Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers
By: Rabbi Elozor M. Preil, AWMA
Can there be a better parashah to celebrate becoming bar mitzvah than Parashat Vayechi? It is a parashah filled with blessings—from father to sons and from grandfather to grandsons. Let us analyze these blessings and try to discover what they say to us.
Yaakov Avinu blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh before he blesses his own children. Perhaps this is indicative of the special bond that exists between grandparents and grandchildren, a very different relationship than that which exists between parents and their own children.
When it is time for Yaakov to bless the two young men, Yosef arranges them in front of his father so that Yaakov’s dominant hand, his right hand, will rest upon Menasheh, the eldest, and his left hand upon the head of Ephraim, the younger son. Yaakov, however, crosses his hands so that his right hand is upon the head of Ephraim and his left hand upon Menasheh, as the pasuk states, “He directed his hands, for Menasheh was the firstborn” (Bereishit 48:14).
This verse presents us with a conundrum—it says that Yaakov crossed his hands and placed his left hand upon Menasheh specifically because Menasheh was the firstborn. Was being firstborn a reason to denigrate Menasheh?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin in his commentary Oznayim la-Torah suggests that Ephraim received the more prestigious blessing precisely because Menasheh was the bechor. After all, it was an old family tradition! Yaakov’s father Yitzchak was chosen over his older brother Yishmael, Yaakov himself claimed the birthright from Esav, and Yaakov had just transferred the birthright of Bnei Yisrael from Reuven to Yosef, one of his youngest sons. The lesson is that being first-born is no guarantee of success or greatness. It is a challenge to be met, and one that many firstborns in the Torah failed to fulfill.
My dear bar mitzvah, this message of Yaakov Avinu speaks to you today. It does not matter where in the family line-up you happened to have been born. Whether you are the oldest, the youngest, or anywhere in between, your destiny is in your own hands. You can achieve your goals to the degree that you are willing to dedicate yourself to achieving those goals. It is all is up to you.
But why of all of Yaakov’s grandchildren were only Yosef’s sons chosen to receive a special blessing from their grandfather? The answer is that of all of Yaakov’s grandchildren, Ephraim and Menasheh were the only ones to be born and live their entire lives outside of Eretz Yisrael—and worse, under the degenerate and immoral influence of Egypt. Therefore, they needed a special blessing from Yaakov, who lived for over two decades in the home of the wicked Lavan. Yaakov prayed that the angel who protected him from all the evil influences of Lavan should extend the same protection to these young men in Egypt.
This, too, speaks directly to you growing up in America. True, the United States is a malchut shel chesed, a government and a society that treats Jews far better than we have ever been treated in galut. Yet therein lies our great challenge. For even as we are accepted into the broad mainstream of American life, it is critical that that we build a solid foundation of Torah and yir’at shamayim to be able to differentiate between what is proper and what is not, what is Jewish and what is not. In addition, we need to develop the moral and spiritual courage to be able to act upon that knowledge and make the right choices.
Another lesson is gleaned from the far more extensive section of the parashah which describes Yaakov’s detailed blessings to his sons. Yaakov blesses each of his sons individually; no two blessings are alike. Each son, each tribe, is an indispensable part of the mosaic of Israel, not in spite of their differences but because of them. Each tribe is blessed by Yaakov to succeed at what it does best. Each tribe has its own unique gifts to contribute to the success of the nation of Israel. Just as we rely upon the kings and leaders from Yehudah and the talmidei chachamim from Yissachar, we are equally dependent upon the business acumen of Zevulun, the armed might of Gad, and the agricultural bounty of Asher. Yaakov Avinu is teaching his sons, and us, that we are not identical—nor should we be. We all have different strengths and interests, and we all have our individual and unique contributions to make to the Jewish people.
And so, my dear bar mitzvah, you too have your unique role to play on the stage of Jewish life. You may already know what interests you and what you would like to do as your life’s work. More likely, you are still trying to figure it out. Whatever your eventual decision, as long as you focus upon making your unique contribution to Torah and Am Yisrael, you will be blessed.
Rabbi Preil has been in chinuch for over thirty years and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Bible at Stern College for Women. He is also Managing Director at Wealth Advisory Group, LLC.