January 8, 2012
What’s in a blessing
In this past shabbat’s torah portion Yaakov blesses his children with unusual blessings. We imagine blessings to be good wishes or promises for the future, here though Yaakov seems to bless his children by describing them, their strengths and weaknesses, in some instances, such as Shimon and Levi, only mentioning their weaknesses. What kind of blessing is this?
Perhaps Jacob, whose whole life has revolved around the question of blessings from his brother to his fight with the angel, understands that a true blessing is not a prophecy, or good wishes, or a hope for some future bounty, but rather a deeper look at the self and one’s potential. To help the receiver of the blessing truly create their own blessing.
Human beings have strengths and weaknesses and usually they are two sides of the same characteristic. As the Talmud says “whoever is greater than his neighbor so too is his yetzer (his [evil] inclination) greater than his neighbor.” All aspects of our personality are both a strength and a weakness. A true beracha is not a mystical incantation bestowing good luck; it is a kind of therapeutic interpretation, a highlighting of one’s midot, ones character traits, and shedding light upon how they can be used as a strength instead of a weakness.
This idea can help us understand several Rabbinic ideas regarding berachot.
Why is the beracha of a hedyot, a regular person, not to be taken lightly (Talmud Berachot 7a)? Because a beracha is not prophecy or powerful incantation, rather it is insight into the receiver, a reflection on who they are. Perhaps this is also why we do not bless ourselves, since one can not usually see themselves and their own strengths and weakness clearly.
The Talmud says when we judge a person wrongly; we must make up for this by blessing them. The logical undoing of judging someone wrongly (seeing their characteristics as weakness rather than strength, bad rather than good) is to bless them, to judge their personality licaf zecut, meritoriously, and find in them their strengths.
What about blessing God, which we do so often? It is in this vain quite appropriate to bless God. In blessing Hashem we are finding Hashem where Hashem seemingly is not. Looking deeper into life and the world and finding the tov, the good, the force of the Divine in the physical. This finding of God’s goodness, as it were, is to bless God. Berachot on food, on mitzvoth or natural wonders are all to find God where he is hidden, in this world.
This approach to blessings can help us to understand the following particularly strange piece of Talmud.
“It was taught: Rabbi Ishmael bbn Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Jah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! l replied: May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.” -Berachot 7a
God is blessed to use God’s midot, God’s characteristics, to benefit people. This is the essence of a beracha, to help another to see the strengths of their midot and use them for good and not bad, even God in this case.
In our Torah portion, Vayichi, Yaakov, after a lifetime of wrangling for berachot, finds that he is the master of berachot. He is a good parent in that he stays connected to all of his children no matter what they do and sees their different sides, their strengths and weaknesses, clearly. He then points them out, like a good therapist, in the hopes that they will learn from the blessing and indeed be “blessed.”
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