Foreign Culture is My Friend by Yaffa Palti
Every Friday night, after infusing the home with light and sanctifying the mundane, we rise in testimony to God's omnipotence and kingship, with a glass of wine. Then, in many Jewish homes around the world, parents give a blessing to their children.
The blessing for the girls is that they grow up to follow in the spiritual footsteps are our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. The boys are given this famous blessing: Yisimcha Elokim k’Ephraim uch’Menashe (God should make you to be like Ephraim and Menashe).
Wait. Menashe? Ephraim? What's wrong with a blessing to be like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or any of his 12 sons, whom we just learned so much about? I don’t even know Ephraim and Menashe. What's so extraordinary about them?
There has to be a good reason. Let's explore it together.
You know what would be really nice? To have the ability to raise our children in exactly the way we want them to be raised. Whatever they know would be just what we taught them, in the way that we taught it to them. That which we want to protect them from, they would never find out about.
Clearly, reality forces us out of this fantasy. We live life surrounded by people of all shapes, sizes and colors. We are exposed to more philosophies than we can integrate and we are encircled by an array of theories and behaviors, some appealing, some not.
No matter how hard we try to shelter ourselves and our kids from certain alien cultures around us, we can't fully escape them. We need to recognize this, accept it and embrace it.
Menashe and Ephraim, unlike their grandparents, became who they were by growing up in Egypt, the home of immodesty, promiscuity and everything spiritually ugly. And yet, they were able to reach a level of spiritual completion high enough to be the goal of our aspirations for our sons. How did they accomplish that?
Living within a foreign culture actually served as their friend, not their enemy. They learned to distinguish between good and bad. They had to differentiate between right and wrong. They mastered the skill of elevating the positive while rejecting evil. This is an art.
In order to achieve this, we too must be able to distinguish between good and bad. It is critical that the line be crystal clear. It's not necessary to shelter ourselves completely; we do not need to live in caves, afraid to look out at the world. Doing so creates weakness and inability to deal with differences. Standing up and facing reality while removing ourselves from its negativities shows strength, maturity and stability.
But the balance here is pretty tight. How do I know if I’m accepting too much of the influence of my environment? How can I integrate my surroundings in a spiritually healthy way?
As long as we use modern culture as a way to enhance our Judaism, we're able to grow from it. When priorities shift and the culture becomes the focus, problems begin.
G-d should bless us all to be like Ephraim and Menashe, to embrace the world we live in instead of fighting it, to elevate the good and reject the bad and, while living our lives surrounded by outside influences, to be able to keep and follow Jewish values as our number-one priority, always.
My environment might decide who I am, but I decide who I will become.
Yaffa Palti is a JWRP City Leader for Comunidad Sefardi in Mexico City, Mexico. Yaffa works as a spiritual educator and leader in Mexico City alongside her husband Rav Palti and their children.