To be or not to be: (one of) The Meaning of Torah Blessings

Just before his death, Jacob calls his sons and blesses them. We know how important his father’s blessing was to him when he was young; so much so, that he – and his mom – made sure he gets it rather than his brother Esau. We’re in the last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis and we might expect now the grown Jacob who learned his lesson to show us the best “blessing giving” in history. However, like so often happens in the life of our forefathers and mothers back then, as in our own, in spite of best intentions, we continue old pattern. Strangely, we are confronted with verses like:
“Reuven, you are my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength… unstable as water… you have ascended your father’s bed; then defiled it… Shimon and Levi… cursed be their anger for it was fierce, and their wrath for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” (49:3-7).
This style not only contradicts our imaginary “everything will be ok” blessing but also what just happened a few verses back in the same Torah potion: Joseph brought his own sons, Ephrayim & Menashe to be blessed by Jacob and lo and behold – Jacob gives both of them the same blessing; the same blessing we still pronounce every Friday evening: “And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘Through you shall Israel bless, saying: God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh” (48:20).
Maybe we should go back to the drawing board and ask: What does it mean “to bless” someone?
The Torah has different blessings: G-d blesses people and the world; People also pronounce a blessing that includes G-d; and people bless each other (mostly parents bless their children, but surprisingly in this portion, Jacob also blesses Pharaoh).
Rabbi Hirsch of the 19th century who is a genius in exploring Hebrew roots and conducting thorough “root-canals” to draw out their core meanings, says that – the root for bracha, blessing – has to do with “power growth”, “spur prosperity”. He connects therefore 2 other Hebrew words that superficially look unrelated. These are the words berech, knee, and brecha, pool, reservoir.  The knee is the power point joint, the limb that propels us, that makes us go down or jump to new heights. From here, we have the verb lehavrich, as in to settle down camels, or bow down in prayer, which is close to kneeling. A pool likewise is a place from which one can recharge and draw strength. Hirsch further connects it to other verbs like barak – a separate flash of lightening; and all the verbs that start with peh.resh and have to do with getting out on one’s own, developing, flowering and also getting wild.
A blessing if so, is no magic; no abracadabra. It can’t turn an Esau into a Jacob, a Reuven into Judah. Rather, it expresses the ability to truly see someone and wish for them to grow to be the best they can be, no matter the outward conditions and challenges.
To this day we bless our boys with “may you be like Ephrayim & Menash” because Joseph’s sons grew up in Pharaoh’s palace; in the place where it would be easiest to assimilate. Instead, they opted to join the brothers, their uncles and cousins, and become part of the Jewish people.
Not everyone has to join the Jewish people but as Shakespeare said in Prince Hamlet’s speech, “to be or not to be, that is the (only) question”. If to be able to be truly who we are – is what life is all about, then for someone else to see our core true self, believe in us, and wish for us to be that – is indeed, a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.

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1 Response to To be or not to be: (one of) The Meaning of Torah Blessings

  1. My dear friend Ayala Luria sent the following insight:
    Inside the knee there is a really a small pool of liquids (Synovial fluid) so anatomically, the connection between berech and brecha also matches.

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