Yaakov wasn’t blind. Yitzchak was. Why Yitzchak couldn’t tell Yaakov from Esav, we can at least partially understand – he was blind. But now, Yosef brings his two sons Efraim and Menashe to his ailing father Yaakov.
Yaakov looks at them and asks “Mee Eileh?” Who are these boys? I don’t recognize them! We know that for the last seventeen years of Yaakov’s life, Efraim and Menashe spent a lot of time with their grandfather. They studied with him every day and were privy to the secrets of tradition that Yaakov carried. Why didn’t Yaakov recognize them?
The Medrash explains that Efraim and Menasheh worked in the Egyptian palace. They were members of Joseph’s cabinet. They were seriously involved in political and economic issues, helping to run a world super-power. When in Egypt, they dressed like Egyptians. They couldn’t dress like their cousins in Goshen, the Monsey of Egypt; they worked in the White House. But every day, after work, they would change out of their Egyptian garb. Out of respect for their grandfather they would put on their Jewish clothing. One day they received an emergency call. Yaakov’s health had begun to fail. He was in fast decline. He called for Yosef and his sons to come – immediately so he can see them and bless them before he died.
There was no time to change clothing, no time for that extra kovod, time was too short – so in their “work” clothes they went to visit their grandfather Yaakov. Yaakov didn’t recognize them. He may have known who they were, but he didn’t understand what they were about. Are these the same two boys that come here every day to study Torah? Have I been deceived? Which one of these outfits is the costume? Which one is the real them? Are they Egyptian or are they Jewish? Mee Eileh?
It’s been a year since Rav Mordechei Gifter, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, passed away. I attended his funeral and listened carefully to the stories of his life. I learned so many lessons from his life and teachings. One story stood out and made a very deep impression on my soul. Rabbi Gifter started his career as a Rabbi in Waterbury, CT. He was “out of town” in the full sense of the word. He was separated from the great scholars of Lithuania he had loved. He was isolated from his friends with whom he studied and grown with. He was surrounded with people that never saw the world that he related to and didn’t understand it. There was no one around to discuss a Tosfos or difficult Kzos. When a meshulach, a shochet or a visiting Rabbi would pass through his town, Rav Gifter would grab him and talk with him through the night. He had an interesting practice. The first thing Rav Gifter would do was ask his guests to look around his house. He would ask them to walk through the living areas, the bedrooms, and look through the kitchen cupboards to check for nuances of change. Rav Gifter realized that he wasn’t in Telz, he wasn’t even on the East Side of New York – he was in Waterbury. He was afraid that without even realizing it he might be changing. He knew that he was too close to the situation to realize it. He gave his guests the job of inspecting his life. He was guarding his most sacred possession – his Yiddishkeit.
Yosef saw his father’s confusion. Yaakov wanted to know if his grandchildren changed. Who are they? Who did they become while in the palace of the Pharaoh? Yosef answered with a bold sense of confidence, “Banai heim!” These are my sons that G-d has graced me with! They are the same Efraim and Menashe that you are used to seeing – the difference is only external.
Life in these United States can get complicated. Sometimes we look in the mirror and we confuse ourselves! Yaakov taught us to ask the question – “Who are you?” Do a reality check and make sure the answer is always resoundingly clear – “Bonim Anachnu”.