Weekly Torah Commentary – Naso June 3, 2011

This week’s Torah portion is the longest in the Torah and it relates the bringing of offerings by the princes of the tribes of Israel at the dedication of the altar.  While the description of each gift fascinates us, for our purposes here, we will look at the last gift brought by the prince of the tribe of Efraim, Elishama ben Amihud.  Since the princes began bringing their gifts on the first day of the week, Sunday, we realize that the prince of Efraim brought his gift on Shabbat, as explained in the Midrash.

We remember that when Yaakov blessed his grandsons, Menasheh and Efraim, the sons of Yosef, he gave precedence to the younger, Efraim, over Menasheh, the firstborn.  There are many things to learn from this incident, such as the following.

The name of a person reveals much about his essence, and in these two cases, we are given this information explicitly by the Torah:

Yosef named the firstborn Menasheh, “for God has made me forget all of my trouble and all of my father’s house.” He named the second Efraim, “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my oppression.”(Bereishis 41:51-52)

The name Menasheh finds its root meaning in forgetting, or distancing oneself from the past. This represents a particular sort of Divine service, in which one divests oneself of all manner of evil deeds and habit patterns from one’s youth and radically changes one’s lifestyle to pursue righteousness and holiness.  

Efraim, on the other hand, finds its root meaning in fruitfulness. This is a different approach toward spiritual goals.  while Menasheh’s approach is to be consciously repentant of the past and continually seek to rectify it, Efraim’s approach is to focus on developing godly character and performing good deeds at every opportunity.

In other words, we could say that Menasheh’s approach is somewhat negatively based (maintaining a conscious remembrance of the evils of one’s past lifestyle as motivation for doing good) while Efraim’s approach is much more positive (seeking good, doing good deeds and though repenting when necessary, not dwelling on the past mistakes.)   There is a verse in the psalms which says “Depart from evil…and do good.”  In our context, Menasheh is “depart from evil,” whereas Efraim is “do good.”

Yaakov’s choice to bless Efraim before Menasheh represents choosing a lifestyle in which one first concentrates on performing good deeds. Then, due to the influx of holiness generated by one’s new mode of life, any evil traits will automatically dissipate over time. In Yaakov’s view, this approach to life was preferable to focusing on overcoming bad behavior before worrying about doing good deeds. And in fact, this is the general rule in Jewish life: we must begin our observance of the Torah by doing and learning, assigning a secondary role to eliminating evil. This will naturally follow later, for the more we acquire a Torah lifestyle, the more rapidly will any negative character traits and/or behavior be replaced by holiness.

In Tune with Torah this week = renewing our commitment to live the Torah’s commandments, choosing to do what is pleasing in Hashem’s sight knowing that the end result will be a falling away of negative behaviors.


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