In the Torah portion of Vayechi, we read about how when Jacob was old, ill, and nearly blind, Joseph brings him his two sons Menasheh and Ephraim to receive his blessing. Joseph places his older son Menasheh to Jacob’s right and his younger son Ephraim to Jacob’s left. Jacob, however, crosses his arms and places his right hand on Ephraim, the younger son, and his left hand on Menasheh, the elder son. Jacob then blesses his grandsons with his arms crossed.
Traditionally, the firstborn receives the greater blessing, which is bestowed by the right hand. Accordingly, Joseph gently attempts to uncross his father’s arms, to place Jacob’s right hand on Menasheh’s head. Jacob rebuffs Joseph’s attempt to uncross his arms. Jacob explains to Joseph that he is deliberately giving the greater blessing to his younger grandson, Ephraim, because, although both grandsons would be great, Ephraim would be the greater of the two.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe often emphasized that the word “Torah” means lesson, and hence the Torah’s purpose is not to merely tell tales, but rather to teach deep lessons with each tale. Menasheh and Ephraim represent two aspects of life, both of which are important, but that represented by Ephraim should receive the greater focus.
The Torah tells us that Joseph named his elder son “Menasheh,” saying, because “God has caused me to forget all my hardships and all that was in my father’s house.” Joseph was afraid that he was forgetting his roots, his family, his traditions, and his God, and so he named his eldest son “Menasheh” as a constant reminder against forgetting his “father’s house.” Joseph named his younger son “Ephraim” because “God has made me fruitful in the land of my subjugation.” Joseph named his younger son “Ephraim” as a constant reminder to be “fruitful,” that is to strive, to excel, and to change the world for the better.
Putting the right hand on Menasheh, then, would place primacy on the past. Jacob tells Joseph that the past is important, for without it we are anchorless and rudderless, but it is the present leading to the future that must hold our focus.
Jacob does not want his son Joseph to make the same mistake that he himself had made years earlier, when he learned Joseph was alive and was the viceroy of Egypt. Jacob, who was a wealthy man with many children and grandchildren, descended with his family and wealth to Egypt, where he had an audience with Pharaoh. At a time when Jacob should have been elated and filled with joy and excitement for the future, Jacob lamented to Pharaoh that the years of his life had been “few and miserable.” Jacob could not turn away from the past for even a moment.
Last week the world lost a modern-day inspiration, a Joseph of sorts, Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela, who had spent 27 years in jail for fighting racial segregation and who then went on to become president of South Africa, stated, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Mr. Mandela did not want to forget the past – he formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to record the past for posterity – but he refused to be bitter about it. He let bygones be bygones.
Nor should one dwell too much in past accomplishments, reveling in the glory days of yore. If you wish, record for your eulogy your successful and charitable past, that you once ran a marathon, and that you were good to your wife and children. But right now, while you still live and breathe, focus on the good you can still do and what you can still achieve. When the Lubavitcher Rebbe celebrated his 70th birthday, people urged him to slow down. The Rebbe responded by establishing 71 new educational and social institutions. While at 70, the Rebbe already had a most impressive list of achievements behind him, those pale in comparison with what he had achieved by age 80, which, in turn, are a fraction of what he achieved by age 90. In sum, don’t dwell too much on your past (whether good or bad), because past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance.