Kings I 2:1-2:12
The idea that a person can bless another person is familiar to us. We say “God bless you” when someone sneezes, but what does it really mean to bless a person? This week’s Torah portion, the last in the book of Genesis, centerson the biblical expressionof blessings from one person to another.
Having reunited with his son Joseph in Egypt 17 years earlier, Jacob is on his deathbed, pronouncing blessings to his sons and grandsons, the 12 tribes of Israel. Gathered around his bed, Jacob addresses each son poetically and prophetically, speaking of their future and their individual qualities.
When he blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, it’s a poignant moment. He can’t see them, his eyes dim with old age, but he embraces and kisses them, saying to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”
Jacob places his hands on the heads of his grandsons, crossing them so that his left hand is on the first born, Menashe, and his right hand on the younger, Ephraim, continuing the biblical tradition of preferring younger over the older.
Jacob blesses them, and continues, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” And indeed, these are the words that Jewish parents use to bless their sons on Friday nights at the Shabbat table. For daughters, parents say, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”
Parents traditionally place their hands on their children’s heads, just as Jacob did with his grandsons, and then they say the three-fold blessing originally said by the Kohanim, or priests, to the people of Israel, “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s light shine upon you and grace you. May God’s face shine upon you and grant you peace” (Num 6:24-26).
So, again the question is: What does it mean for a person to bless another person? How does a person have the power to bestow God’s blessing? The priests were instructed to bless the people, and descendants of cohanim still offer this blessing today in many synagogues. But what about us regular people?
As a rabbi, I frequently have the opportunity to offer blessings. I say the priestly blessing to young people on the day of their bar or bat mitzvah or tocouples under the chuppahor to babies as we welcome them into the covenant. However, rabbis don’t have any special power of blessing; anyone can offer a blessing to another.
How is it done? When I give someone a blessing, I feel that the blessing doesn’t come from me, but it comes through me. I am just a channel for God’s blessing.
More radical than the notion of being a channel for God’s blessing is the explanationof the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.
In his book “Kedushat Levi,” he explains how it is that a person can bestow God’s blessing on another through a startling interpretation of a quote from the Psalms. In Psalm 121:5, it says HaShem Tzilcha, “God is your protection.” But Rabbi Levi Yitzhak reads the verse super-literally as “God is your shadow,” meaning, “Just as a shadow does whatever a person does, so does God do whatever a person does.” In other words, if a person blesses another, it’s as if God has blessed the person.
At first reading, it may sound a bit chutzpadik to say that God follows us like a shadow, but if you think about it, it’s so true: If we do a goodness or kindness for another person, it feels to them as if God has been kind to them.
If we bring compassion and comfort to another, it feels to them as if God has been compassionate and comforting to them.
So too, if we offer someone a blessing, that person will feel God’s blessing. Ourwords to each other are so powerful. May we use our power of words to say words of blessing to each other.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.