The Torah portion begins with the account of Joseph's dramatic elevation from servitude in the Egyptian dungeons to the position of Viceroy over all of Egypt. During its account of Joseph's elevation, the Torah tells us that he had two sons: "And he called the name of the first-born Menashe, for 'God has caused me to forget (nashani) all my hardship and all my father's household.' And the name of the second he called Ephraim for, 'God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.' " (1) The simple understanding of the naming of Menashe is that Joseph was thankful to God for enabling him to forget the great suffering he had endured in his fathers' home. However, this understanding seems very problematic. It is not difficult to fathom why Joseph was happy to forget the pain he endured at the hands of his brothers, however it is very hard to understand how he could be glad to forget his grieving father.(2)
Accordingly, the Malbim suggests a different way to understand the naming of Menashe. He writes that Joseph was not glad to forget his family, in fact the very opposite was the case; he called his first-born Menashe to symbolize that he was worried that he would forget (nashani) all the suffering that he endured at the hands of his family. The second son was named Ephraim to symbolize that he recognized that God had made him fruitful in the land of his suffering with the emphasis on the fact that even in the time of great success he did not forget the great suffering that he had endured in Egypt.
The Malbim explains in this vein that Joseph made simanim (signs) for himself through the names that he gave his sons. He further writes that this demonstrates Joseph's great righteousness in that he strived to remember the suffering that he had endured even in the times of good. He continues: "This is also the explanation of why we are commanded to eat Matza together with Maror (bitter herbs) on Seder night; we should remember the Exile in the time of freedom, because the Exile is the reason for the freedom, and the bad brings the good." (3) However, the Malbim does not explain why exactly the 'bad' is the reason for the subsequent 'good'. Further clarification is required as to why he considers that remembering the bad in the time of good indicates great righteousness.
A solution to these problems can be found in the Sifsei Chaim's explanation of part of the 'Al HaNissim' prayer. In 'Al HaNissim' we thank God for enabling us to defeat the Greeks: "You placed the strong in the hands of the weak; and the many in the hands of the few; and the impure in the hands of the pure; and the evil in the hands of the righteous; and the guilty in the hands of those who toil in Your Torah." The Sifsei Chaim asks that the first two of these praises do not seem to be parallel with the following three: The implication of the first two is that God enabled the weak to be victorious even though they faced strong enemies; and the few to win even though they were fighting many. In contrast in the remaining praises the implication is that the pure were successful because their enemies were impure; and that the righteous defeated the Greeks because they were evil.
He explains that in truth, all the praises are parallel in that they all explain why the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks. When we say that God placed the strong in the hands of the weak and the many in the hands of the few, we mean that He did so because they were weak and few in number they were successful, not despite that fact. The Sifsei Chaim continues that the Hasmoneans felt their physical weakness and lack of numbers and consequently realized that according to the laws of nature they had no chance of overcoming the mighty Greeks. Thus they fought with a strong sense of trust in God, recognizing that they could only succeed with great siyata dishmaya (Heavenly help). Because they did not rely on their own power, God did indeed help them and caused them to achieve a miraculous victory.(4)
With this explanation we can now understand why the Malbim stated that the suffering one endures is the very reason for the subsequent good that he experiences. When a person finds himself in a situation of difficulty and helplessness it is much easier for him to recognize that he does not have the ability to succeed. As a result of this recognition he turns to God to save him from his desperate situation. Because of this trust, God will likely respond by giving of His unlimited kindness to ensure that the person's situation drastically improves. In this way the 'bad times' that one endures can be the very cause of the subsequent 'good times'. This feeling of helplessness was the key to the success of the Hasmoneans.
We can also now come to an understanding why the Malbim writes that remembering one's earlier periods of suffering in times of tranquility is considered a sign of righteousness. When a person has everything that he needs he is far more prone to feelings of confidence in his own power and ability to succeed. He may no longer see the need to rely on God, rather he will feel self-reliant. We see this in the second paragraph of the Shema: The Torah promises that if we observe the mitzvot then we will receive abundance. Immediately following this, the Torah warns us about turning away from God - this teaches that the very success that God gives us may be the cause of us turning away from Him. An unfortunate consequence of this attitude of not relying on God may be that He will act measure for measure and desist from giving a person Heavenly help and as a result he will be at the mercy of the laws of nature.
A righteous person, even in times of abundance, maintains the realization that everything he has is from God and that his only source of success is God's continuing assistance. The greatness of Joseph was that even when he found himself in a position of great power, he never allowed himself to forget his previous situation of total helplessness. He strived to maintain the recognition that just as then he was in the hands of God, in the same way he was still totally dependent on God's beneficence for his success. By feeling the same helplessness in the good times as he felt in the bad, Joseph merited continued help from God. It is far easier to feel the need to turn to God in times of difficulty We learn from Joseph that even in time of plenty we must remember the more difficult periods of our life to remind us that even now we are totally reliant upon God in every aspect of our lives. By maintaining this recognition at all times we are far more likely to merit that God will continue to protect us at all times.
1. Mikeitz, 41:51-52.
2. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch zt"l asks this question - see there for his explanation. The commentaries further ask why Yosef did not reveal himself to Yaakov once he rose to a position of power in Mitzrayim. One answer offered is that he knew that the brothers had made an oath banning anyone from revealing to Yaakov the events surrounding his sale and he was bound by that oath.
3. Malbim, 41:51-52.
4. Sifsei Chaim, Moadim, 2nd Chelek, p.136.