The haftarah1 for Vayechi tells of King David’s last words and instructions to his son Solomon, and gives a tally of his years as king.

The connection to our parshah is Jacob’s last words to his children and Joseph’s last words to his brothers.

The haftarah begins to tell us that when the time of David’s passing was nearing, he instructed his son Solomon: “I am going the way of all the earth, and you should strengthen yourself and become a man (ish).”2

At this point, Solomon was 12 years old, before bar mitzvah. These words are a message from every parent to their bar mitzvah boys crossing into manhood: “Strengthen yourself and become a man.” Why does he need to strengthen himself to become a man?

In Hebrew, there are four terms for the word “man”: adam, ish, enosh and gever. Adam refers to the intelligent aspect of a person, the mind. Ish is the emotional side, the heart. The last two, enosh and gever, are the way adam and ish express themselves. Enosh refers to emotional or intellectual weakness. Gever refers to emotional or intellectual strength.3

What is strange in this verse is the use of the word “ish,” which refers to the emotional. The reason why a boy enters manhood at 13 is because that is when he becomes a bar daas, his intellectual capacities have matured. Here, however, David uses the word “ish,” which has to do with his emotions.

The intellectual aspect of man remains in his thoughts and can only be expressed by coming through his emotional self, in speech and action. The development of a person’s intellectual prowess does not ensure that he will act correctly; that is why we find a lot of smart people doing stupid and destructive things. It takes effort to apply what you know, so that it affects how you act.

So while a boy enters manhood because of the natural development of his intellectual properties, it takes personal effort to apply what he knows to how he acts, because that is not natural. Therefore, David’s instructions to Solomon are: “I know that you are smart, but that won’t help you unless you can apply it to the way you act. So ‘strengthen yourself,’ meaning that you will have to put your own effort and hard work, to become an ‘ish,’ an emotionally well-developed person. Only then will your great wisdom be useful and serve you well.”4

The same is true for every bar mitzvah boy. If he wants to become an ish, he will have to put in the effort.

The first mitzvah that a bar mitzvah boy becomes obligated to do on the eve of his 13th Hebrew birthday is the reading of the Shema. Here we see the same idea—that knowledge is not enough to lead to appropriate action.

The Shema begins, “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is one. And you will love the L‑rd your G‑d, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your means.”5 Between these two verses, our great sages inserted another verse, “The name of Hashem’s glorious kingdom is blessed forever and ever.”6

Why did they feel the need to add this verse? Isn’t the knowledge of G‑d’s oneness enough to bring us to love Him?

The answer is the same as before. Just because you understand something doesn’t mean you feel it. The extra verse creates the space to apply it to yourself by actively accepting G‑d’s dominion over you.7

Another mitzvah that comes with bar mitzvah is tefillin. The Torah says: “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they should be as totafot between your eyes.”8 By the arm tefillin, the Torah says: “You shall bind them.” However, by the head tefillin, it says, “they should be.” Why the difference? Another interesting thing is that the head and the arm tefillin are two separate mitzvahs, but in order to put on the head tefillin, you are required to first put on the arm tefillin. Why?

The answer is in the same vein as the previous one. The head tefillin sit on the head where the brain is, connected to intellect. Because the intellectual abilities develop naturally, all the tefillin needs to do is “be” there. However, the arm tefillin are near the heart, which is connected to emotions, and the arm and hand are all about action. Effort needs to be exerted to “bind” them because emotional development comes through effort. And being that our intellect is expressed via our emotions, the emotional self needs to be developed first so that the intellect could be properly expressed. Hence, the tefillin of the arm has to be on before the head.9

I see this with my own children as well. Thank G‑d, I have been blessed with smart children, but I see how much work it takes for them to be the great kids they are. For me, there is no greater nachas than watching a child of mine growing up, and becoming a mensch and a Torah-observant Jew.

May our efforts we put into our children be fruitful. May we watch them grow into menschen, and may they always be a source of nachas—to G‑d, to the Jewish people and to us.