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How And Why We Bless The Children #760

01/06/2023 04:23:34 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Yayechi: 
Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) 
How and why we bless the children


Jewish parents have just come through perhaps one of the most challenging times of the year.

We have been surrounded by Christmas trees, gifts, and carols.

It’s hard to compete. Some Jewish children want to know why they can’t have a tree, why our homes are not decorated, or why Santa won’t be dropping by.

Some have upgraded Chanukah to keep pace—but when you consider that Chanukah at its inception was a statement against assimilation, the connection is an uneasy one.

When you add on the influence of Hallowe’en and chocolate Easter bunnies, it’s sometimes tough to promote the joy of Judaism to our children.

We live in the diaspora. Literally translated, our people for the past 2,000 have been “scattered about.” But we are not alone in history. 

This week in the Torah, we complete the Book of Genesis. Next week, we begin the Book of Exodus and the story of our journey from slavery to freedom.

But in this week’s Torah portion, we are transported to one of the first Jewish communities living outside of Israel.

It is also the week where Jacob and Joseph die.

But prior to Jacob’s death, a remarkable scene takes place. Joseph, Egypt’s Viceroy, is informed that his father is gravely ill 

He gathers his two sons Ephraim and Menashe, and brings them to Jacob’s side.

At first, Jacob doesn’t recognize them. And it’s no wonder.

The boys have been raised in Egypt. Their home must have been frequented by Egyptian officials, discussing state business with Joseph.

They likely speak Egyptian slang. They listen to the same Egyptian music as their friends. They “walk like Egyptians.”

Jacob looks up thru his dimmed eyes and asks “who are these?”

Joseph informs his father that they are his grandchildren. And Jacob blesses them -- the next generation.

It’s a key moment in Jewish history.

Commentators note that Jacob, grandson of Abraham, Judaism’s original patriarch, thus extends Judaism’s lineage to a sixth generation.

But there is another part of this scene which carries forward to modern times.

In many homes, on Shabbat evening, parents bless their children.  But how interesting that there exists a difference between the way that Jewish parents complete this loving ritual.

We bless our daughters and granddaughters with the words, “may you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” That makes sense since the four are Judaism’s founding matriarchs.

So, when it comes to our sons and grandsons, it would stand to reason that we ask God that they blessed like “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

But that is not the case. Rather, we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”

Why would that be?

Rabbi Ovadia Hadiah (1890-1960) offered an explanation. He noted that Joseph’s sons were raised in Egypt, and likely received an Egyptian secular education, which was dramatically different from that taught within Jewish tradition.

Egyptian society was based on idolatry, and a devotion to a series of gods.

Still, Joseph taught Ephraim and Menashe to remain true to their Jewish roots and identity. One universe, one God.

And this idea of maintaining our Jewish identity remained with us, not only through hundreds of years of Egyptian exile, but also through centuries of being “scattered about” until the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

We as parents and grandparents are no different than Jacob and Joseph. We are surrounded by a society where we are members of the minority.

Christmas at its core is about peace, giving, family and worship.The great rabbi, Maimonides, taught that any religion which promotes such values, should be respected by the Jewish people.

But that doesn’t mean that it is easy living district from the majority. We are indeed culturally challenged living outside of Israel.

Ever more reason that, rather than assimilate, that we continue, as Joseph did, to model and teach Jewish tradition.

The central mission of Judaism is to assist God in repairing this broken world.  We are about charity, empathy, and perhaps most of all channeling the persecution we have suffered to uplift the lives of others.

Other religions teach this as well. The difference perhaps for us is that we are commanded to do so. That is the true meaning of the word mitzvah

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob blesses his grandsons with words we continue to draw upon today.

As a throwback to ancient times when males ruled, we bless our boys with hopes of being not so much like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—but rather Ephraim and Menashe—children of the diaspora.

Indeed, blessing our children—even saying “I love you” at the end of the week, is such an important way to carry on that tradition.

We are role models for our children and grandchildren.

Have our hearts hardened? Have we become cynical? Or are we involved in some way in fulfilling the Prophet Isaiah’s instructions to “clothe the naked, assist the homeless and feed the hungry?”

It is a good thing to bless our children -- letting them know that not only are they a part of us—but also that they are connected to an ethical movement which has survived more than 4,000 years.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we are part of something bigger.

It’s not easy being Jewish these days.

All the more reason to bless our children—forming a chain of life linking those whose shoulders we stand upon, to those in the diaspora who will carry us on.

Ever more reason to embrace our uniqueness with a blessing.

For there is still so much to be done

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784