Did you ever receive a bracha, a blessing from someone? Did you ever give someone a bracha? We’ve all heard of people going to a Rebbe for a blessing, but do human beings really have the power to bless others? Apparently the Torah thinks we do. The central focus of today’s Torah portion is the blessings given by father Jacob to his children. It’s a touching scene. Jacob, lying on his death bed, calls for his sons so that he may bless them before he dies. Listen to some of his blessings:
Reuven...unstable as water, you cannot be foremost because you defiled your father’s bed...Shimon and Levy...into their conspiracy may my soul not enter...for in their rage they murdered people...Cursed be their anger for it was fierce...Yissachar is a strong-boned ass...he bent his shoulder to bear and became an indentured laborer.
Now what kind of blessings are these? One would expect only positive, warm and loving words from a father on his death bed. Was Jacob so bitter about his difficult life that he couldn’t appreciate the wonderful family he had raised? The truth is, the blessings for the other sons were, in fact, warm and loving.
So why did father Jacob include these harsh sentiments in his final words? The commentators tell us he was trying to help his sons correct significant flaws in their character. Calling their attention to their shortcomings, it turned out were, indeed, a blessing. The descendants of Levy, for example, were then better able to refocus their proclivity to violence and became the priests and religious functionaries of Israel.
But let’s get back to our question. Do human beings really have the power to bless others? Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in his series of books, Unlocking the Torah Text, writes:
The power of interpersonal blessing is a Gd-given gift so fundamental that it is included in the very first instructions given to the first Hebrew. As Gd commands Avraham to leave his homeland and embark upon his career, Gd states: “And you will be a blessing.”
The rabbis, in the Midrash (Rabba Bereshit 39:11), interpret this phrase as follows: “Blessings are given to your hand. Until now, they were in My hand. I blessed Adam and Noach. From this time on you will bless whom you wish.”
By granting man the power to bless, Gd withdraws and deliberately limits his own power. As part of the divine partnership agreement with humanity, Gd will respect the words spoken by man and reckon with them when He makes decisions. Man thus acquires the power of blessing.
Most of us, however, feel a bit uncomfortable about giving blessings and some have even a harder time accepting them. A great Rebbe whose blessings were known to have miraculous effects once made a shiva call and the son of the deceased asked him why his father had to suffer so. Did the Rebbe not pray for him? After all he was a faithful follower and supporter. The Rebbe responded that he visited his ill father many times and always blessed him that he should feel better and be healed, but his father never said, “Amen,” to any of his blessings. His father never accepted the blessings and so he never received them.
And so I ask you now to put aside your discomfort for a moment and try a blessing exercise with me. This is a new solar year. When I tell you, I would like you to turn to the person sitting nearest to you and take turns giving him/her a bracha, a blessing for the New Year—say, “I bless you in this new solar year that…” and say the 1st thing that comes into your mind and heart for them as you look at them. Then the one being blessed should receive the blessing by saying, “Amen.” Do it now…Doesn’t that feel good? Don’t you feel blessed? Yes, you have the power to give a bracha.
Too many of us ignore—or don’t notice—the many blessings in our lives. Let me share with you a wonderful poem—author unknown—called, “Don’t miss out on a blessing.”
The man whispered, “Gd, speak to me,” and a meadowlark sang but the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, “Gd, speak to me!” and the thunder rolled across the sky but the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, “Gd, let me see you,” and a star shone brightly, but the man did not see.
And the man shouted, “Gd show me a miracle,” and a life was born, but the man did not notice.
So, the man cried out in despair, “Touch me Gd and let me know that you are here!”
Whereupon Gd reached down and touched the man. But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.
The message is obvious: Don’t miss out on a blessing because it isn’t packaged the way you expected. How many gifts, miracles and answers to our prayers pass right before our eyes every day, and we miss them? Perhaps we’re so caught up in the busyness of our lives that we’re distracted or preoccupied and don’t see or notice what is being put right in front of us. Or perhaps—as the man in the poem—we’re so busy looking for particular answers to our questions or problems that we miss the gift, the blessing, the answer to our prayers that is being given to us.
Yes, sometimes blessings come in unexpected ways. But if we graciously accept what life gives us, the outcome can be beyond our wildest imagination. For example, when we’re single we all have certain expectations—a shopping list or sorts—of what we’re looking for in a mate: how tall, what color hair, how much hair, how successful, etc. But Gd doesn’t necessarily send us what we’re looking for. He does, however, send us who we need. And that’s an amazing blessing! We need to see what a blessing the people Gd put in our lives truly are.
What does it take to find blessing in our relationships? It takes an appreciation that everything one says and does makes an impression upon their partner and has consequences. Does that mean we need to behave all the time with our loved ones like we’re walking on ice? Not necessarily. It means that the foundation of our relationships must be chessed, “love and kindness.” Everything we say and everything we do should be done and said in a chessedika way—a kind way. And every time you get upset at your partner, try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt in that what he/she did was not meant to hurt you because your partner loves you. That’s why he/she is with you. Make that assumption before you raise your voice and confront them.
Mark Buchanan writes about a group of children who were asked what love means. Rebecca, age 8, said, “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does this for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too.” This is blessing. Billy, age 4, said, “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know your name is safe in their mouth.” Isn’t that a wonderful way of putting it?
And so I ask you, whose toenails are you painting? Whose name is safe in your mouth? Who would say they find you a blessing in their lives? Would your spouse or children say you are a blessing? Or have you drifted into being a cranky, irritable person? We all desire to be a person through whom the blessings of Gd flows. It can be so! Bless the people you’re with wherever you are—whoever Gd sends your way and you’ll see, this is a blessed life!
Emerson once said that if the stars came out only once a year, everybody would stay up all night to behold them. We have seen the stars so often that we don’t bother to look at them anymore. My friends, there are so many stars in our lives. We have grown too accustomed to our blessings.
And perhaps that is why we criticize and complain so often. Instead of thanking Gd for what we have, we complain about it and tell him we wish we had something else. You can be sure that if Gd did give us what we asked for, we would eventually complain about that too.
Further evidence we have grown too accustomed to our blessings is that we think others have a better situation in their lives than we do. I can guarantee you that if you spend your life looking at what others have you will be miserable. Kabbalah teaches that Gd gives each soul in life precisely what it needs to rectify and perfect itself. If you’re not wealthy it’s because your soul doesn’t need the particular challenge that wealth brings. If you’ll only find and acknowledge the blessings you have in your life you’ll see that yours is truly a blessed life…and that Gd’s plan is to bless you so you can be a blessing.
Let me conclude with a story of an artist who had become dissatisfied with his work and told his wife, “I’m going out to search for the most important, the most beautiful thing in the world, and that’s the picture I must paint.” His travels took him far and wide. He saw many things that were beautiful, but he didn’t find what he was looking for.
One day he stopped a bride on her wedding day. “Tell me,” he said to the radiant young girl. “What is the most beautiful thing in the world?”
“Love,” she answered without hesitation. But the artist went on his way disappointed for he couldn’t paint love. Sometime later he met a soldier returning from war and asked, “Soldier what is the most beautiful thing in the world?”
“Peace,” the soldier answered as he hurried home. Again, the artist looked disappointed for he couldn’t paint peace.
Continuing his search he stopped a Rabbi on the way to the synagogue. Surely, he thought, this holy man would be able to help him. The Rabbi answered simply, “Faith, my son, is the most beautiful thing in the world.” But how could one paint a picture of faith?
The artist felt his search was hopeless and returned home, weary in body and in soul. Then, when his wife warmly greeted him, he found the love of which the bride had spoken. All about his home was the feeling of security, the tranquil peace that the soldier thought so beautiful. And in the eyes of his young children was the faith described by the Rabbi. Here was the subject for his painting—his family and his home. This would be his masterpiece!
It is our sincere prayer today that the home Ilan and Elie will build will truly be a blessed home—their masterpiece.
My friends, let us count the blessings of the old year as we enter the new. No one knows for sure what the New Year will bring, but we must have faith that Gd will bless us and provide us with everything and everyone we need. In that way we will live up to the 3 words we proclaimed this morning as we finished the 1st book of the Torah: Chazak chazak v’nitchazeyk, “We will be strong, we will be strong and we will strengthen one another.” And that’s the ultimate blessing. Have a blessed solar New Year. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis