This week we conclude the Torah’s first book. We say goodbye to the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and turn to that of the Jewish people. And then slavery. Freedom. Revelation. Wandering. Some more revelation. And wandering. And a whole lot more wandering. Until we turn once again back to the patriarchs.
Prior to Jacob’s death he offers a blessing to his grandchildren: Ephraim and Manasseh. He tells his son, Joseph: I never expected to see you again, and here I get to see your children as well. He concludes his blessing with the words: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
Following the lighting of the Shabbat candles, parents therefore bless their sons with these same words: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. For daughters we add, May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. For both sons and daughters we then say the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you; may the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
Why does the tradition assign this weeks’ words to the blessing of sons? Ephraim and Manasseh are born in Egypt, not the land of Israel. Moreover they are born to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath. It remains a curiosity.
There are two possibilities. These words are first spoken by a grandparent, Jacob. When parents bless their children they invoke the blessings of prior generations. The parents are the link between grandparents and grandchildren. They are the conduit by which the values they inherited are brought into the future. Parents make sure that children live up to their inherited responsibilities.
More importantly Ephraim and Manasseh are the first brothers in the entire Book of Genesis who get along and live in peace. When we bless our children we hope and pray that they too will live in peace, that they will not know conflict. While we know and understand that that a life devoid of struggle is an impossibility, this remains our prayer. We pray that our children might know peace.
Knowing otherwise this hope remains our most steadfast prayer. “Peace, peace to those far and near, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 57:19)
Parents thus place their hands on their children’s heads and recite these words. Susie and I continue to observe this ritual, at least when our children are home and we are celebrating Shabbat and holidays together. It punctuated the week during our children’s younger years. I find myself growing nostalgic. They sat still if but for a brief moment and received their blessing, an extra Shabbat kiss and another “I love you.” The rhythm of the week is punctuated by blessings.
While most argue that the tradition’s intention is to make our lives more Jewish I believe otherwise. Instead they add meaning to our lives. They demand a pause. They insist on reflection. They turn our thoughts to what is most important, in this case: family. And that is a measure of holiness everyone requires.
There are many blessings to add to your lives. The tradition is filled with hundreds. There is the blessing for the ocean, for the wine, and for the bread. The list appears daunting. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, it is better just to begin. Say it in English if you are more comfortable. This week we are reminded of a great starting point: the words for blessing our children. No matter how old your children might be, it is never too late to start.
Everyone can use an added dose of meaning. Everyone deserves a moment of reflection. Everyone requires more “I love yous.”