Vayechi by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

D'var Torah Vayechi

Vayechi: What Became of Joseph’s Sons, Ephraim and Menashe?

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: The Marketplace of Thebes, imperial capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom. It is as crowded as American malls were in their heyday: merchants all noisily calling out about their wares. The air is full of the smells of old meat, fresh feta cheese, leather, spices, wine, and sheepshearing.

Standing by a coppersmith’s shop and longing for an ornamental shield is Menashe ben Yosef, Joseph’s younger son. He wears the field uniform of a Squad Commander in the Royal Egyptian  Cavalry. It is clear from the pattern of his sunburn that he has been wearing body armor,serving on desert patrol duty. Deciding that he wants the shield, Menashe calls out to the smith, who, bowing low, comes forward and begins to bargain with the young officer.

Suddenly, rushing through the crowd comes Ephraim ben Yosef, Joseph’s older son, his arms laden with rolls of papyrus and small blocks of carved wood. He cannot make way through the crowd, and the stack of papyri he carries makes it impossible for him to see in front. He accidentally bumps hard into Menashe, who spins around, hand on bronze sword, ready to defend himself.

Menashe: Aroint thee, Varlet! Wilt lay hands on a Royal Officer of the Mighty Pharaoh Ramesses II? Defend thee, or I’ll have your guts lying in the dust of the street!

Ephraim: So sorry, Commander (seeing Menashe’s rank on his chest). The fault is entirely mine. I was late for an appointment, and—

Menashe: You seem familiar. Did we serve together in “Horus the Hawk-god,” Regiment during the Mitanni Campaign last year?

Ephraim (bowing): No, I have never served, though I honor those who carry our Eagle-Standard forward against  foul Semitic invaders, be they Hebrews, Nubians, or other riffraff. I am but a humble artist, a member of the Artisans’ Guild. I—

Menashe (surprised and pleased): My Brother Ephraim, is it you? By the Rising of Ra, how many years has it been?

Ephraim: Menashe? My baby brother Menashe?

Menashe (bowing, half-mockingly): The same. (They embrace.)

Ephraim (looking in his brother’s eyes): You haven’t changed—

Menashe: Just a few scars earned in battle for the honor of King and Country. I began in the Royal Infantry, but then, when our Royal Ordnance Dept. improved upon the chariots brought to us by those accursed Hyksos, I switched to the cavalry. I am now Captain, “Osiris god of Death” Troop, guarding the holy northwestern boundaries of Egypt against Canaanite scum. One more important battle, and I could be looking at a Major’s wings on my shoulders.

Ephraim: How wonderful! Father Joseph would be so proud—

Menashe (harshly and low): I have no father (Spits on the ground).

Ephraim (whispering): Dear Lost Brother—how can you deny the Grand Vizier Joseph, our honored father? He gave you the best upbringing and education; he fed our homeland, Egypt, during the famine; he—

Menashe: Brother, Brother. Keep your voice down. These shops have ears, and I (looks around suspiciously) am a military officer of—of—Hebrew blood. Do you know how many duels I have fought, to defend my honor? Let us go into this tavern; the barkeep-proprietor is a friend. We will choose a quiet corner bench, and speak as freely as we can—(speaking more loudly about our new Pharaoh, Ramesses II, Ra bless him!

Ephraim (as they walk along, arm-in-arm): Well, Baby Brother, it is still so, so good to see you, after all these years!

Menashe: You know that I am career army; how do you live, Brother?

 Ephraim: I am a sculptor, in clay, wood, or any other medium. Graven images are my life.

Menashe: How wonderful, Dear Brother! I do recall how artistic you were, back in the Old Pharaoh’s Palace, when Papa—Joseph, I mean—took us with him to work. I would be fidgeting in my chair, and you would be sketching away. I am glad that you are able to make a living of it.

Ephraim: Yes: I can proudly say that, when notable Egyptians are laid to rest, their sarcophagi, even their little wooden servant-shawabtis, are often the products of my studio. I employ six men whose talents, while not equal to mine (Menashe smiles), are sufficient to pass muster with our clientele. When I bumped into you, I was rushing back to the studio to assign new tasks to my workers.

Menashe: So: we are both able, with the help of Anubis, to make a living.

(They enter a tavern on a side street, cool and dark. The barkeeper, seeing Menashe, greets him:)

Barkeep: Ho! Young Captain  Menashe, what news? How many Assyrian scalps have you brought home on your chariot-prow? Or, mayhap, any gold or precious jewels from slain Canaanite princes?

Menashe (laughing): Semrep, even a mighty warrior like me needs some time off.

Barkeep (laughing): You break my heart, O Great Warrior. What can I serve you and this other gentleman?

Menashe (to Ephraim): What is your pleasure, Ephraim? Barley beer, the soldier’s drink?

Ephraim (to Barkeep): Have you any light grape wine, Roman style?

Barkeep: Of course. Sit, sit, gentlemen, and I will wait upon you myself. (He sings:)

                                                Why then, let the cannikin clink, clink, clink,

                                                Why then, let the cannikin clink.

                                                A soldier’s a man,

                                                A life’s but a span,

                                                Well then, let the soldier drink, drink, drink…Ha!

Both Ephraim and Menashe (applauding): Well done! Semrep, I did not know you could sing. You must enter the King’s Competition for Best Singer, during the Harvest Festival!

Barkeep: I thank you, Gentlemen. That is an old song, taught me by my grandfather, who carried a sword into battle against the Hittites, long ago, during the reign of the Great Horemheb. Grandpa was a quiet military man, who cared only for the glory of Old Egypt, not his own, personal glory. (Whispers) Not like this current Pharaoh, that blowhard! Taxing the poor, and building monuments to himself—but I talk too much. (He looks about for spies, and brings the drinks.) I will leave you to your personal business; doubtless it is high affairs of state, seeing you are both Hebrews. Ha! (He leaves.)

Ephraim (sipping the wine): What did Semrep mean by that last remark? Yes, we are Hebrews, and I have never denied it, but why did you not challenge him?

Menashe (whispering): One must know when to speak up, and when to stay quiet, Brother. Why, haven’t you heard that Hebrews—I do not say, “We Hebrews,” since I consider myself an Egyptian, born and bred—that they are being singled out, one at a time, and impressed into a Royal Labor Corps? Whom do you think is building the pyramids that use your art?

Ephraim (shrugging): I heard something about that, when my oldest apprentice—I trained him myself—quit on me the other day. When I asked him why, he looked me in the eye mournfully and said, “Don’t you know that you’re a Hebrew, Master Ephraim? As a pure Egyptian, I can no longer work for you.” But I thought nothing of it. What shall we do, Brother? Is Ramesses threatening our freedom, our citizenship?

Menashe (staunchly): I will continue to do my duty, to defend Ra and Country. And if any man, royal or lay, challenges my loyalty, let him fear my blade!

Ephraim: But what if your general orders you to arrest Hebrews? To whom are you loyal? To your country or your tribe?

Menashe: To my—to my—I cannot say. Not yet.

Ephraim (draining the rest of the wine cup): You may have to decide, soon. My own position as a middle-class sculptor is, I believe, fairly safe, but who knows when the Pharaoh’s Secret Police may come for me?

Menashe: We must stay in touch, as best we can. I will try my best to protect you, with my contacts. I have served for ten years; does that not prove my loyalty? Osiris, my god! Damn.

Ephraim: May the gods of our land protect us from all harm!

Menashe: Amen! Well, I must go….

Ephraim: One more question, Brother?

Menashe: Anything. I have—had—a wife and two sons, but have not been in touch. Too many top-secret assignments, you know.

Ephraim: I, the same: an ex-wife, son and daughter, but gone from me. (Sighs) No, my question is, why did you disown our father?

Menashe (sadly): Don’t you see? Had he not brought us down to this wretched land of Egypt, having us born here, we would be free, free in our homeland of Israel today. Goodbye.

Ephraim: Goodbye, Brother. May the gods protect you!

(Exeunt omnes—They all go out.)

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

Enjoyed this archived service or article? Click here to donate $3 to OneShul (care of PunkTorah).

Support OneShul on GoFundMe

Leave a Reply