Not Just a Name

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The above words, written by Shakespeare to be recited by Juliet, stand in stark contradistinction to the Torah’s view of names. There are countless times throughout the book of Bereishit where a child is named based on a specific concept. These names actually reflect deep and powerful ideas, more often than not concerning God’s unique relationship to humanity. In the Torah portion of Mikeitz, there are two more births and two more names. These names offer us a tremendous insight into the personality of Yosef, helping us to understand the arc of the storyline, and reinforcing the unique emphasis Judaism places on what others merely view as a label of convenience.

Yosef’s meteoric rise to power and fame are well documented in the Torah. Immediately after his public display of power, the Torah records the following (Bereishit 41:50-52):

“And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of the famine set in, whom Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the governor of On, bore to him. And Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, for ‘God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house.’ And the second one he named Ephraim, for ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’”

The tone of the Torah is almost a retroactive one, meaning it does not appear to be recording the historical time of the births of Menashe and Ephraim. Rather, the Torah is, in some sense, making sure we know that the two were born and that Yosef named them. This is certainly not a normative way of describing births and names.

The names themselves require some further explanation. With Menashe, we see Yosef thanking God for allowing him to forget. What exactly was he trying to forget? 

There is a Midrashic interpretation offered to as an answer, and many of the commentators fall in line with this approach. Basically, through the incredible prosperity he accumulated, alongside the tremendous honors offered him, Yosef was able to forget the sufferings he encountered in being separated from his father as well as the sufferings heaped upon him by those in his father’s house. 

This interpretation is quite baffling. Is repression of the past the proper path a great person like Yosef should take? Is this repression the true benefit of his material success? Why enshrine this idea in the name of his son? 

The naming of Ephraim draws a similar amount of attention. The idea of being fruitful, according to many commentators, refers to the accumulation of wealth in contrast to his previous impoverished state. While this idea seems simpler to understand, the relationship to the naming of Menashe requires some degree of context. 

There are a minority of commentators, such as Daat Zekainim MiBaalei Tosfot, that offer a completely different interpretation. The name Ephraim contains within it the word “efer”, which means ashes. Yosef was naming his son in the spirit of the patriarchs Avraham and Yitzchak. Avraham referred to himself as “afar v’efer”, while Yitzchak compared himself to the ashes left on the altar. What is the significance of ashes in this context? Furthermore, while the novelty of this approach is fascinating, we must develop some deeper understanding of why these commentators stray so far from what would appear to be the simple reading of the verse.

When reading through Yosef’s rise to prominence, God’s role seems to be minimized. Yosef does reference the fact that any of his insights into Pharaoh’s dreams was due to assistance from God. Outside of this clarification, one could attribute what occurred with Yosef to a sequence of unlikely events dominated by shrewd thinking on the part of Yosef. The “missing” role of God to this point is the focus of Yosef in the naming of his children. The Torah places the naming of Yosef’s children at the transition point between the climax of Yosef’s rise and the visit of the brothers to Egypt due to the onset of the famine. Why mention the event of their births then? It is possible the reason was to consecrate in the names of Menashe and Ephraim the great extent of God’s involvement in the dramatic shift in Yosef’s fortunes and how Yosef understood through God’s actions the next steps in the Divine plan.

Was Yosef trying to forget his past troubles? While there were moments of success, Yosef’s life up to the point of his being summoned before Pharaoh was quite traumatic. However, Yosef now understood completely how his behaviors and imperfections played such a prominent role in the process. He had engaged in teshuva, repentance, and now understood his unique situation and its ability to unite together his brothers and father in order to build the nation. His view of the previous dreams was now in line with reality, and any ego gratification was removed from the interpretation. Yosef also realized how important his gaining of wealth and honor were critical to the repentance process. On an intellectual level, Yosef was able to realize during his time in the Egyptian prison the errors in his ways. However, as long as his living environment was defined by his current conditions, imprisoned and impoverished, there would be an element of resentment against his brothers present in his psyche. The constant reminder of his current state presented a formidable obstacle to Yosef’s complete repentance. We see this is in the two reasons cited above. First, Yosef was separated from his father, which meant he lost out on years of education and guidance. Yosef also reflected on the way he was rejected by his brothers outright, cast away from them. It would be normal to expect someone to bear resentment against those who brought about these terrible conditions. And this was not an abrogation of responsibility on the part of Yosef. Yosef understood that the change in his circumstances was a necessary component to help bring about his complete repentance and allow him to become the leader he had to be. This is reflected in the name of Menashe.

What about Ephraim? The conventional interpretation adopted by most commentaries is the contrast in situations, a true “rags-to-riches” journey. Therefore, the name of Ephraim reflects the other aspect of Divine Intervention. The idea of someone in Yosef’s state of existence becoming the viceroy was so unlikely that one would have to see God’s guidance throughout. Thus, Yosef was recognizing both the phenomenon of God’s intervention alongside the benefits afforded him in repentance. However, as noted above, there is another interpretation given, one that seems to be way off the literal reading in the Torah. We do see an important theme in this approach, that of humility. A primary component of Yosef’s flawed character was his ego, his overestimation of self. It many ways, this flaw was what led to his being driven away from his brothers. In naming his son Ephraim, Yosef may be expressing the conviction that his repentance is complete. He no longer had any attachment to that former self. In the name of Ephraim we see the completion of a process necessary to bring about the next stage in God’s plan.

What’s in a name? As we see from Menashe and Ephraim, quite a lot indeed.