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Does Suffering “Buy” Reward?

I know that is a weird title. I mean, I know we have the cliché that “nothing in life is free,” “there is no free lunch” and the like. But in general, these are referring to what we gain from other people.

But this week my study-partners and I discovered that the text seems to suggest a transactional element to suffering delivered by G-d to mankind. In other words, G-d can make us pay for our blessings.

Where do I see this?

We were looking at the verse wherein Joseph names his son, Menashe. It is an odd verse, in part because of what it seems to be saying. The verse is:

וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כׇּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי׃

Joseph called the name of the firstborn “Menashe” because G-d has nasseh’d me from all my woes and all the house of my father.

The problem comes with the word nasseh. Most translations seem to think it means “forget” – which would suggest that Joseph names his son to help put the past behind him: both his hardships and his father’s house. Joseph is ready to move on, it seems.

Except that the word nasseh does not seem to mean “forget” at all! We have another word in Torah Hebrew for forgetting (shachach) – but not in this case.

Nasseh is only found in four verses in all. Here are two of them:

אִם־כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ תַּלְוֶ֣ה אֶת־עַמִּ֗י אֶת־הֶֽעָנִי֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹא־תִהְיֶ֥ה ל֖וֹ כְּנֹשֶׁ֑ה לֹֽא־תְשִׂימ֥וּן עָלָ֖יו נֶֽשֶׁךְ׃

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them like a nasseh; exact no interest from them.

and

When you make a loan of any sort to your compatriot, you must not enter the house to seize the pledge.

בַּח֖וּץ תַּעֲמֹ֑ד וְהָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ נֹשֶׁ֣ה ב֔וֹ יוֹצִ֥יא אֵלֶ֛יךָ אֶֽת־הַעֲב֖וֹט הַחֽוּצָה׃

You must remain outside, while the man to whom you loaned (nasseh) brings the pledge out to you.

The word nasseh is not about forgetting at all! It refers to obligation, to a debt! Actually, nasseh is more precise than this, and we find the meaning in the first verse in the Torah that uses that word. This is when Jacob wrestles with the angel. Here are the key verses in that section:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have strivenwith G-d and man and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh (nasseh) muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh (nasseh) muscle.

The Torah specifically uses this word – nasseh – instead of repeating the word used earlier (yerech) for the hip, the part of Jacob/Israel that was injured. And I think in light of the other uses of this word in the Torah, we can now understand why that is!

Jacob received his name change, a change in himself, and he was directly blessed by the angel. But it all came at a cost! And a cost that is not meant to be forgotten, but is instead to be remembered by every Torah Jew to this day: we don’t eat filet mignon because Jacob was wounded in that part of his body. The Jewish people earn a special relationship with G-d as a result of the choices Jacob made. Nasseh seems to be the opposite of forgetting! It is instead the price one pays for the rewards we get in this world.

Which then handily explains what Joseph was doing when he named Menasseh. He was acknowledging the blessings he received! Joseph had become the second-most important man in Egypt, and he had a wife and a son. And so when he names that son, he is explicitly stating that he had paid the price for those blessings – through his years of suffering.  That is why Menashe is named with the mem as the first letter, meaning “from.” Joseph and G-d have zeroed out their debt – Joseph suffered for his woes, and for the loss of his father’s house. And G-d blessed Joseph in return for acting like his father, Jacob: he refused to give up and quit, he did not lose faith despite suffering body blow after body blow.

That is a very pertinent lesson to me. I am no fan of suffering, yet the challenges G-d puts us through are much more tolerable if we see them through the eyes of Jacob and Joseph. We wrestle with G-d and with man (and especially with ourselves). And we pay a heavy price for our suffering. But the reward will be there, if we can keep faith and refuse to quit.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @kidcoder work!]

Comments are welcome!

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