Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) A Child’s Choice; A Parent’s Voice

This week’s Torah reading is the conclusion of the book of Genesis. Jacob’s family has been reunited and before he dies, he blesses his children and grandchildren. Among those blessings is one that became a permanent fixture in Jewish life from that time forward. Jacob tells Joseph (Genesis 48:20) that in the future parents will bless their children, May you be like Ephraim and Menashe (The two sons of Joseph). Targum Yonasan (1st century translation and commentary) saysthat this blessing will be given at a bris, circumcision. Ksav Sofer, (1815-1871) asks a simple question: Why does the Targum Yonasan limit the blessing and say that it will only be given at the time of circumcision? Why does he veer from the straightforward interpretation that the verse is referring to a blessing that parents can give any time to their children?

Ksav Sofer explains that Ephraim and Menashe followed different paths in life. One was more focused on Torah study and spiritual pursuits whereas the other was more of a person of the world (i.e. business/government). Jewish parents are supposed to give their children the choice and opportunity to pursue either one of these paths. However, if a child spends his or her formative years in soccer practice, piano or art lessons, drama club, and/or spending hours playing video games and watching TV, the choice is made long before the child even realizes that there is a choice. Extracurricular activities are wonderful outlets and vital for a child’s enrichment but if the child has not been exposed to Judaism in a meaningful way, then the parent has already chosen a path for the child.

This sheds light on Targum Yonasan’s interpretation. Perhaps the reason why he limits the blessing (“May you be like Ephraim and Menashe”) to be said at the moment of the bris milah (circumcision), is to give an overt message to the parents. Even though the baby is only eight days old, now is the time for the parents to think and speak about giving their son the Ephraim option. If those heights cannot be reached and he opts out, there will always be time later to become a Menashe, a man of the world — nothing will have been lost in the process.

There is an obvious application of this idea. If parents end their child’s Jewish education at his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah, that child will be encountering the world around him or her without knowing how to navigate it as a Jew. “Thou shalt go to college” is the 11th commandment for most Jews and children are raised with that knowledge and expectation from the earliest age; the child is well prepared for it. But when that child is confronted with philosophies and values antithetical to Judaism, he or she will have no defense for this onslaught of ideas because his or her Jewish education ended when he or she was a child.

Torah needs to be presented as something inspiring and empowering. It should be seen as a set of values and not just as a set of traditions. The focus should be on relevance and meaning rather than on information. Children need to know how they will grow from their Judaism, how they will develop their characters and become better, more spiritual, people who will live more meaningful lives. Sending a child to a Jewish school should be seen as 12 year investment in which he or she will come out with the core of 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom. They will be exposed to the Jewish Great Books, which showcase our great spiritual and intellectual history.
We should promise to teach our youth a Jewish approach to the contemporary issues of the day. A student with a strong Jewish education should be able to answer fundamental questions about their Jewish identity like: Why be Jewish? What does it mean to be a good person? What is a Jew’s relationship to non-Jews? How should we organize society? Can I articulate how Judaism and science are loyal partners and crucial to one another?

When a boy is eight days old he is circumcised. On that day, according to Targum Yonasan, his parents give him a blessing to choose a life devoted to pure Torah study and spirituality or one in which he will he will be more worldly. Both options assume a strong Jewish future; the choice will be made when he is mature and understands the impact of it. Many Jews find themselves simply going through the motions of the Judaism in which they were raised even though they do not get anything from it. They are not choosing, they are settling for what is familiar and comfortable.

Our ability to make choices and live according to them is what separates us from animals. For most Jews, those choices include which college to attend, what profession to choose, whom to marry, and where to live but how to be happy, have peace of mind, and learn to live harmoniously with myself and the people in my life are not things some people even realize is in in their power to choose. Judaism addresses these issues and gives tools and methodology for how to achieve these things. This Shabbos when we will finish Genesis, the first of the five books of the Torah, ask yourself, “when was the last time I made a Jewish choice? I might be past child bearing years or have children who are too old to be educated the way would have liked but the one thing I still have is my ability to choose.” May we all exploit that ability to its fullest extent.

Good Shabbos