The Deeper Meaning Of A Name

In naming his sons, Joseph communicates his thoughts on living in Egypt, alone and distant from his family.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

Joseph's transformation from imprisoned Hebrew slave to vizier is sudden and dizzying. Based on his initiative and his abilities as a dream-interpreter and adviser, he is taken from the dungeon of Pharaoh's prison and placed at Pharaoh's side as second-in-command. Pharaoh says:

"You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be sustained; only by the throne will I be greater than you" (Genesis 41:40).

During this critical period in Joseph's life, the "master of dreams" (37:19) becomes the center of a world of public action. Pharaoh appoints him as supervisor of the national food collection and distribution project, and endows him with all the trappings of service to the king: 

"And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen, and put the golden medallion on his neck. And he made him ride in his second chariot and they cried before him, "I command, kneel (avrech)," placing him over the whole land of Egypt (41:42-43).

Joseph is thoroughly successful in discharging his commission, and he rises to the highest position possible under the Pharaoh. But, whereas before, while he was in his father's house and in the prison, as well as later, in the presence of his brothers, we have an insight into Joseph's frame of mind, during this period Joseph is either acting or acted-upon. The Torah shares almost none of his thoughts with us.

How does Joseph the man--as distinct from Joseph the public figure--feel about his metamorphosis?

A Glimpse into Joseph's Life

The only glimpse we have into Joseph's inner life is in connection with the birth of his two children:

"And to Joseph were born two sons, before the years of the famine came, which Asenat the daughter of Poti-Fera priest of On, bore him. And Joseph called the name of the first-born Menasheh, for "God made me forget (nashani) all my toil and all my father's house." And the name of the second he called Ephrayim, for "God has made me fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my affliction" (41:50-52).

Menashe, from nashani, is derived either from the rare root n-sh-sh, or the more familiar root n-sh-sh, meaning "to forget," or "to weaken." Haketav V'hakabbalah (R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865) defines this verb as "the leaving [of a thought] that precedes forgetting;" it is the opposite of concentrating. God has helped Joseph "get his mind off" all my toil and all my father's house.

Forgetting his toil is understandable. But, forgetting Jacob's house seems to reflect badly on Joseph, whom the Sages call "the Tzaddik--the righteous one." It might have been acceptable had Joseph said he succeeded in forgetting his brothers, for that would mean that he no longer bears them any ill will; he has other matters on his mind and has "moved on with his life."

But, to speak of forgetting Jacob's house seems, at the least, disrespectful and ungrateful; at the worst, it suggests that Joseph may be rejecting Jacob's value-system and may be assimilating comfortably into Egypt!

The Gift of Distraction

But, argues Haketav V'hakabbalah, Joseph is driven to fulfill the will of Hashem, as communicated in his dreams (37:5-11), that his brothers and father would bow to him. This will begin the process of redemption predicted in Abraham's vision at the Covenant Between the Pieces (chapter 15). But, this could only happen if his father did not know he was alive and vizier of Egypt.

God would make Joseph's dreams come true, but Joseph would have to be patient. During the many years ahead--Joseph could not know how many--Joseph would naturally be tormented by the memories of his family, and especially the thoughts of how his father must be suffering. And so God granted Joseph the gift of distraction (nashani), thus enabling Joseph to fulfill God's will and his own mission.

Ephrayim - God has made me fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my affliction. Quoting Abravanel (Don Yitzchak Abravanel, 1437-1508), Haketav V'hakabbalah says of the naming of this second son:

With all the greatness and the glory and the honor that he had, and with the wealth of the produce that was in his hand, nevertheless Egypt was in his eyes "the land of my affliction," being distanced from his father's house and separated from the land of sanctity.

In this way, Joseph shows his true values.

In the naming of his sons, Joseph demonstrates that he recognizes God's role in the events of his life. God is the Source of memory, of success and of contentment. Joseph may rule in Egypt, but God is in control of all reality. Joseph is no more than a vehicle for God's will.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.