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Parshas Vayechi (5775)

My Son, The Rabbi

You know the old joke about the mother of the first Jewish president who turns to the senator sitting next to her at the inaugural address and proudly says, “You should see my other son. He’s a doctor!”

It seems like there is no greater nachas (pleasure) for a Jewish mother than to have a son who is a doctor (or, if not that, a lawyer, or at least an accountant).

Truth be told, it wasn’t always like that for the Jewish people – as shall be illustrated from the commentary of the Ksav Sofer (1815–1871) on a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayechi.

In the beginning of the Torah portion, we find our forefather Jacob gathering his children together to bless them before he dies. To his beloved grandchildren Menasseh and Ephraim, sons of his son Joseph, he says: “By you shall Israel bless saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasseh’ ” (Genesis 48:20). By this, Jacob means that all future generations will bless their children to be just like Ephraim and Menasseh.

[Indeed, there is a widespread custom until today for parents to bless their children with these same words upon returning from the synagogue on the eve of the Sabbath. For more on this blessing plus a how-to guide, see Lori Palatnik’s informative article on at]

The Targum Yonasan, in his running Aramaic translation/explanation to the Torah, adds a few words of commentary to the above verse. He writes: “By you shall Israel bless – on the day of circumcision – saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasseh’ ” It is difficult to understand what specific connection there is between this blessing and ritual circumcision that would cause the Targum Yonasan to suggest that Jacob intended for it to be recited at that particular point in a child’s life.

The Ksav Sofer explains as follows: Ephraim represents the quintessential Rabbi and Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar). He spent most of his time studying with his illustrious grandfather Jacob and absorbing a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge. His brother Menasseh, though certainly a knowledgeable and observant and G-d-fearing Jew, was the model “professional” who was busy running his father’s office and estate and otherwise involved in worldly pursuits.

Of course, it is highly unusual to find one person who can be the great and scholarly Rabbi as well as the successful professional or businessman at the same time – yet the world needs them both.

Now if someone tries to become a Rabbi like Ephraim and dedicates years of his life to the study of Torah, yet he doesn’t succeed, he can always then go the Menasseh route and train in a profession or become a successful businessman. But once a person spends his formative years trying to become a Menasseh, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to then switch and attempt to turn into a Rabbi and Talmid Chacham.

Now it is the obligation of every Jewish parent to teach his son Torah in the hope that he becomes a great Talmid Chacham – which is the highest level to which a Jew can aspire - and if he doesn’t succeed, he can always choose to be the doctor, lawyer, businessman, etc.

For this reason, explains the Ksav Sofer, a Jewish parent blesses his son every Friday evening that he should grow up to be like Ephraim and Menasseh – in that order – meaning that he should try to attain the highest level and to become a great Talmid Chacham like Ephraim, and if that doesn’t work out, then he should strive to become a successful professional or businessman and a G-d-fearing Jew like Menasseh.

We can now understand why the Targum Yonasan adds to the verse that this blessing should be recited by parents on the day of their son’s circumcision. You see, if the parents wait to start teaching their son Torah after he is already grown up, then his chances of then becoming a Rabbi and Torah scholar like Ephraim are practically nil, and his only available option is to become a Menasseh.

Torah chinuch (training) for a Jewish boy must start as early as possible – even from the day of his circumcision – if there is to be any hope of his mother saying proudly one day: “My son, the Rabbi”.

May we all merit having tremendous nachas and joy from our children – be they like Ephraim or Menasseh.

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