In Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov Avinu elevates his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, to the status of Shevatim (tribes). In the course of the process he bestowed on them a blessing that has become the standard blessing by which we bless our sons to this very day. “So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel bless, saying; ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.” The commentaries ask, why did Yaakov instruct the Jewish people to bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe more than anyone else. This question is strengthened by the fact that we bless our daughters to be like the Imahos (Matriarchs). That being the case, it would seem most logical to bless our sons to be like the Avos (Patriarchs).
One of the answers given is that Ephraim and Menashe achieved more than their potential; up to this point, only the sons of Yaakov Avinu merited to be considered among the twelve Tribes. Ephraim and Menashe were not sons of Yaakov, and therefore were not destined to be one of the Tribes. However, because of their greatness , Yaakov elevated them to the status of Shevatim. In this way, they achieved the incredible accomplishment of reaching beyond their potential. Accordingly, we bless our children to emulate Ephraim and Menashe, in that we aspire for them to reach beyond their potential.
The Targum Yonasan writes that Yaakov was saying that one should bless their son to be like Ephraim and Menashe, at the bris mila in particular. It seems that this interpretation fits with the idea that we want our son to emulate Ephraim and Menashe in the area of becoming great. We see this in the prayer that we say at the bris; ‘may this kattan become a gadol’. This doesn’t mean that we want this small boy to grow up into a large man. Rather, ‘gadlus’ in this context refers to spiritual greatness. We bless our child to become truly great, as did Ephraim and Menashe.
This idea teaches a person that he should aspire to surpass his own potential, but it also educates a parent as to his aspirations for his children. He should not suffice in bringing up his child to be an ‘ordinary’ Jew, rather he should aim to facilitate that his child become ‘great’. Moreover, it is insufficient that a parent merely ‘want’ that his child become great, rather he should try to actively facilitate his child’s path to greatness in how he raises him. Rav Yaakov Kamentsky zt”l expresses this idea based on a lesson in Parshas Shemos. When Moshe Rabbeinu as a baby was picked out of the water by Basya, the daughter of Pharaoh, she tried to have the Egyptian women nurse him, but he refused to drink their milk. Rashi explains that this was because, in the future, Moshe “would speak with the shechina”.
Rashi’s explanation has an application in Jewish law. The Rema states that one should not feed a baby with milk from a non-Jewish woman, if possible. The Vilna Gaon comments that the source of the Rema is the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu would not drink from the milk of the Egyptian women. Rav Kamenetsky asks how we can apply Moshe’s case to that of every child. In the case of Moshe, the reason why he wouldn’t drink from their milk was because he would, in the future speak with the Divine Presence, however, that reason is inapplicable to everyone else. He answers, that we learn from here that we must bring up our children as if they could possibly reach the level where they will speak to the Divine Presence. Accordingly, we must raise them in such a way that is congruent with them becoming great people.
Rav Kamenetsky applies this explanation to how careful we should be to bring up our children in the most holy and pure fashion, free from negative influences. This is a most pertinent lesson in today’s environment. A parent may feel that there is little harm in exposing his child to all types of modern technology that infiltrates into every part of daily living. However, such exposure can very easily involve his child being exposed to influences and visions that are not conducive to a person achieving spiritual greatness. Thus, even if they don’t spiritually destroy a child (which they often do), then they will surely hinder him from achieving his true potential, and certainly from overtaking his potential as did Ephraim and Menashe.
We learn from Yaakov’s blessing to his grandsons, that every parent should aspire for his children to reach and even surpass their potential. This aspiration should manifest itself in actions as well as attitude. May we all merit to surpass our own potential and bring up children to exceed all our expectations.