Parshat Vayechi

Torah Reading for Week of December 27, 2009 – January 2, 2010

“Kiss Them and Embrace Them”

by Rabbi Jay Sherwood, ’09

The response was fast and furious, filled with outrage and rebuke. Jewish Daily Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg called it, “One of the most spectacularly knuckle-headed advertising campaigns in modern Jewish history.” The ad was produced by MASA, a program funded by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government that brings young Diaspora Jews to Israel for extended visits, sort of a longer version of the well known Birthright program. Featuring missing persons’ posters reminiscent of milk carton missing children announcements and ominous railroad scenes evoking Holocaust imagery, the television ad broadcast in Israel equated intermarriage with assimilation. It stated that 50% of Diaspora Jews were assimilating (read: intermarrying), and they will be “lost” if their Israeli brethren do not “save” them. “Saving” Jews from intermarriage is not a realistic answer. Intermarriage was a reality in biblical times, and it has remained a reality throughout Jewish history. While we need not condone intermarriage, we must ask ourselves: How shall we respond to the children of these marriages so that we ensure a Jewish future?

The story of Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren in this week’s parashah provides us with the answer. The Torah tells us very little about the lives of Jacob’s grandsons, Ephraim and Menasseh. The two boys were the offspring of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph, and Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. They lived their entire lives in the land of Egypt, and are attributed as the patriarchs of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh.

As Jacob’s death approached, Joseph came to him along with his sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. Jacob adopted his two grandsons as his own, making them direct heirs, calling them equals with his own sons. Then Jacob, now called Israel so that we may view him as the father the entire Israelite nation, instructed Joseph to bring Ephraim and Menasseh near so that Israel may bless them. Joseph brought his two sons close, and Israel kissed them and embraced them.

Israel then blessed Ephraim and Menasseh, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” To this day, we bless our children with the very same words.

Ephraim and Manasseh were the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. They were raised in a non-Jewish society, immersed in the culture of the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Yet Jacob accepted them as his own, adopting them and offering them his blessing. We do not read of Jacob giving blessings to any other grandchildren. Perhaps this is because, unlike their cousins, Ephraim and Manasseh grew up in a non-Jewish society, the children of one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent, yet maintained their Jewish identity.

Many children of intermarriage today, growing up in a non-Jewish society as the children of one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent, are given a Jewish education and are raised with a strong Jewish identity. They are truly worthy of Israel’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, for they follow directly in the footsteps of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Understanding the reality of intermarriage is not predicated on the acceptance of assimilation. Certainly, the validity of patrilineal descent, the necessity of conversion rituals, and the merits and faults of outreach and in-reach programs, are issues worthy of discussion. Before entering this discourse, however, let us be like Jacob. Let us reach out to the children of intermarriage and let them know that they are not “lost.” Let us draw them near to us, bless them with a Jewish future, and kiss them and embrace them.

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