Last year Rabbi Joseph Ozerowski from the Jewish Healing Network gave a three-part seminar to our Congregation, on “Bikur Cholim”, the mitzvah of visiting the sick. The seminar was designed to increase our awareness of this mitzvah and study some of the classical Jewish texts on the subject. We also hoped that Rabbi Ozerowski would teach us some skills and give us some tools to use when we visited people who were ill. We talked about making the first contact and dealing with rejection. We practiced empathic listening, we discussed confidentiality, and we role played difficult situations. One of Rabbi’s suggestions was that we consider offering the people we were visiting a blessing upon our departure. This raised a good deal of anxiety in the participants as well as some outright resistance to the idea. I suspect one reason for their hesitance might have been that members felt that they would not be able to formulate a proper blessing. Or perhaps they were worried that a genuine Jewish blessing has to be in Hebrew; or perhaps they did not feel worthy or holy enough to bless another person. Some believed that only G-d had the authority to bless a person. Rabbi Ozerowski assured us that one did not have to be G-d, or even a rabbi, to give a blessing to another person — but frankly many of the attendees remained skeptical.
In a sermon on this very topic, Rabbi Mark Kunin cites Rabbi Shmuel Goldin who notes that the power for one person to bless another is in fact a G-d-given gift. When G-d commands Abraham to leave his homeland, G-d tells Abraham, “And you shall be a blessing.” The Rabbis interpret this phrase to mean that human beings now have the authority to bestow blessings. Until Abraham’s time, blessings were G-d’s to give. G-d blessed Adam and Noah. From this time on G-d grants human beings the power to bless.
That power to bless is illustrated by the story of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who was one of the last High Priests of the Temple. He lived in the first century CE. One Yom Kippur, he says, he entered the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple, where the priest is permitted but this one day a year.
As Rabbi Ishmael recounts: “There I saw God sitting on a high and lofty throne. “Ishmael, my son, give me your blessing,” said G-d. Rabbi Ishmael said: “May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome your anger; that Your compassion overcome Your stern attributes; that You behave toward Your children mercifully, and that for their sake You go beyond the boundaries of strict justice”. G-d responded by nodding his head in assent.
The Talmud concludes this story with a moral lesson — one should never treat the blessing of a common person as though it were trivial. Human blessings can be powerful, no matter whom they are from or to whom they are given.
If we should never treat the blessing of a common person as trivial, how much more so should we cherish the blessing of a righteous person? In this week’s parasha, which closes the Book of Genesis, Jacob is about to die. He summons his son Joseph to his deathbed. Joseph brings his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Jacob asks his grandsons to draw near so that he can bless them. He blesses them with the following words, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
To this day it is a Jewish custom to bless our sons before eating the Sabbath meal with those very words, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”. Although Joseph did not bring his daughters – if he had any, the Bible does not say — to see their grandfather, we bless our daughters at the Shabbat table with the following words, “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”
We can well understand why we would want G-d to make our daughters like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The matriarchs are strong, resourceful women who are worthy of emulation. But why would we want G-d to make our sons like Ephraim and Manasseh?
Several suggestions have been made. Consider the other brothers in the Torah. Cain and Abel vie for G-d’s favor, which ended in history’s first murder. Sarah insisted that Ishmael be sent away because she did not approve of how he is behaving with her son Isaac. Jacob tricks Esau into giving him the birthright, steals his blessing, and fleas from home because his brother Esau threatened to kill him. Joseph is hated by his brothers and sold into slavery. Ephraim and Manasseh? – they are the first brothers to get along! Therefore, goes the thinking, we bless our sons with the hope that, like Ephraim and Manasseh, they too will relate to one another without envy, jealousy or hatred.
Another suggestion – Ephraim and Manasseh are the first Jewish children to be born in the Diaspora. Yet they remain spiritually connected to their family and continue the traditions of their ancestors. The message is, “Where ever you are born, where ever your life may take you, may you remain close to your family and your people Israel.”
Rabbi Richard Levy suggests a third possibility. Unlike their father Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh were not particularly gifted or accomplished. They possessed no extraordinary talents. They were given the blessing only because they were Jacob’s grandchildren. In blessing our sons in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh, we are communicating to them that we love them for who they are — just because they are our children. Our love is not dependent on their accomplishments, or on how much nachas they can give us.
Because of society’s prejudices toward girls, who might be inclined to suppress their ambitions and not set their sights very high, we bless them in the name of our matriarchs. We are therefore saying to them, “May G-d make you like the greatest women in the Torah. Don’t hold yourself back from fully developing your talents, just because society may not expect as much from girls.”
Of course, we want both our daughters and sons to fully develop their potential, and we want both our daughters and sons to know that they are loved for who they are, not what they can accomplish. They don’t need to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, or like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah. They only need to be themselves and to chart their own paths through life. In an essay in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Rabbi Laura Geller suggests we bless our children with the words of the contemporary Jewish poet, Macia Falk: “Be who you are….and may you be blessed in all that you are.”