Yosef named his first-born Menasheh, meaning, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” The narrative then resumes telling of the end of the years of plenty and the beginning of the famine; and of the apparently instant starvation that overtakes the population, so that they have to appeal to Pharaoh–and, at his behest, to Yosef–for food. Interrupting the flow of this narrative is the description of the birth and naming of Yosef's sons, "before years of famine came." Both names are fraught with paradox. Menasheh is named for forgetfulness. Yosef seems to celebrate the oblivion, not only of his suffering, but of "all my father's house" that God has granted him. The Midrashic tradition indicates that he is referring specifically to his spiritual heritage (his "Torah learning"): he names his first-born son for the alienation that he experiences from his native culture, from "the best that has been thought and known." Commentators state that Yosef is acknowledging the mercy in oblivion: he is grateful not to be haunted by memory. The dangers of obsession with the past are very real for Yosef; they have the power to cripple him in the essential task he has undertaken. Not only the evils of the past but its loves, its beauty, and its sweetness – all have become perilous to one whose business is sheer survival. Yosef's task, quite simply, is to ensure–in the phrase that is used more than once to express the overriding value of survival–"that we may live and not die" (43:8,47:19). Nostalgia, yearning for the "sweetness and light" of his own culture, might hamper him in his single-minded role as life-sustainer for many nations.
Don’t we all, especially during these days that we wish to soon be over, long for the return of a previous chapter of our lives? Is nostalgia a positive or a negative emotion?
It can evoke an almost physical response, a strong desire to have things as we once had them. Certainly, after the loss of a loved one, we pine for the days when we had them in our lives. This Torah portion gives us a glimpse into the mind of our forefather Joseph, as he grapples with fame and new circumstances. Even though he was in a position of great power, perhaps he longed for the time when he had no responsibilities? Maybe he longed for the easier days in prison! When does nostalgia, sometimes defined as a feeling of homesickness, overtake you? Know that you’re not alone, that even the Torah sustains your feelings.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman