Tomorrow night, as Jewish families all over the world sit down at their Shabbat dinner tables, parents will offer a traditional blessing to their children. So too in our own community, before we conclude our Friday night service, we share a sweet moment of standing arm-in-arm and blessing each other.
When we share that blessing, we recall two important moments of blessing in the Torah. The central blessing is known as the priestly blessing, which asks God to bless and keep, to show kindness, and to grant peace to the individual or people we are blessing. In this formula, we beseech God to be active and kind in the life of the object of our blessing. God is the active participant in this prayer. Hard as we might try, no individual can truly bestow these divine gifts upon another human.
The second blessing we recall is rooted in our parsha, Vayechi. When we say יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹקים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה- May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe (to males) or יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹקים כְּשָׂרָה, רִבְקָה, רָחֵל וְלֵאָה.- May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (to females), we are actually referring to a different blessing, a completely different style of blessing.
In our parsha, Jacob blesses his grandchildren “ הַמַּלְאָךְ֩ הַגֹּאֵ֨ל אֹתִ֜י מִכָּל־רָ֗ע יְבָרֵךְ֮ אֶת־הַנְּעָרִים֒ וְיִקָּרֵ֤א בָהֶם֙ שְׁמִ֔י וְשֵׁ֥ם אֲבֹתַ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם וְיִצְחָ֑ק- “May the Angel who has saved me from all harm, bless these children. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” At first, he sees a similar formula to the priestly blessing, asking God to be the active force, protecting and saving his grandchildren. But the second line introduces a new type of blessing: “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers,” Jacob is articulating a hope that the children themselves will be the blessing, that their actions will cause others to remember the deeds of our patriarchs. In doing so, Jacob encourages Ephraim and Menashe to not just be the passive recipients of God’s kindness and blessing but to be active participants in bringing that kindness into the world. By sharing in the names and deeds of their ancestors, they connect the generations and bring God into the world.
These two types of blessings reflect a fundamental truth about Judaism: we pray for miracles constantly, and yet we know that we can never rely upon them. We pray that God will shower us with goodness, yet we also know that we must act to bring about that goodness. We must ask for blessing and also act as a blessing.
At this week’s Solidarity March, these two ideas were out in full force: precisely when the Jewish community feels that danger is near and divine protection is far, that is when we must pray to God and demand God’s active participation in our protection and safety. Similarly, many Jews feel that now is the moment to downplay our Judaism, to take off our Jewish Star necklaces or our kippot, to become passive in our Judaism. Instead, this is the moment to remind ourselves of Jacob’s blessing and to become active participants in bringing the goodness of Judaism and the righteousness of our faith into a world that so desperately needs the blessing of our action.
Wishing you a Shabbat of receiving and being a blessing.
Rabbi Jeremy Fineberg
Please consider joining us on Monday, January 20th, hundreds of Jewish high school singers from HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir, will be providing a free “open rehearsal” concert at Temple Emanu-El, at 12:30 pm. They will be putting on the final touches for their Gala Concert Performance at Lincoln Center on March 22. This concert will be the end of two day-long retreat hosted at TE in memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash z”l. Please see the flyer below for more details and hope to see you all there!