Weekly Torah Portion: Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) 5774/2013 The Blessing of Children

This week’s reading elaborates on the final chapter of Jacob’s life, when his eyesight failed him in his old age. Joseph (Jacob’s son) brought his sons for a final blessing from their grandfather. He moved them towards Jacob, who kissed and hugged them. Joseph then took his sons off of Jacob’s lap, carefully presenting them to Jacob with Menasha, the oldest, on the right and Ephraim on the left so that Jacob’s hands would rest on the appropriate heads for a final blessing. Jacob switched (i.e. crisscrossed) his hands, resting his right hand on Ephraim and his left on Menasha. When Joseph realized that Jacob switched hands (choosing Ephraim over the firstborn Menasha) he thought his elderly father had made a mistake and tried to correct the positions of Jacob’s hands. Jacob resisted and explained that he was fully aware of what he was doing Ephraim would indeed surpass his older brother in greatness and therefore needed the appropriate blessing. On that day, Jacob concluded with the words that Jewish parents have been blessing their children ever since, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menasha.”
Imagine the thoughts of one who would have been there to witness Jacob’s seeming favoritism of Ephraim over Menasha; it would have appeared to be history repeating itself. When Joseph was younger, he too was the one favored by his father; the unique coat of many colors was given only to him and caused strife between him and his brothers and now it seemed that history was repeating itself.  The obvious question is, why would Jacob repeat an action for which he was painfully aware of its potential harm? Whenever one child is favored over another, jealousy and its destructive wake are to be expected.
There’s an important lesson here. Giving a blessing or other gift to one child but not another can create jealousy but it doesn’t have to; it depends on the character of the people involved. A father might give a son his power tools because he sees that that particular child is a talented cabinet maker and therefore even though the tools are of great financial value, this child more than the others will put it to the best use. If parents have done a good job of instilling self-confidence into their children, each will realize that certain gifts have a rightful recipient, even though it might be a painful reality. Imagine a Jewish grandmother who has used the same candlesticks to light Shabbos candles since her marriage 60 years ago and has now decided to give  them to the only granddaughter who lights Shabbos candles. Although the other grandchildren might have appreciated having the candlesticks for their decorative or monetary appeal, in their heart of hearts they realize that the rightful owner of the candlesticks is the one who will light them for another 60 years. These aren’t always easy issues to discuss but a person guided by reason-not emotion-will ultimately comprehend that not all gifts and not all recipients are equal.  A parent might carefully avoid discussing or dealing with a difficult or sensitive subject concerning the children and make it seem that everything is equal and even hopes that something as unpleasant jealousy will somehow not surface but that kind of behavior just postpones jealousy, it never eliminates it. Parents have to build their children’s character so that they will know and understand who they are and who they aren’t. In Jewish consciousness one of the obligations of a parent is to develop good middot, character traits, in his or her children.
If Jacob had the slightest thought that his grandson would be jealous when he overtly switched his hands to give the blessing there’s no way he would have done that; he clearly saw that his two grandsons possessed the qualities that allowed him to do what he did.
Two important personality traits a person should strive for are (1) not being boastful when in a superior position and (2) not being resentful when in an inferior position. If a child shows brilliance and passion for science and that passion is nurtured by the parents, shouldn’t an emotionally healthy family be able to rejoice when that child wins the Nobel Prize? If the other children are bitter and resentful, something’s wrong. Ephraim was destined to become greater than his older brother Menasha yet Ephraim never lorded himself over Menasha, nor was Menasha jealous of Ephraim’s prominence.
Some explain this idea as the rationale of the time honored Jewish custom for parents to give the blessing (Friday night before Kiddush) “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menasha.”  The greatest blessing a parent can give to a child is to be like these two brothers; to be content with one’s lot and not think about the wisdom, strength, or other gifts of another child.
How does one raise a child to be content and able to rejoice in the accomplishments of siblings? It involves the “G” word, the word some Jewish parents are scared to mention at home. It begins when a child realizes that (s)he is a creation of G-d who has unique talents and abilities; if not, G-d wouldn’t have participated in the creation of this child. It is not always the smartest or physically gifted children who inspire others-including their own parents and siblings-it is the perseverance, honesty and many other admirable traits are they have worked so hard to develop that are the source of inspiration. When one is imbued with the idea that one’s natural abilities are given by G-d and that some people are more gifted than others, but the expectation is to use those gifts and recognize the Almighty’s bequest of them. This is one of the greatest gifts and blessings a parent can give to a child; it should be a guiding beacon in navigating the complexities of parenting and will diminish second guessing and lack of confidence that so many parents have.
Good Shabbos