• Rav Yaakov Beasley




In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner



For easy printing, go to:





By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Our parasha begins with the restless Pharaoh and the dreams that torment his sleep.  Upon reading that two visions plague the king, the reader immediately senses that Yosef will soon be called upon to provide the interpretation, for dual dreams accompany Yosef throughout the narrative:  he himself dreamt the dreams of the wheat bundles and the heavenly bodies, and the butler and baker had divulged their two visions to him as well. 


Yosef is shaven and clothed and brought to hear the monarch's dreams.  Not only does he successfully interpret them, he also provides Pharaoh with the only advice that can prevent the grim future that the dreams predict from destroying Egypt.[1]  He advises the king to appoint "a man of discernment and wisdom" in a manner that leaves Pharaoh with almost no choice but to respond, "There is none as discerning and wise as you."  Pharaoh bestows upon Yosef the trappings of power, changes his name, and gives him the necessary authority to perform his charge – gathering grain against the famine.  Yosef sets about his task with alacrity, with immediate success:


And Yosef collected produce in very large quantity, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured. (41:49)


Among the actions that Pharaoh takes to strengthen Yosef's position is marrying him into one of Egypt's aristocratic families: "And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-Paneah; and he gave him as a wife Osnat the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On (41:45)."  Unexpectedly, as if to stamp Yosef's new status with approval, we read almost immediately:


50  And unto Yosef were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Osnath the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore unto him.

51 And Yosef called the name of the first-born Menashe, "For God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house."

52 And the name of the second he called Efraim, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction."


Rashi, quoting the Talmud, comments on the subtle qualifier that the children arrived "before the year of famine came," suggesting that procreation – and even marital relations – are forbidden in time of famine. However, this side point does not eliminate the impression that Yosef's fortunes seems inexorably tied to those of Egypt.  As Egypt's storehouses fill themselves, in imagery parallel to the blessings once promised to Avraham's descendants ("the sands of the sea", "for it could not be measured"), Yosef also enjoys ease, wealth, and plenty.  His personal fertility parallels the prosperity around him. 


How does Yosef feels about his new success?  Through the names he gives him children, we can see how Yosef feels about his own life.




Both of the names that Yosef gives his children are laden with meaning and paradox.  They nakedly reflect Yosef's wrestling with the vicissitudes of his life.  More than any other character in Sefer Bereishit, his path is a story of dramatic rise and fall, of unbelievable successes and the lowest of failures, with more twists and bends than any other's path.  Once the unchallenged favorite of his aged father, his brothers strip him of all. He rises to a position of importance in Potiphar's house, only to be cast into a dungeon.  There he rises again to leadership, but among criminals and convicts.   Unexpectedly called upon to interpret the sleepless Pharaoh's dreams, he becomes the second most powerful figure in the land.  Now, with the birth of his first child, he attempts to come to grips with it all:


Menashe - for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father's house.


What emotion is Yosef expressing here?  And if a person is aware that he has forgotten, has he really forgotten?


In his Ha-Emek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin makes an interesting suggestion. Given the horrors that have accompanied him throughout his life, Yosef is grateful not to be burdened and haunted by memory.  For an ordinary person, the events that transpired in Yosef's life would be incapacitating.  Now responsible for the survival of Egypt, indeed the entire civilized world, Yosef is forced to concentrate solely on providing food for the masses; reflection upon his past has become a luxury that he cannot afford.  Forgetfulness here does not mean a lack of intellectual or emotional awareness.  It means that the tribulations of Yosef's past can not be allowed to affect his present. 




Like his eldest, Yosef's naming of his second son is enveloped in his overwhelming concern for his survival: 


Efraim – for God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.


This verse articulates the paradox that represents Yosef's life – his is a life of both fruitfulness and affliction, of success and failure together.  He finally has a secure position, a wife, and heirs –yet he is brutally aware that this is a land of affliction to him.  His life is a paradigm for the experience of the Jewish people in Egypt:


And the people were fruitful and multiplied, and the increased and waxed mightily.  And there arose a king who knew not Yosef … (Shemot 1:6, 7)


Ironically, the blessings of creation given to mankind, to be fruitful and multiply and spread out over the land, reach their fruition with the Jewish people in the alien land of Egypt.  


Clearly, at the moment of Yosef's greatest triumph, he cannot help but ruminate on the irony and paradox that accompany his every success.  His triumphs and fruitfulness come with a cost – that of his own identity.  This is a tension that he manages to suppress until, during the famine, he spots his brethren among the hungry gathered outside the vizier's doors.  Twice and then thrice, with great effort, he overcomes his natural emotions and "made himself a stranger unto them."  However, he could not avoid the confrontation and maintain his faחade forever.  Yehuda's speech pierces his armor; but the reader, aware of the torment that surrounded Yosef even when naming his children, recognizes that the outpouring was inevitable.




Reading about the birth of Yosef's two sons, we also hear echoes of the character who will serve to undo the effects of Yosef's actions, Moshe.  Like Yosef, Moshe has two children, born to him after a series of ups and downs.  Like Yosef, Moshe must leave his family.  Both Moshe and Yosef find a measure of comfort in their surroundings, an Egyptian house (Potiphar and Pharaoh).  Finally, both of them find refuge in a family after providing a service for that family's leader (Yosef interprets Pharaoh's dreams and is married to one of the daughters of Pharaoh's courtiers; Moshe saves Reuel's daughters at the well and is married to Zippora in return[2]).


In Parashat Yitro, when Zippora returns to Moshe after the exodus, we discover the reasons behind the names of Moshe's two children:


And her two sons; of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: "I have been a stranger in a strange land;"

And the name of the other was Eliezer, "For the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh." (Shemot 18:3, 4)


If Yosef experiences the dangers of acculturation and acclimatizing to Egypt, Moshe clearly understands the dangers that it represents to his identity – both physically ("the sword of Pharaoh") and spiritually ("a strange land").




What motivates Yosef to relate to Egypt differently from others?  To answer this question, we must appreciate that Yosef has one central role in the story – to ensure his family's simple survival.  That Yosef is cognizant of this role is evident from the numerous times he tells his brothers and family not to be distressed over his sale because it clearly it was from God that Yosef was sent to Egypt - "that we may live and not die" (43:8, 47:19).  When faced with famine and destruction, Yosef's steel-minded determination and ability to continue, becomes admirable, even an asset.  (Indeed, this survival instinct overcomes even the principled Yaakov – when the bread is gone from the pantry and the larder is bare, his declaration that "Binyamin will not accompany you to Egypt" yields to the necessity of feeding those remaining family members.)


  Missing from Yosef's awareness, however, is the larger role he plays within the Divine scheme.  He remembers his dreams, and acts on them - but not on the visions of his fathers.  God once appeared to Avram, his great-grandfather, in a vision as well, informing him of what awaited his descendants: "For your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years" (15:13).  Despite his concentration on the acts of day-to-day survival, Yosef is unable to appreciate the larger plan that unfolds around him.  He sees his actions, correctly, as guaranteeing his family's survival.  Only at the end of his life does he realize that the short descent to Egypt will take centuries to undo.


[1] There is discussion among the commentators regarding whether or not the advice that Yosef offers is part of the dream's interpretation or if it represents quick-thinking initiative on Yosef's part.

[2] One can continue the comparison further.  A bor, a well, figures prominently in both Yosef and Moshe's lives; however, while for Yosef the pit is empty, Moshe's visit to a well brings about his marriage to Zippora. (Perhaps the empty well of Yosef is symbolic of the fact that, unlike others who met their spouses at a well, Yosef has a longer road to travel before he settles down.)