Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk



For some visceral reason, not entirely clear to me, I really enjoy giving my children blessings every Friday night. Perhaps it's symbolic of bequeathing my values to my progeny. Maybe it gives me a feeling of immortality, because these wonderful young people will carry on my DNA and, please God, my customs. Or it could be that I'm just a sappy sentimentalist. It's a warm and sweet moment. I even like doing it on the phone or Skype for my offspring in Israel. The best part is that we can add a personal prayer to the generic material. The question arises, what makes these blessings work? What power do I have to bless another human being? This is indeed the week to investigate this issue, because this week's Torah reading is mostly dedicated to the blessings which Ya'akov bestows upon his children before our beloved Patriarch passes from this earth.

There is a straightforward answer to my question right in the parsha: So he blessed them on that day, saying, "Through you, Israel will bless, saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh,' " and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh (Genesis 48:20). We're informed that the nation of Israel can bless future generations with the formula of being like Ephraim and Manasseh. So, permission to bless children is derived from the Torah. However the power of those blessings finds its source in two areas. First of all the power to bless comes from love. Even the Cohanim, who are commanded to bless the Jewish nation do it with the following formula: Who has sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon, and commanded us to bless His nation Israel with love. One's blessing seems pointless without this element.

The other power source behind the efficacy of blessings is much more complicated, and is embedded in the very nature of the book of Genesis. The idea was expressed beautifully by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in a speech he delivered in 2001.  He said: The Hebrew bible tells a story. It's a very well-known story, but what is interesting about it and what we should have noticed but we never did is that it is exactly the opposite story! It is the counter-narrative of western civilization. It is the anti-Platonic story…It is the universal themes. Adam and Eve: the story of human freedom, hence the freedom to disobey. Cain and Abel: the story of sibling rivalry, of human responsibility. Are we our brother's keepers or aren't we? The story of the flood, which is about what Hobbes calls the state of nature, the war of all against all when there is no system of law. The covenant after the flood, the brit bnei Noach, the first universal moral code. All of those things are universal. They have got nothing to do with the Jewish people whatsoever…Therefore, the bible begins with the universal and then it moves to the particular. It actually is telling us that in a certain sense the particular is more fundamental, more real, than the universal.

The rest of the world's philosophy moves from the particular to the universal, our Jewish thinking moves from the universal to the particular.  That's the flow of Genesis.  We take the big picture and apply it to the individual.  Our story is about individuals like you and me.  We don't necessarily say that we're interested in the greatest good for the greatest number.  We tend to say if you've saved one individual, you've saved an entire universe. This reality can be seen in the realm of blessings as well.  The blessings given to Adam are:  Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth (Genesis 1:28).  The blessings given to Noach were similar.  This is a generic blessing, equally good for any human being.  When we get to Yitzchak and Ya'akov, the blessings which they receive were to continue the revolution of Avraham.  Here's how Yitzchak expressed it:  And may the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. And may He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham (28:3-4).  This is again a general blessing applicable to any Jew, but that's not what's happening in our parsha.  Ya'akov is giving blessings which are specific to the character and skill set of each individual son, who's a warrior, scholar or merchant.  Like the book itself the blessings have gone from the universal to the particular.

Now I believe that we can understand an enigmatic statement made by Ya'akov:  The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents (49:26).  What a chutzpah! Ya'akov is saying that his blessings are superior to those of his father and grandfather.  How can he say that?  Because his blessings are more specific.  The more individual a blessing is the better it is.  Finally, I can explain the second element which makes a blessing work.  Namely it is precisely calibrated to the person receiving it.  When I bless the athleticism of an athlete or the artistry of an artist, I have connected to the individual in a way which enhances that other person's talent, because they sense the appreciation of who they are.  This is very special, and, I suspect, works even without Divine intervention.

So, when I bless my children Friday night I hope and pray that I am connecting with them in two profound ways.  First they sense my love, care and concern for them.  And then they are moved by my notice and recognition of what makes them tick.  Then, and only then, does the blessing work, because they want it to work so very much.         


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