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Better the ordinariness of Ephraim and Menashe than the alienation of the sons of Moses.

Traditionally, a Jewish father blesses his sons with, Jacob's Biblical blessing for his grandsons, Joseph's sons: "Adonai make you like Ephraim and Menashe." (Genesis 48:20) (The blessing for girls is the fervent wish that they grow up to resemble the Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.) But why Ephraim and Menashe, rather than any other Biblical figures? After all, they appear only briefly on the scene, when they are introduced to their grandfather, who includes them with his own sons as his heirs. The characters of Ephraim and Menashe have special significance in that they are the only ones of Jacob's grandchildren to be blessed by him, but there is no record of their having achieved greatness in their own right. Why should we not instead want our children to be like Moses or King David or any of the inspiring prophets such as Elijah or Isaiah?

The answer may be in the fact that Ephraim and Menashe were the recipients of affection from their grandfather. When Joseph brings his sons to his father, Jacob "kissed them and embraced them." (Genesis 48:10) Perhaps the originators of the traditional blessing understood the importance of parental love and affection in the formation of a human being's personality and values.

When Joseph learned of his father's final illness, he took his sons with him to visit Jacob. Joseph clearly wanted his sons to receive their grandfather's blessing and become an integral link in the chain of the descendants of Abraham. And indeed, Joseph apparently enjoyed a close relationship with his sons. "Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir, son of Menashe were also born on Joseph's knees." (Genesis 50:23)

The prominence the Torah gives to Ephraim and Menashe stands in stark contrast to its failure to refer to Moses' two sons in any meaningful or even substantive way.

The third chapter of the Book of Numbers, for example, begins with the words, "This is the line of Moses and Aaron on the day that Adonai spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai," but then immediately continues as follows:
 These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadav, the firstborn,
 Avihu, Eleazar, and Itamar. These are the names of the sons of
 Aaron, the anointed kohanim, whom he consecrated to serve as
 kohanim. But Nadav and Avihu died before Adonai when they offered
 alien fire before Adonai in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had
 no sons. And so it was that Eleazar and Itamar served as kohanim in
 the presence of Aaron, their father.


We know, of course, that Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, whom we meet fleetingly as tangential characters in the Book of Exodus, with neither having a speaking role, yet they are not mentioned here at all, almost as if Moses had been childless. To understand fully the significance of this stark omission, it is important to review some relevant aspects of Moses' life.

Moses flees Egypt after killing an Egyptian and finds refuge in Midian where he marries Tzipporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest Reuel, also referred to as Jethro. Moses and Tzipporah have a son, Gershom. The Torah does not provide any details about Moses' life in Midian, except that years later (according to tradition, 40 years later), when the story resumes, Moses is tending Jethro's sheep. The former Egyptian prince appears content to be a sheep herder. Moses then has his first encounter with God, Who wants him to return to Egypt. When Moses at long last, reluctantly, agrees to go, "Moses took his wife and sons (plural) and mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt." (Exodus 4:20)

There follows a bizarre two-verse scene, unconnected with and seemingly unrelated to the main narrative, where God "sought to kill" Moses at an encampment, and Tzipporah apparently saves his life by taking a flint and circumcising "her son." Twice, once before and once after GOd spares Moses' life, Tzipporah calls either Moses or her unnamed son "a bridegroom of blood." (Exodus 4:24-26) Among the strange aspects of this passage are the reference to God seeking to kill Moses--presumably, God could kill whomever He wanted to--and the fact that it is Tzipporah, not Moses, who circumcises their son.

According to one interpretation, Tzipporah was pregnant with their second son when they set out from Midian, and it was that son, later identified as Eliezer, whom she circumcised. Another interpretation is that Moses had never circumcised his first son, and indeed, why should he have? Up until this time, Moses was the classic assimilated Jew. He was brought up as an Egyptian prince in Pharaoh's household. He had been completely unconnected to the Jewish community in Egypt. When he fled to Midian, one can assume that he wanted nothing more than to become part of his new community--which suggests that he may well have identified far more with his father-in-law's culture and traditions, which he was able to absorb over the course of perhaps 40 years, than with his own to which he had probably never been exposed in any meaningful way. God may have insisted that Moses circumcise his firstborn before becoming the leader of the Jewish people. Moses may have refused at the risk of his life, perhaps because Gershom himself was objecting, and Tzipporah may have saved Moses from an angry God by performing the very ritual that Moses had refused, for whatever reason, to perform.

A Jew by choice who marries an assimilated Jew often is more committed to Jewish tradition than his or her Jewish spouse. It is also not unusual for a non-Jewish spouse to be the one to insist that the children of an intermarriage remain connected to their Jewish identity.

Tzipporah and her sons then disappear from the scene. Presumably, they return to her father's house while Moses travels on to Egypt where he and his older brother Aaron proceed to change the course of civilization as the political leaders of an emerging Jewish nation. Fast-forward to Exodus, Chapter 18, where Jethro brings Tzipporah, Gershom, and Eliezer to Moses in Sinai. The Torah does not record any reaction by Moses, emotional or otherwise, upon being reunited with his wife and sons. Moses' attention is reserved exclusively for Jethro, who may well have been the only father figure and role model Moses had ever known. Indeed, there is no mention anywhere in the Torah of any interaction or communication between Moses and his two sons.

