What is our mission in this world? Is it just to survive and live another day, or is there something more? It seems that we are struggling. It seems that we are constantly on the defensive and reacting to what others do and say. Is that what being Jewish is all about?
The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is that there is surely more to being Jewish than just survival and being secure in our identity as Jews. Of course, the first objective for every Jew is to be able to live comfortably as a Jew despite society around us either being agnostic or worse, antagonistic. But that stage is really there just to ensure that the next stage is possible: to influence the world around us.
While the Jewish religion itself is unique to Jews, and there is no purpose in a non-Jew observing Judaism, Torah is still rife with the message of morality that every human being can follow and implement. And it’s the Jew’s job to be the light unto the nation, the harborer of morality and ethics for all of mankind.
When Joseph had his sons, he named them for circumstances that he had found himself; exiled, away from his family, yet at the same time he thrived and influenced a generation of Egyptians. The name of his first son, Menasheh, was Joseph’s way of reminding himself of his true identity, that he was not the same as everyone else around him. His second son, Ephraim, was a reminder that despite being in exile, he still had the obligation to be productive and influence society to the best of ability.
So we have two seemingly parallel goals — to maintain our identity and at the same time to be a light unto the nations — but which is the real goal? What should our primary focus be on?
That’s where Joseph and Jacob disagreed. Before Jacob’s passing, Joseph brought his sons to their grandfather for a blessing. He placed Menashe, the older brother, on Jacob’s right, and Ephraim on the left. The right side is generally considered superior, so in addition to putting the older brother on the “better” side, Joseph was making the point that the boy that represented the Jewish people’s survival was superior, that securing our identity as Jews is our primary goal.
But Jacob believed that survival is just a tool in the bigger picture of the Jewish people influencing the world in the most positive way possible. So when his grandsons were placed before him, he crossed his hands over each other and placed his right hand on Ephraim, making the point that surviving is important, but making a difference is what we’re really all about. At the same time, he didn’t tell them to switch places, because he acknowledged the value that the name Menasheh represented and thus left him on the right side, but ultimately the real goal is more than just survival.
The same message applies to Jews of all generations, when things are going well and also (or especially) when they are not. Our purpose is to be a positive influence on the world around us, and everything we do must be with that goal in mind. Of course, in order to be able to accomplish that goal, we must also survive. Which means that our survival and ensuring that we have a strong Jewish identity, is in fact part of the bigger picture — of making the world a better place, not only for ourselves but for all of humanity.
When the Jewish people are strong and secure, the entire world benefits.