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How to Not Kill Your Family

There is a treasured custom in some communities for parents to bless their children before kiddush on Friday night. Traditionally, fathers will bless their sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe and their daughters like the Matriarchs.

It’s not hard to understand why we’d want our daughters to be like the Matriarchs; they are the role models and heroines in the stories of our greats. While we have others, such as Miriam and Devorah, the Matriarchs are a natural conceptual category that we intuitively understand.

But of all the great heroes in our heritage, why are Ephraim and Menashe, in particular, the specific role models we would want our sons to emulate?

Ephraim and Menashe occupy a distinctly unique conceptual category; they transcend a natural hierarchy. While hierarchies are inherent to family dynamics and structures, it is highly irregular to see generation jumpers. Yet, these young boys earned parity with their uncles a generation earlier and are counted as tribes alongside Yakov’s sons.

But transcending family dynamics wasn’t just something that happened to them when Yakov blessed them; transcending family dynamics was a fundamental reflection of who they were.

The Bnai Yissaschar explains that every generation in Genesis suffered rivalry rooted in unequal blessings, favor, or talent, whether from God or a parent. Brothers kill each other in the case of Cain and Abel, come close to it with Yakov and Esau, and fight and fracture in every other instance. But when Yakov crossed his hands and blessed his younger grandson with the better blessing ostensibly fit for the elder without a word of protest, it was the first time a snubbed sibling didn’t have a moment’s thought of entitlement or jealousy.

Ephraim and Menashe showcase what is arguably the most difficult of the Ten Commandments, the commandment of envy – וְלֹא תַחְמֹד. It’s difficult to practice because jealousy originates in the subconscious. The only solution is to adopt the perspective that God’s blessings are abundant; not exclusive, finite, scarce, or zero-sum, that there isn’t a fixed amount of happiness, health, love, or money in the world, so someone else’s good fortune cannot subtract from yours, and it cannot diminish the pool of blessings available to you in the future. Ephraim and Menashe lived that in their relationship with each other.

As R’ David Wolpe notes, this is the first time siblings show acceptance of inequality. It’s the way the world is; we simply have to accept that there will be different distributions of blessings, gifts, talent, and luck. And the acceptance of God’s gifts at unequal levels is the only way brothers succeed in not killing each other.

Put simply, their relationship with each other transcended competitive dynamics and hierarchies, and there is no better blessing to wish on our sons.

That’s great, and it has merit enough to stand on its own, but it still doesn’t get to the core of the matter, which is where this quality came from.

My Zaide suggested that if your father is Yakov and you are born, raised, and live in his house, it’s relatively easy and not especially surprising that you follow his way. In comparison, to be born in Egypt, the crown jewel of a world devoid of spirituality and meaning, whose culture was excess and materialism, rife with lust and idolatry; and yet master the spiritual life as well as any of Yakov’s sons, is the ultimate achievement.

So perhaps the blessing we wish on our children is to master both worlds – the private world of spirituality and the public world of commerce and community, participating without being consumed.

But perhaps there’s something else here, something exceedingly deep hiding in plain sight.

In social psychology, self-categorization theory is the concept of how we categorize and perceive ourselves and others. We categorize our role in the society as the self – “I;” the social self – “we;” and the comparative outgroup – “them.” The “us” versus “them” mentality is natural and stems from our deep evolutionary need to belong to a group in order to survive, belong, and flourish.

Where Yosef’s brothers went so wrong was that they identified him as the outgroup, the other, the enemy, a threat, and not one of them. As the Sfas Emes notes, part of what was so mortifying by Yosef’s grand reveal was that their threat assessment and identification had been so badly miscalibrated; Yosef may have been an annoying, immature, troublemaker, but he had always and only ever been one of them. By not protesting at the superior blessing given to his younger brother, Menashe revealed that he understood his role as a brother and ally; he was not competing with his brother.

And here’s the essential point – if Menashe learned this lesson from observing his father’s life story, cast out from his family then subsequently healing, ultimately rising and magnanimously reuniting his family; then it could never be a lesson that can be repeated or passed on, and blessing our children with a quality they could not possibly hope to emulate doesn’t ring true or make any sense. In that case, the blessing to our children would be to have a father like Yosef, which is self-referential and absurd, so they must have learned this lesson in a way that everyone can.

Most of us want to protect our children from struggles because if we shoulder their burdens, they’ll be happier, right? Not usually. Children are happiest when parents bolster and support their children’s ability to tackle life’s challenging experiences.

Resilience, or better yet, antifragility is not an inherited genetic trait; it is earned and honed. It is derived from the ways children learn to think and act when they are faced with obstacles, large and small. The road to resilience comes first and foremost from children’s supportive relationships with parents, teachers, and other caring adults. These relationships become sources of strength when children work through stressful situations and painful emotions.

With antifragility, we don’t merely recover; we also add some other thing on top. When we’re infected with a virus, we heal and become immune to subsequent infection. It is more than resilience, which is the return to a fixed state. Antifragile is a dynamic state that requires some stressor to stimulate growth or prevent atrophy.

Moshe warned of the day the Jewish People would get too comfortable and lose their way:

וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱלוֹהַּ עָשָׂהוּ וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ – So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked, you grew fat and gross and coarse, and forsook the God who made him, and spurned the Rock of his support. (32:15)

The Haggadah echoes the same by warning us of the threat of Lavan; Pharaoh might be the familiar enemy that directly tries to kill, but the devious Lavan only hurts us indirectly. Amidst all Yakov’s material blessing with Lavan, he would not have lost his life, but he would have lost his soul.

We are products of modernity, for which there is no shame; we cannot be anything other than what we are. But what defines us, and what does not? We are Jews; our history and our culture define us, not the society we live in. Our society can influence the expression of our history and our culture, and a Jew today looks different from a Jew in the Middle Ages or a Jew five centuries from now.

When our enemies threaten our very lives, “us” and “them” are self-explanatory and straightforward, but we currently live in one of the rare periods where that’s not the case – thankfully! But the threat is never gone; it merely contorts itself into a different form. While everyone knows that assimilation is a silent killer, materialism is only a slightly less malignant form of assimilation but still very much within the same conceptual category.

So perhaps while “us” and “them” were faulty in Yosef’s brothers, they were rediscovered and reclaimed by Yosef and his sons; and that’s the heart of what we wish for our sons. To know who they are, to correctly identify threats, to stand up in the face of adversity, to rise to the challenge, and to thrive in overcoming it.

In our families and communities, we can and must correctly identify the “us,” who we are alongside each other, and stand up to “them,” the challenge that modern culture poses. If you cannot correctly tell “us” from “them,” then all the concomitant dangers naturally follow when we turn what should be “us” into “them” – competition, fear, jealousy, anger, alienation, and literal or metaphorical death.

Our sons will go out into the world and confront all sorts of trials we cannot imagine or prepare them for, and because they will face those challenges differently and achieve different outcomes.

So we desperately wish for them to be like Ephraim and Menashe because although neither easy nor guaranteed, their example proves that by facing challenges together, it is possible to remain brothers and allies, united in happiness with and for each other, so long as they know who they are, where they come from, and what they stand for and against.