Compare Moses' apparent indifference to his sons With Jacob's love and affection for his sons, especially Joseph, and with Jacob s bitter grief when he believed that Joseph had been killed. Joseph's eventual reunions, first With his brothers and then With his aged father, are among the most poignant scenes in the Torah. Joseph and Benjamin embraced and wept (Genesis 45:14); Jacob exclaimed "My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die" (Genesis 45:28); and
 Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father
 Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the
 neck, he wept on his neck a good while. (Genesis 46:29)


Joseph, the second most powerful figure in Egypt, did not wait for his father to come to him, but went to his father to reciprocate the love his father had always shown him. Later, after he had settled his father and brothers in Goshen, "Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father's household...." (Genesis 47:12)

The next reference to Tzipporah is when the Torah recounts that "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married, [saying] 'He married a Cushite woman.'" (Numbers 12:1) Let us now imagine for a moment how Gershom and Eliezer must have felt, uprooted from the nurturing environment of their grandfather's home in Midian into the middle of an unruly rabble led by their remote, unapproachable father who appears not to have given them the time of day. If, as my mentor Elie Wiesel so eloquently explains, the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference, then Moses' indifference to his sons must have been for them, beyond devastating, the ultimate rejection. Imagine further that one of the sons holds his father responsible for that highly traumatic incident when his mother circumcised him at some roadside encampment With a flint in order to save his father's life. And then imagine that they hear their uncle and aunt, the aristocrats of their new community, refer disparagingly to their mother as that "Cushite woman." Assuming that Tzipporah was dark-skinned, as is traditionally believed to be the case, then Gershom and Eliezer may well have been dark-skinned as well. Did their uncle and aunt make ethnic slurs about them, too, rather than welcoming them into the family? Historically, Jews have not been immune from racist or bigoted proclivities. Many German Jews, both in Germany and in this country, were blatantly contemptuous of Russian and Polish Jews. And the Ashkenazi establishment in Israel has a sorry history of treating Jews from North Africa and Arab countries with utter disdain. Also, was part of the sibling rivalry among Moses, Aaron, and Miriam an attempt by the latter two to ensure the pre-eminence of Aaron's two remaining sons? If so, did Gershom and Eliezer react to being rejected by telling not only their uncle and aunt but their father to go to hell?

A curious reference to a likely grandson of Moses is found in the Book of Judges (18:30). A certain Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Menashe, is identified as the priest of an idolatrous community in Dan, except that in the text, the Hebrew letter "nun" in Menashe is raised, suggesting that the original name written there had been not Menashe but Moshe, and that a revisionist attempt was made to try to camouflage the fact that Moses' grandson had rejected his grandfather's teachings and values. As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch has noted,
 The Rabbis acknowledge as much: the grandson of Moses presided over
 a sanctuary that violated the faith of his grandfather. Out of
 respect for Moses they tried to obscure the identity, slightly by
 inserting a suspended nun, a letter that hangs there with all the
 ambivalence of a child of a prominent parent.


Parents who neglect their children frequently end up with children who not only reject their parents but also become alienated from everything their parents represent. Theodor Herzl's son grew up in a home that was devoid of any Jewish spirit and converted to Christianity before returning to Judaism toward the end of his life. It is no coincidence that children who grow up in a warm, nurturing Jewish home are far more likely to have strong Jewish identities than those whose parents may have prominent positions in the Jewish community, but who fail to teach Jewish values or provide a Jewish education to their children.

Thus, the absence of Gershom and Eliezer as part of "the Line of Moses and Aaron" may be due to the fact that they did not want to have anything to do with their father or his legacy. Even Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu who had already been killed "when they offered alien fire before Adonai" are listed among Moses' and Aaron's descendants in Numbers 3:14, perhaps because they had followed their father into the priesthood, but not Moses' sons. In this context, the ancient Rabbis' decision to wish Jewish children to grow up to be like Ephraim and Menashe rather than the sons of Moses reflects an intuitive realization that it is far preferable to be loved and to be able to love without achieving greatness, than to be prominent and successful but cut off from one's family, especially one's children. Better the ordinariness of Ephraim and Menashe than the alienation of the sons of Moses.

Moses' tragedy may be that while he was the greatest leader and prophet in Jewish history, he was a failure as a husband and father. Shimon Peres has defined a Jew as someone whose children are Jewish. By that standard, Moses' example may constitute a warning that greatness and leadership can be overshadowed by one's shortcomings as a parent. After all, Moses himself taught in the central passage of the Jewish faith that we recite dally, the Sh'ma, "Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children." (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

Perhaps God forbade Moses to enter the Land of Israel because he had failed to implement this most fundamental injunction of the Jewish faith. And it is possible that at the end of his life, Moses confronted his personal failings. In his final blessings for the people of Israel, Moses said of his own tribe of Levi, perhaps wistfully referring to himself, "His brothers he disregarded, Ignored his own sons." (Deuteronomy 33:9) And maybe as he was dying on Mount Nebo, Moses understood the consequence of his estrangement from his sons. Moses' ultimate anguish may have been the knowledge that while Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all been buried and mourned by their sons, he would have to make do with public memorial services ("And the Children of Israel bewailed Moses in the Steppes of Moav for thirty days." Deuteronomy 34:8) His family, his sons, would not be there to bury him or to say Kaddish for him.

MENACHEM Z. ROSENSAFT, a lawyer, is President of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
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Author:Rosensaft, Menachem Z.
Publication:Midstream
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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