Surpassing Our Potential
In Vayechi, Jacob elevated 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 God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.' " (1) The commentaries ask, why did Jacob 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 Imahot (Matriarchs). That being the case, it would seem most logical to bless our sons to be like the Avot (Patriarchs).
One of the answers given is that Ephraim and Menashe achieved more than their potential; up to this point, only the sons of Jacob 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,(2) Jacob elevated them to the status of Shevatim. In this way, they achieved the incredible accomplishment of reaching beyond their potential.(3) Accordingly, we bless our children to emulate Ephraim and Menashe, in that we aspire for them to reach beyond their potential.
The Targum Yonatan writes that Jacob was saying that one should bless their son to be like Ephraim and Menashe, at the brit mila (circumcision) in particular.(4) 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 circumcision; 'may this kattan become a gadol'. This doesn't mean that we want this small boy to grow up into a large man. Rather, 'gadlut' in this context refers to spiritual greatness. We bless our child to become truly great, as did Ephraim and Menashe.
In this vein Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky says that we must bring up our children with the goal to maximize their ability to fully achieve their spiritual potential.(5) This does not mean that we should overly pressurize them, however it does mean that we should not settle for mediocrity in our goals for their spiritual potential. Every Jew's potential is immense, and we learn from Ephraim and Menashe that it is even possible to surpass that potential.
1. Bereishis, 48:20.
2. There are two main aspects of their greatness discussed by the commentaries; one is that they grew up in an environment that was alien to the teachings of the Torah, and yet they were able to maintain their spiritual level. The second is that they were the first brothers who lived in harmony with each other. Indeed, some commentaries write that it is because of these qualities that we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, in particular.
3. This answer was heard from Rav Meilich Schiller shlit"a. It is also quoted in Beshem Amru, Bereishis, p. 358.
4. Targum Yonasan, Bereishis, 48:20.
5. Of course a parent also has a responsibility to bring him up with the tools to earn a living, however it is important to realize that earning a living is a mean to an end, the end being achieving one's spiritual potential.