Be Like Mike... Menashe... Myself?
Torah Portion: Genesis 47:28-50:26
Special Haftarah Portion for Chanukah: Kings 2:1-12
In 1991, a rising sports drink company partnered with a rising young athlete. The partnership proved mutually beneficial. As the athlete's career continued to take dramatic leaps on and off the court, the marketing share of this company took lucrative leaps forward with new flavors and unpredicted world-wide appeal. Do you know of whom I speak? Gatorade, of course, and the unforgettable Michael "Air" Jordan! Their united campaign was called: "Be Like Mike." And, its commercial included the lyrics, "Sometimes I dream that he is me. You've got to see that's how I dream to be. I dream I move. I dream I groove...like Mike! Oh! If I could be like Mike!"
Like Mike? Why not 'like Menashe and Ephraim,' the sons of Joseph? After all, that aspiration is the customary invocation bestowed upon the sons of Jewish families every Sabbath evening: "May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe." What? You don't recognize it? That's okay. Manischewitz wine is presently in production on its own commercial, which will undoubtedly use those words as its chorus. Though, there's no need to wait, as the original lyrics to this future hit are found within this week's Torah portion of Vay'chi. As Jacob's death nears, he imparts - among his final words - the blessing: "May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe."[i]
But, why them? Why such minor characters? Maybe, taught Gandalf from The Hobbit, they remind us that "it's the little things - like acts of kindness - that keep the darkness at bay."[ii] Rabbi Joseph Hertz suggests Menashe and Ephraim are selected because "they refused to barter away their 'Jewishness' for Egyptian social position."[iii] Though, adds Rabbi Harold Kushner, Menashe and Ephraim could simply be mentioned because "they were the first Biblical brothers to get along."[iv] Whatever the reason, remarks Professor Nachum Sarna, it was a common Israelite practice to cite the worthiness of others when praying for one to become someone of worth.[v]
It was common then and it remains a common practice today that goes beyond the shimmering lights of the playing-field or praying-field (i.e. our Sabbath tables). If we want to be brilliant entrepreneurs, then we may pray for God to make us like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. If we want to be noteworthy thinkers and creators, then we may pray for God to make us like Einstein or Edison. And, if we want to be more flexible individuals, then - by all means - let us pray for God to make us like Gumby. And, why not? These luminary figures stretch and stand tall like beacons, inspiring us, guiding us to bolder, brighter (and even more bendable) futures.
Yet, to some, such prayerful words are heard and uttered not as blessings but curses, not as the hopeful "may-you-be-like" but the criticizing "why-can't-you-be-more-like." In other words, what is unintentionally communicated is "to be like someone else, one must be less like oneself." And, this conclusion is not irrational. Logically, any comparison - even one made through prayerful invocation - establishes an oversimplified situation, wherein one party plays the inferior position, full of condemnation, while the other plays the superior, worthy of admiration. Such preferential treatment, as the story of Joseph clearly demonstrates, only ends in hurt.
Unless you are like Moe. Moe was a former youth-grouper of mine and the younger brother of Ed by 20 months. Being so close in age, Moe came up in school one year after Ed. While brilliant in his own way, Moe struggled with his education where Ed did not. As a result, every year Moe was subjected to the same nagging question by Ed's former teachers: "Why can't you be more like your brother?" Thankfully, Moe was not the shy type and replied bluntly, "Simple. I am not my brother. I am me for better and for worse."
This straightforward response always startled the teachers and, more importantly, reminded them that no one can be expected to be like another, even when raised in the same house. But, how did Moe come to know this? His parents. Every Sabbath evening, Moe's parents would place their hands upon their sons' heads and recite the customary blessing, though with a twist. Instead of "May God make you like Menashe and Ephraim," Moe's parents would say: "May God help you to be your own type, your own style of Menashe and Ephraim."
It was a small change to be sure, but one that would culminate in this astounding impact overtime, as Moe and Ed continued to identify, appreciate and emulate the worthy traits of others without overlooking, under appreciating and forever forsaking their own unique self-worth.
May we too be so insightful and careful as to strike this delicate balance between investing in the value of others while - at the same time - drawing out the investment God uniquely deposited within each one of us at the moment of our creation. In other words, let us pray not only to be like Mike and Menashe (as well as many, many others). Let's also strive to be more and more like ourselves. Because, what makes these people truly worthy of admiration isn't necessarily their talents or traits; it's their authenticity. "To thine own self be true," taught Shakespeare through his character Polonius in the play Hamlet.[vi] And, that's what this portion teaches us too:
As we take steps toward emulating the worthiness of others,
let's also take dramatic leaps toward manifesting our own!
May you have a Sabbath of peace!