What does it mean to give a Jewish blessing?
Last spring, I was helping to plan an interfaith vigil to recognize and support a group of college students who were engaged in a weeklong hunger strike in support of farmworker rights. Though the students were all either Christian or non-religious, the clergy planning the service were more diverse, including myself, a Presbyterian minister, and a Muslim leader, so finding a shared way to impart religious meaning to the fasters was complicated. A Christian colleague suggested anointing the fasters with olive oil (“But it’s biblical!”) and as I rejected that idea outright, I impatiently declared: “This vigil is on Friday afternoon. I’m just going to bless the fasters, because that’s what Jews do before Shabbat.” As a murmur of approval went around the room, my outward bravado gave way to internal doubt. What kind of blessing could I give?
This week’s parsha, Vayechi, is stuffed with generational blessings. As Jacob prepares to die, he first blesses his grandsons, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, (Genesis 48) and then calls together all of his sons for final words (Genesis 49). This moment is particularly tense for Jacob, having used the similar moment in his past to trick his father and swindle his brother, leading to decades of strife, and because his sons don’t have the best track record of graciousness when another one of their cohort is being favored. The blessings he ends up bestowing seem for some of his sons more like a settling of scores than an expression of future prosperity, as Reuben, Simeon, and Levi are excoriated for past violence and betrayals (49:4-7), and for others like a prophecy. A frail old man, Jacob can only use his final words to settle his own scores, not bring unity to his fractious clan, to the point that his sons, immediately after his burial, are certain that their long-wronged brother Joseph, now in a position of great power, is going to finally enact a long-awaited revenge (50: 18-21)
But Jacob’s blessings of his grandsons — his true heirs, since in blessing both of them, he gives Joseph a double inheritance — is a different kind of legacy. Ephraim and Manasseh are the first pair of brothers in the line of Abraham to break the family mold of jealousy and strife between siblings. We are never given Manasseh’s reaction when Jacob elevates his younger brother over him, placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head. Joseph seeks to correct his father, but the boys silently accept that their relationship is more sacred than squabbling about this possible inequity. Past generations saw blessing as a currency of scarcity, to be hoarded and fought over, while Ephraim and Manasseh can be seen as approaching it from a place of abundance: through God’s goodness, there is plenty to go around. Jacob can see that his conflict-free blessing of his grandsons will become the template for transmitting future intergenerational blessings: “So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (Genesis 48: 20).
The blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh thus becomes the origin of the Friday night custom of birkat banim, the blessing of the children recited by Jewish parents after the lighting of Shabbat candles. We bless girls by invoking Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Coming as we transition between the chaos of the week to the sacred quiet of Shabbat, birkat banim is a necessary moment of emotional connection that sticks around even as children become adults and parents. My parents still say “Consider yourself blessed” at the end of our pre-Shabbat phone call, and when my older daughter went to sleepover camp for the first time this past summer, I ended my Friday emails to her the same way (even when I wasn’t sure if she would get them before Sunday).
While we tend to think of Jewish blessings as moments of expressing gratitude, birkat banim is an appeal to hope. Rather than thanking God for what we have, we ask God to secure all of our hopes and dreams for our children. We invoke Ephraim and Manasseh to remind them that blessings can exist in abundance if they commit to peace and harmony — that there are no blessings found in strife. May God make us like the ones who put relationship over outcome, which indeed is a core value of those who fight to make the world a better place, like my hunger-striking college students.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck is director of programs at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.