By Rabbi Jon Cutler
Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh (Menashe from the Hebrew root: to forget) meaning God has made me forget completely my hardship and my father’s home. [Genesis 41:51]
Memory is fragile. As a counselor, I have worked with individuals who faced trauma or difficulties and tend to forget or repress their memories. Thus, with the name Menashe, Joseph sought to erase such memories of his past, and because of the difficulties that he encountered and most likely did not share his background with his son. This changed when his brothers arrived in Egypt to purchase food during the famine.
Because Joseph was successful interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he was appointed as the second-in-charge over all of Egypt. Only Pharaoh had more authority over the young and very astute appointee to this high and powerful position.
As viceroy and because of his rise in status, he was expected to marry an Egyptian fitting his new station in life and was quickly married off to Osnat, the daughter of the powerful Priest of On. Out of that marriage came two sons. Joseph names the first Manasseh who “enabled me to forget all my suffering — and my father’s house.” The second son’s name was Ephraim meaning, “being fruitful,” referring to Joseph’s ability to produce children, specifically while in Egypt.
By naming his first son Manasseh, Joseph did not focus on his painful past. He was determined to forget his anger toward his brothers, and he did need to seek revenge. Instead of killing him, the brother sold him into slavery. In addition, he would purge from his memory the difficulties with the wife of Potiphar and his years of imprisonment in the royal dungeon.
When he went into prison he was dismissed and demeaned as a na’ar ivri (a Hebrew “boy.”) When he emerged from prison, he was renamed by Pharaoh as avrech, the one to whom others would bend their knees.
All societies, cultures and peoples have historical memories. For example, the Passover seder and Haggadah reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt and that we were redeemed by the grace of God. But other events throughout Jewish history have not withstood the test of time and are forgotten.
As such, much of historical memory is thus tenuous. We need to look only to the first decades of the 20th century, as the horrific tragedies during World War I committed against the Jews of Europe were only overshadowed by the Holocaust that destroyed one-third of the world’s Jewish population.
The Holocaust — despite all the monuments and museums that commemorate and seek to preserve this still unbelievable tragedy — has disappeared from the consciousness of much of our contemporary generation. A recent study by the Pew Foundation (2019) has shown that only 45% of college students knew about the Holocaust.
With the creation of Israel in 1948 and Israel’s successful victories in its War of Independence followed 19 years later with the stunning victory of the Six-Day War, Jews throughout the world were ecstatic. Yet the memory of the trials and the triumphs of these early years has, in many cases, all but dissolved with each succeeding generation of Jews.
Many studies have reported the sharp decline of support for Israel in the younger generations of Jews, especially those on college campuses. And a significant number of Jews have embraced the Palestinian narrative that the creation of Israel was a nakba, or catastrophe, for the indigenous Arab population.
The tenuousness of historical memory has always threatened Jewish survival. However, the holiday which we just celebrated, Chanukah, acts as a remedy. Chanukah, a minor holiday, has been enthusiastically embraced by American Jews as a cure to Christmas.
However, we have lost the historical memory of the origin of Chanukah. The Talmud focuses on the resanctification of the Temple and the miracle of the little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. It recounts the defeat of Antiochus’ army by the Maccabees.
What is not mentioned is the rest of the story — the confrontation within Judea between the Jewish elite that embraced Hellenism and those traditionalists who refused to forsake their traditional faith and values.
The Hellenized Jews had the support of the Syrian colonizers and happily discarded historical memory to guarantee their place in Greek society. They very well may have succeeded if not for the perseverance and the courage of the Maccabees who defended Jewish values and traditions.
Each generation from the time of the Maccabees faces the alienation of younger Jews from the tradition — the erosion of Jewish identity. Once again, we see in this generation that 54% of Jews intermarry.
The stories of Chanukah and Joseph are to remind us today that each generation is reborn with a new sense of pride and that Judaism is not forgotten. The evidence is that there are ongoing efforts to reverse these trends: increased funding for intensive Jewish education and programs like Birthright that introduce America’s younger Jews to the history — and the magic — of Israel.
Rabbi Jon Cutler is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County in Chester Springs. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.