Many of us can identify pivotal moments and events in our lives that seem to direct our destiny. For some aspects of ourselves, though, the essential sources are mysterious: maybe we were unaware of their significance at the time, or they’ve been lost or buried in memory. Or perhaps they’ve naturally become covered from consciousness even as they help form the superstructure of our lives– like studs in a wall upholding our house.
In my case, from the time of my teens, one of the things that drove me to engage my Jewish identity was wanting to give my children a blessing on Friday nights. But I did not grow up with this tradition in my house, and I cannot point to when the idea grabbed me, nor why exactly. Did I become enamored of such blessings from seeing it done in Fiddler on the Roof? Did I read about this or see it in the movie The Chosen? Some other book? Did I see a photo of Rembrandt’s painting? A memory from a past life?
I still think that one of the most beautiful of all the Jewish traditions is the blessing of the children on Friday nights. The tradition comes from this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, when Jacob blesses his own children and grandchildren.
The Torah recounts the words of Jacob’s blessing for his children and then summarizes it this way: “[Jacob] blessed them, each according to his blessing did he bless them.” (Genesis 49:28)
After we read all about these blessings, the Torah summarizes and tells us yet again that Jacob blessed them asher k’virchato, “each according to his blessing.” Why does the Torah restate what we already know?
Some commentaries (Radak and Or HaChayim) note that “each according to his blessing” means that Jacob was a keen observer of his children, that he understood each child’s particular strengths and talents. He blessed each child with their own specific and appropriate blessing.
Indeed, what could be a greater blessing than a child fulfilling their own potential, achieving all that is possible for that child to become? We bless our children not with what we would have them attain and not with the dreams or wishes we supply them. Rather, we bless them with the opportunity to realize the potential inherent in them and to make wise use of their unique talents and strengths.
And what could be a greater responsibility – and profound spiritual joy – than to perform the act of giving that blessing?! When was the last time you gave someone a blessing? A child or grandchild, a good friend, your beloved, a pet, a stranger…?
Your blessing begins with you: Only you can give your own unique blessing in that precise, limited, moment to the particularly specific recipient(s) of the blessing. Therefore, the process of giving a blessing will vary in order to ‘rise to the occasion’. The basic guidelines, though, are to put your hands on the person’s head, focus, concentrate on the bless-ee, reach into your heart, and speak…
If you want to try the traditional blessing “formula”, you say (for boys): “Yesimkha Elohim k’Efraim u’k’Menasheh/ May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh” or (for girls) “Yesimekh Elohim k’Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, v’Leah/ May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah”.
A gender-inclusive/difference blessing is evolving: “Y’simkhol Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Rakhel, Leah, Ephraim u’Menashe/ May God make the all of you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Ephraim, and Menashe.”
And then we continue with the blessing: “Y’varekhe-kha adonai v’yish-m’rekha/ Ya’er adonai panav ei-lekha ve-khoonekha/ Ye-sah adonai panav ei-lekha v’yasem lekha shalom/ May God bless you and protect you/ May God’s presence shine on you and be good to you/ May God reach out to you tenderly and give you peace.”
The Hebrew genders-inclusive/difference version is Yivarekhekhol Adonay v’yishmarekhol / Ya’er Adonay panav elekhol v’yihunekhol / Yisa Adonay panav elekhol vayasem lekhol shalom.
Of course, you can add (or substitute) your own words of blessing. A beautiful example is the blessing sung for the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof:
“May the Lord protect and defend you/ May He always shield you from shame/ May you come to be/ In Israel a shining name.
May you be like Ruth and like Esther/ May you be deserving of praise/ Strengthen them, Oh Lord/ And keep them from the strangers’ ways.
May God bless you and grant you long lives/ May the Lord fulfill our Sabbath prayer for you/ May God make you good mothers and wives/ May He send you husbands who will care for you.
May the Lord protect and defend you/ May the Lord preserve you from pain/ Favor them, Oh Lord, with happiness and peace/ Oh, hear our Sabbath prayer. Amen.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz