15 Adar 5781 / Saturday, February 27, 2021 | Torah Reading: Tetzaveh
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Vayechi: The Deciding Factors    

Vayechi: The Deciding Factors

It is a very beautiful custom for the father to bless his when he returns home from the synagogue on Shabbat. There's a slight difference..


May Hashem help you become like Ephraim and like Menashe (Bereishit 48:20).
It is a very beautiful custom for the father to bless his when he returns home from the synagogue on Shabbat. There's a slight difference, however, in how a father blesses his daughters and how he blesses his sons. We bless our daughters that they should become like our matriarchs, namely, "May Hashem help you become like Sarah, Rivka (Rebecca), Rachel, and Leah." Correspondingly, we would expect to bless our sons in the name of our patriarchs, that Hashem help them to become like Avraham (Abraham), Yitzchak (Isaac), and Yaakov (Jacob).
Surprisingly, our forefather Yaakov himself ordered all subsequent generations to bless their sons in the following fashion: "May Hashem help you become like Ephraim and like Menashe." Why?
Menashe was Yosef's (Joseph's) firstborn son. According to the Halacha, the firstborn enjoys a number of advantages, such as a double portion in the inheritance of his father's estate. In addition, younger siblings are required to respect the firstborn son. Menashe therefore symbolizes the son who is advantaged from birth.
As opposed to Menashe, who pursued a career in government as assistant to his father Yosef (Joseph), the vizier of Egypt, Ephraim remained in Goshen, learning Torah under the tutelage of his grandfather Yaakov. Although Menashe lived his life in holiness, Ephraim's strong desire to learn and grow in his service of Hashem, combined with plenty of hard work and effort enabled him to attain an even higher spiritual level than his older brother. Ephraim, as the younger brother, symbolizes the disadvantaged son whose dedication and toil overcome the advantaged brother's head start in life. Through Ephraim and Menashe, the Torah conveys that relative advantage or disadvantage from birth does not seal a person's fate, for excellence in Torah and in the service of Hashem depends on dedication and hard work.
In similar fashion, Rebbe Nachman of Breslev scolded his disciples and followers when he said, "Your problem is that you think the righteous attain greatness merely because they have a very great soul. This is absolutely wrong! Any person can attain my levels and become just like me. All that it takes is true devotion and effort!" (Sichot HaRan, 165).
If someone thinks that birth advantages such as lineage or IQ dictate a person's future, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is telling them that they're sorely mistaken. In this light, no one can complain that they're Judaism is weak because they're not the son or daughter of a Talmudic scholar, or that they weren't born in Bnai Brak or Mea Shearim. Spiritual gain depends exclusively on dedication and perseverance; with Hashem's help, the following parable illustrates just how:
In recognition of their loyalty, two peasants received an invitation to visit the Czar. Both were directed to arrive at the palace within seven days. Each lived a hundred kilometers from the palace, yet one had a horse-drawn wagon and the other was a pedestrian.
The pedestrian knew that he had no time to waste if he were to arrive at the palace on time. He calculated that at twenty kilometers a day, he could make the journey in no more than five days, so that he could have a day or two to prepare himself for the biggest day in his life – a personal audience with the Czar! He therefore made a plan to leave home immediately; that way, he'd be left with sufficient time to rest from the journey, bathe, look his best, and prepare for his meeting with the Czar.
The pedestrian packed a small rucksack with his best clothes and some bread and water for the way, and set out with no delay. He traversed much more than his goal of twenty kilometers a day, and therefore reached the capital city in a mere four days. On the day of his appointment, he arrived at the palace early, preferring to wait several hours for the Czar rather the Czar wait even a half minute for him. The pedestrian was not only well-dressed and well-rested; he had even made a complete tour of the capital city.
The Czar was immensely impressed with the simple but devoted peasant that made the entire journey from his village to the palace and foot, and granted him priceless gifts of gold and privileges.
On the other hand, the peasant with the horse-drawn wagon assumed that he had plenty of time to reach the Czar's palace. He estimated that his horse could cover an easy fifty kilometers a day; consequently, he thought that two days would be adequate time to reach the palace. Why rush?
Four days after receiving the invitation, a mere three days before the expected appointment with the Czar, the wagon-driving peasant left his home.
Unexpectedly, after traveling thirty kilometers, one of his wheels broke three spokes. Luckily, he had a spare wheel, but he wasted an entire half day changing the wheel. By that time, it was dark and bitterly cold. He was forced to spend the night at a local inn that charged him much more than he was able to afford.
Still undismayed, the peasant slept late the next morning, thinking that he could cover the remaining seventy kilometers in the two days left with no problem. He ate a lengthy breakfast, paid the innkeeper, and went outside to discover that his horse and wagon had been stolen! With no choice he walked and ran the remaining seventy kilometers day and night, reaching the palace at the very last minute – out of breath, fatigued, disheveled, and disoriented.
Needless to say, the Czar was thoroughly disgusted by the wagon-driving peasant, who didn't have enough respect to bathe and change his clothes for the monarch. The Czar's guards sent him packing…
* * *
The pedestrian symbolizes the person that was born without the advantages of a blue-blooded lineage or superior ability. Yet, with effort, he surpassed the other peasant who had the relative advantage of a horse and wagon. In the end, the latter's advantages did nothing to help him. Ultimately, as Rebbe Nachman teaches, the deciding factors in spiritual gain are effort and devotion. For that reason, we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, to show posterity that Ephraim's dedication and hard work can help him attain even more than what his advantaged older brother can attain.
The lesson of Ephraim and Menashe can serve as a beacon to any prospective Baal Tshuva, who wasn't born with the advantage of a Torah background or religious education. With effort and dedication, he can attain great spiritual heights. The lesson of Ephraim and Menashe also teaches those of us that were born with advantages not to depend on our head-start from birth, for progress in Torah depends exclusively on our own efforts. May Hashem help all of us to fulfill our personal potential to the hilt. Amen.

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