In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, Joseph has reunited with his father, Jacob, and his brothers, who have come to Egypt from Canaan. Now, Jacob is at the end of his life and he gathers all his sons around him to give them his blessing before he dies.
Before blessing his own children, Jacob calls for Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and blesses them. He not only blesses them, but claims them as his own sons. Then Jacob tells them, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
Tonight, as we do every Shabbat, we fulfilled Jacob’s blessing over his grandchildren by blessing our own children that they might be like Ephraim and Menashe.
What is Jacob up to in this story? Remember, Jacob is a man who knows something about blessings, and about using them strategically. Throughout his life, he has used blessings as a means of shaping his own destiny. As a young man, he and his mother, Rebecca, conspire to trick his father, Isaac, into giving Jacob the blessing intended for Jacob’s older brother, Esau. Many years after making off with the stolen blessing, Jacob was tormented by worry and guilt. The night before he was to reunite with his brother, Esau, the Torah tells us Jacob wrestled all night with a mysterious stranger. Jacob seized the moment, pinned the stranger and demanded a blessing from him before he would release him. He got his blessing, but not without a cost. Jacob walked away with a new name and his hip wrenched out of its socket.
Joseph’s sons are strangers to Jacob. They were raised in Egypt, estranged from their father’s family. But through his blessings, Jacob has re-written the story, weaving Joseph’s sons tightly back into the tradition, and into his own legacy. His blessing redeems the painful, shattered family story so that we can inherit it and make our own meaning of it.
Blessings are one of my very favorite things about Judaism. We have blessings for just about every possible occasion. The Talmud tells us a person should recite 100 blessings every day. The tractate Brachot discusses dozens of variations. There are blessings for bread, for wine, for fruit that grows on trees and food that grows in the earth. There is a blessing for seeing the ocean. For seeing a very beautiful person or beautiful bird. For entering a cemetery. For being released from prison. For seeing a mountain, a rainbow, seeing lightning, hearing thunder, seeing a destroyed synagogue, seeing a restored synagogue. For hearing terrible news. For seeing a friend you haven’t seen in so long they might have been dead. For seeing 600,000 Jews all in one place.
These blessings don’t just reflect our experience of the world around us, they shape it. They are a way of exercising discipline over what we notice, what we appreciate, how we make meaning out of what happens to us.
Some are about attending to the tiny, everyday miracles that we might never even notice if we didn’t bless them. Asher yatzar reminds us, somewhat graphically, that if just one of the many openings and ducts and tubes running through our bodies were open instead of shut, or shut instead of open, we would simply drop dead.
Some are the opposite – imposing structure on our reaction to those things we can’t help but notice. There is a blessing for seeing a person whose physical difference is startling – it takes the very human impulse to react to difference in another person, and shapes that reaction into the form of gratitude.
Blessings are a way of telling ourselves stories about who we are, what matters to us, who we want to be, who we want God to be.
My father is one of the most naturally (you might say relentlessly) positive and grateful people I know. His gratitude comes from a boundless well of good-natured curiosity. For a man who is genuinely interested in everyone and everything, there is no end to discovery and delight.
It took me years to understand there was a deeper layer, a real discipline to his practice of positivity. There are times this can feel like forced cheerfulness, but that misses the point. Spontaneous delight is infectious and easy to appreciate, but there is also a hard-won and carefully cultivated habit of choosing to pluck blessing from bitterness.
This year, I have needed to practice all forms of blessing.
The ability to pull my focus in tightly, to delight in the smallest detail of the world that had suddenly shrunk to the size of my own backyard. The angle of the sun in an eastern window at 8:00 in the morning. A squash plant almost imperceptibly bigger than the day before. An incredible, improbable spider web.
I have needed the discipline to notice something good and hopeful, to pause and give it its due, and not give in to the anxiety about whether it will last, what backlash may come tomorrow.
And I have needed the ability to find blessing through sheer force of will. To wrestle a blessing from the scary and unknown.
So in that spirit, I want to invite you, before we let 2020 fully slip away, to offer a blessing for the year we are leaving behind. It can be in the form of something tiny you want to remember to notice. It can be the story we want to tell about what mattered most to us in this year. Like Jacob, it may be the blessing we extract by force before limping away.
I will leave you with one of my favorite teachings on blessings, Marge Piercy’s poem “The Art of Blessing the Day.”
But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.
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