heroes they can relate to in order for them to be inspired by their example. Joseph's boys negotiated the tricky turf of Egyptian palace intrigue while never forgetting who they really were. When kids who are "Made in the USA" will still be spiritually connected to the Creator's heavenly way, then we will have made that dwelling place for G‑d in the lower realms for which the whole world was created for in the first place.
by Yossi Goldman