With this week’s Torah portion, the book of Genesis comes to an end. Both Jacob and Joseph, and the Egyptian rulers who knew them, pass away, setting up the story of slavery and Exodus coming in the next chapter of our story.
Joseph learns that Jacob’s death is near, and he goes to see his father, with his sons Ephraim and Menasseh. Jacob recounts to Joseph the promises God made to Jacob, and he informs Joseph that he is adopting Joseph’s sons, whom he mentions by name, so they will have a full portion of the inheritance Jacob leaves to his sons. Jacob is well aware that Joseph’s sons were born to Joseph and an Egyptian mother and that they are growing up in Egypt, yet he feels so strongly tied to them he claims them as his own. However, after saying all of this to Joseph, Jacob does not recognize his grandsons Ephraim and Menasseh, standing next to Joseph. He has to ask “Who are these?”
The image of Egypt is an important one in the formation of our identity as Jews, and we usually point to the book of Exodus and the Exodus story for evidence of its primacy. But the complexity of our Jewish feelings about Egypt begin right here. We are taught to remember being slaves in Egypt, to remember being oppressed foreigners in a strange land, so that we have compassion for others who are strangers in our midst. And our history has continued to provide opportunities for us to be strangers in another land, to live a life that those who came before us could not imagine. But still, when we are confronted with the foreign-ness, the Egyptian-ness, of the generations that come after us, whose experiences are different, we don’t recognize ourselves in their faces.
The text points out to us this universal truth. While we are connected to our personal history and our cultural and religious history, where we come from and how we got to where we are, we will all look at our grandchildren, whose lives and experiences are different from ours, with discomfort and alienation from feelings of foreignness. We will ask, “Where are my ways of doing things? How are the things I hold most dear reflected in their lives?”
The Midrash has one way of addressing Jacob’s discomfort with the realization that he did not recognize his grandsons. In the midrashic text, Jacob is concerned that his heirs are not worthy of their inheritance, not invested in continuing loyalty to God and to those God chose to lead God’s people. Jacob’s sons reassured him by reciting the Shma, Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, as if to say, as you believe in the unity of God, so do we. And Jacob responds, Baruch Sheim K’vod Malchuto L’olam Vaed, Blessed is God’s name forever. I know, Jacob is saying, that our tradition will continue. It may look different, you may look different, and I may not always see everything I want to see reflected in it, but it is an everlasting inheritance.
Our tradition developed a second way of addressing the alienating feeling Jacob experienced when he did not recognize his Egyptian grandsons Ephraim and Menasseh. In fact, our tradition has a powerful message about embracing that difference. For it is through the names of Ephraim and Menasseh that we bless our sons each week at the Shabbat table. What had Ephraim and Menasseh accomplished in Torah that would warrant their names being invoked every week as we bless our cherished children? Nothing. What we know most about them is what they looked like: Egyptian children. And our tradition invokes their names in blessing for that very reason. We bless in our children the inevitable becoming of difference, of change, of transformation. We bless the knowledge that we will not always recognize ourselves in the faces of our children and grandchildren. And that is the freedom that an everlasting inheritance must guard.
If you look around within our congregation, on a Friday night, on a Sunday morning, you will see a very different looking group of people than you would have in our congregation’s history. That transformation brings with it new life, new influences, new thoughts, new challenges, new realities. We are blessed in the universal truth that generations after us don’t necessarily reflect us, and we remain steadfast in our resolve to teach our history, to ensure that our children and grandchildren know that we were strangers, that we came from somewhere else and grew here, that the constant in all of that transformation is our tradition of observance, of philosophy, of liturgy, of Shma Yisrael. And we continue to bless the becoming of difference, so that we may continue to thrive.
I considered my words tonight conscious that thousands of Reform Jews from around the country are gathered in San Diego, with Rabbi Kuhn and Rabbi Maderer among them, for the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial. If you want to know what Reform Jews are talking about, what they are singing, what they are teaching, how they are thinking about the future, I encourage you to read what comes of this Biennial and to think of attending a Biennial in the future. I hope, as the largest group of Reform Jews anywhere gathers tonight for a Shabbat service of thousands, that they embrace their understanding of the past, renew their commitment to pass it on to the generations to come, and bless the difference that the future brings. May we as well.