What will be our legacy? Every generation asks itself this question. It’s part of aging and looking to bridge past and future. Legacy gives us a sense that our life is worthwhile. It gives us the basis to believe that all our struggles and decisions in life can be framed in a way that can live on after us. It gives us a chance at immortality.
The book of Genesis ends with a meditation on legacy. We find the children of Jacob living quite well under Pharaoh’s rule. As Jacob becomes conscious of his own impending death, he gathers together his family to share with them words of blessing. He wants to set his affairs in order — to shape his legacy — for each of his children. He calls them forth and musters what prophetic strength he has, saying,
“Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come” (Genesis 49:1).
Jacob’s worries are no different than our own. Will our children believe what we believe? Will they cherish the same values that we do? Will they forget our struggles?
We see in Jacob the very fear that drives much of the Jewish community today around questions of prosperity, continuity and fidelity. The children of Jacob are not starving as they did before, but they are not yet living up to God’s promise and covenant struck with Abraham.
They are in exile from the land of Canaan, they have Egyptian wives and children — especially Joseph, who has two Egyptian sons who do not know their grandfather (Genesis 48:8).
Moreover, Jacob, like every parent at the end of his or her life, cannot prescribe a living reality of which he or she is not a part. The Talmud echoes this idea: “Jacob wanted to reveal the end of days to his sons but the Shekhinah [God’s presence] departed from him.”
Being gripped by the insecurity of his own mortality and the fear of the possibility of a failed legacy, his divine vision becomes clouded. He cannot truly see into the future.
Jacob’s fears are our fears. Will my children marry within the faith? Will they raise Jewish children? Will they love Israel the way I love Israel? Will they get along with each other? The many sociological studies that ask these questions give us no confidence in our legacy.
They scare us. Like Jacob, our vision is clouded, our future uncertain. Ultimately we ask ourselves: How would we, even if it were possible, shape a Jewish future of which we will have no part?
The question of Jewish legacy is one that takes hold in every generation, and here too the Torah gives us an answer. Let’s turn from the perspective of Jacob to that of Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. These two Egyptian-born kids have an Egyptian mother and a grandfather who is the priest of Egypt (Genesis 46:20). Their names point towards the discontinuity of their heritage in both memory (Manasseh, meaning “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home”) and geography (Ephraim, meaning God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction) (Genesis 41:51-52). Their experience of Judaism is colored entirely by their father’s time in Pharaoh’s palace. Their first language is not Hebrew. They are assimilated into a different culture with a different spiritual language. They have a different orientation to life, and a different outlook on what the future holds.
Menasseh and Ephraim are familiar to us. They represent those in our families who carry a very different attitude about life — those who only feel “Jew-ish,” or whose experience of Judaism is to feel marginalized from the greater Jewish family. They are the embodiment of our Jewish fear.
Here they stand with their father before the Old Guard with whom they have no relationship. There is tension and uncertainty between the parties. That is when the Torah, as it always does, shows us the way forward.
Jacob takes these estranged boys into his bosom, and says, “Now, your two sons … shall be mine.” (Genesis 48:5). Jacob reaches out to embrace Menasseh and Ephraim as his own children. He makes room for them inside the tradition. He makes room for their differences. He makes room for their sense of the future. Jacob understands that children should not live only for their parents. Judaism is bigger than that. The covenant is bigger than that.
We must embrace our Menassehs and our Ephraims. Our legacy as Jews is to move beyond our fear, to make room for new ideas, all the while understanding the need to make our Jewish lives feel indigenous to our historical psyche. Jacob shows us that the elasticity within our tradition is what makes Judaism a vibrant, life-giving and meaningful path.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on this truth when he wrote, “The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival of a particular people but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples.”
The last gift of Jacob, for whom our nation is named, is the moral assertion that God’s blessings are always expansive. We bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menasseh, bringing to the center of Jewish life those who have not historically felt part of our community. Ultimately, our legacy will be secured as the children of Jacob when we follow our father’s advice to let our hands rest on the heads on those who live on the outside, and make them our own.
Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, founder of Netiya, and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).
It is Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays