‘Tis the season of revelry and fun, the time for partying and expressing future goals. It is the time for making resolutions that have little chance of materializing. It is also a time when many a parent fears that cross contamination may infect their children’s souls. Some clergy spout venomous diatribes on the evils of this day’s licentious activities and see the intermingling of cultures as a satanic triumph. I, however, believe the opposite may also be true. No, I am not a party animal and rarely if ever touch any amber colored fluids (except on rare occasions some Blue Label), yet life has taught me that prohibition and segregation rarely achieves the intended results.
Traditionally on Friday night, prior to reciting Kiddush, parents bless their children with the age-old biblical formula found in this week’s Torah portion. Ya’akov (Jacob) is on his deathbed and asks Yosef (Joseph) to bring his two sons for a blessing. Although he eventually blesses all of his children, we bless our children only with the words “y’simchah Elokim K’Efraim u’kiMenashe” – may the Lord help our children to develop and be just like Efraim and Menashe. Why are Efraim and Menashe singled out? Were they so profoundly different than his other grandchildren? Does their upbringing provide a clue as to how we can prevent future generations from assimilating? They were raised in a foreign land with alien cultures during their formative years, and yet their Jewishness couldn’t be taken for granted. They had no support system except for their family; they had to find the inner strength to maintain their identity in a friendly but religiously hostile environment. None of their friends kept dietary laws or had to refrain from social activities on Shabbat, but instead of weakening their resolve it served to strengthen it.
The Torah does not mention that Yosef and his family lived in isolation, unwilling or unable to interact with the greater society. On the contrary, I imagine that a family of his noble status must have been fully integrated and involved in the Egyptian culture. His children were raised to understand that one could learn positive values from all cultures and perchance even learn to be a better Jew. Our sages in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, written in the 2nd century, states that the wise person is the person who realizes that he must learn from others.
Ushering in the secular New Year with joy, revelry, and perhaps some personal positive resolutions isn’t a problem. However, prohibiting all secular influences is counterproductive and foolish. Our children don’t reside in ghettos, and banning that which is inherently permissible will ultimately lead us to revisit the Adam and Eve saga. Drinking isn’t the problem, drinking irresponsibly is. Frivolity at the proper time isn’t the problem, but one must sharpen their proverbial pencil to highlight the line of demarcation. Efraim and Menashe were able to hone in and create a balance that we hope our children will emulate.
It is interesting that for girls the blessing states: may they be like Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. This is different than the blessing for sons. We don’t bless our sons by saying they should be like the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but rather like the two sons of Yosef. Can the reason be that our matriarchs also grew up in a less than optimal environment? Yet instead of succumbing to peer pressure they were able to learn from their surroundings and become our matriarchs.
Celebrating New Year’s on Wednesday night and Thursday isn’t an issue. Problems arise when we fail to use the lessons of the secular world to create a more beautiful Jewish world. Our goal should be for our children to experience joy and revelry when we bless them on Shabbat. Can you imagine if the spirit that seems so contagious in the secular culture found its way into the Jewish world? Perhaps if we brought a little more joy into our Shabbat, then the blessing imparted on our children would flow without any resistance.
Rabbi Jack Engel