“Blessing the Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Blessing children plays a crucial role in parashat Vayechi. First, old Jacob blesses Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Menashe, and then he assembles his 12 sons and offers them a final testament. As Rabbi Plaut notes in his commentary, “Jacob’s final words to his assembled sons are a combination of prayer, blessing, curse, warning, psychological assessment, parable, recollection, and hope.”

I have often noted, only half in jest, that if the Al-mighty Himself came down to earth, spoke to me directly, and told me to my face that I have been living a lie, I would still not change my lifestyle very much. I have long maintained that even if He told me that there really is no G-d, I would still elect to maintain Judaism’s lifestyle and rituals, because, irrespective of whether one believes in G-d, the lifestyle is meaningful, purposeful, enriching, psychologically sound and it works.

I have always felt strongly that it is critically important for every human being to make “blessings,” to thank the “powers” that be for the food we eat, to acknowledge that food is a gift that we dare not take for granted.

Furthermore, I could not bear the thought of not having at least one day a week of “sacred time” where I am free from the “slavery” of the work-a-day week, the cell phone and the internet and all that comes with it. I believe that having time each day, each morning and evening, to “meditate” for a few moments on what I have done and what I haven’t done and how I may improve myself, is vital for my sanity and my humanity. But most of all, I cherish the moments, the sacred time, that I have with my family on the Shabbat. Free from Blackberries, DVDs and voicemail–just plain quality time! Clearly, quality time is impossible without quantity time, and that is why Shabbat is G-d’s greatest gift to humankind.

Of all the sacred moments, the most precious is when I place my hands on our children’s heads and bless them. To the boys we say: “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” To the girls we say: “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” Now that our children are older and are frequently not at home, it is a ritual that I miss desperately.

The truth is that parents should place their hands on their children’s heads every night and bless them. But, sadly, it doesn’t happen very often. Thank G-d for Shabbat. At least it happens once a week. Otherwise, it would very likely never happen at all!

There is no greater joy in life than having children who are “blessed,” who are a source of pride and nachat to their parents. Conversely, there is nothing worse in life than having children who are “cursed,” and are a source of embarrassment and shame to their parents.

When Noah’s son, Ham (whom the Bible always refers to as “Ham, the father of Canaan”), violates Noah by “uncovering his nakedness,” Noah does not curse Ham, but rather curses Ham’s son, saying (Genesis 9:25): “Canaan, the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” The greatest punishment that Noah can visit upon his son Ham (who, of all his children, should have known better since he himself was a father), is that Ham should have a son just like himself, a vile child, a source of great grief.

Obviously, the greatest blessing that a parent could receive is to have a child who is a source of joy and blessing. And that is why in Genesis 48:15 when Jacob blesses Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Menashe, the bible states, “Va’y’vah’rech et Yosef,” And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph and said, “O G-d in whose ways my father Abraham and Isaac walked, the G-d who has been my Shepherd from my birth to this day: May the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they become teaming multitudes upon the earth.”

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, cited in Wellsprings of Torah, asks: Why does scripture state that Jacob blessed Joseph? After all, the blessing was addressed not to Joseph but to Joseph’s two sons. Rabbi Horowitz responds that it was done in this manner, “In order to show that there is no greater blessing for a father than the wish that his children take after him and become good people. Hence, Jacob’s blessing to Menashe and Ephraim (Genesis 48:16): “May the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” That is the greatest blessing that Joseph, their father, could possibly have received.

This week has been another horrific week for the Jewish people. It’s not as if we didn’t have enough familial pain from the international community’s statements condemning Israel for defending itself from the rockets falling on southern Israel from the Gaza strip, and from the anti-Semites who called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth. Now, our own children have apparently betrayed us. The great financial scandals, the Ponzi schemes conducted by prominent Jews, the Jewish attorneys who have engaged in fraud, are a great source of embarrassment.

All of this underscores how truly painful it is when family members are a source of embarrassment, especially when they are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. Many of us were under the illusion that we had already endured the greatest and most intense Chillul Hashem, desecration of G-d’s name, perpetrated by one of our Jewish brothers, a lobbyist in Washington! Amazingly, hardly anybody even recalls his name anymore, and the only thing on our minds now is the $50 billion Ponzi scheme and the perpetrator who made off with so much charitable money and left so many good people impoverished. We have yet to experience the backlash that the Jewish people will encounter because of these terrible crimes. But it certainly painfully drives home the message of parashat Vayechi.

There is no greater joy for parents than to bask in the blessings of one’s children. Unfortunately, there is no greater pain that one can endure than the shame brought upon one’s family and on the family of humankind by our children. Please G-d, may we be spared any further pain.

May you be blessed.