Jacob and Joseph share many traits: both stay back in the tent with their parent; are young and favorite; have fantastic dreams and have great cries. Both will die in this week’s reading, and both will be particular about their burials: Jacob will insist that his body will not touch Egypt’s soil and Joseph – is “processed” via all traditional Egyptian customs, staying with people in exile until the last minute.
it is indeed, the beginning of a long, harsh and painful exile, and during its years we need local leadership, which knows how to deal with the current situation, along with longing and commitment to, one day, return to the Land. “Exile” without a desire to come back, is just another name for a new home. In order for it to remain “exile”, there also must remain a strong connection to the homeland; a connection which isn’t for granted but rather takes work, as is evident, for example, from the great trouble Joseph goes to, in order to bury his father in the same cave where his grandfather and great grandfather are buried in, but — not his mother (which is also a conversation the father and son now share – Genesis 48:7). The Book of Genesis closes with us realizing that although we pray, dream of, remember and struggle to return to the Land, and that one day, indeed, we will, our life will also be filled with many hours away from it; hours that allow for a different kind of growth, pain and the endless longing, longing we couldn’t have had, had we been back….
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 might expect the grown Jacob to have learned his lesson and show us the best “blessing giving” in history. However, 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.” (Genesis 49:3-7).
This style not only contradicts our imaginary of “everything will be ok” blessing but also what just happened a few verses back in the same Torah potion, when Joseph brought his own two 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” (Genesis 48:20).
What is blessing and 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, a genius in conducting thorough “root-canals” on Hebrew roots, teaches that b.r.ch – 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. Rav 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 G-d make you like Ephrayim & Menash” perhaps because Joseph’s sons grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, in the place where it would be easiest to assimilate. And instead, they opted to join the brothers, their uncles and cousins, and become part of the Jewish people.
Of course, 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 fully be that – is indeed, a blessing.