By Rabbi Judith Edelstein
When Is a Blessing a Curse?
Shabbat provides us with a number of pivotal rituals for transformation. In the home, in particular, the first of these occurs for me after I light the Shabbos candles. Although I have already ignited them, nevertheless, I am filled with joy as I see the candles glimmering the instant I remove my hands from my eyes.
Ascending the Shabbat ladder, I am brought closest to its promise when I place my hands on my son’s head and chant the traditional blessing “May God bless you as God blessed Ephraim and Menasheh. May the One bless and protect you, illuminate your path with the spirit of holiness, and enable you to live in peace.” My six foot tall son then bows his head, giraffe-like, for me, his five feet five inch mother, to gently brush her lips on his close cropped hair. What ecstasy! Thank you, God, for this moment, like no other, allowing me to experience Your amazing powers of creation. How blessed I am!
Sometimes I add my own words to the formula, for example, “good luck this week on the job interview.” Other times I want to give advice or admonish him. Then I try to restrain myself – which is what I wish Jacob had considered doing in this week’s parashah, Vayehi.
In fact, the core of Vayehi consists of Jacob’s farewell speech to his sons while he is on his death bed. It is the Torah portion that brings us the first line of the blessing for sons cited above that Jacob articulated as he blessed his grandsons, Joseph’s sons, whom he adopted as his own, perpetuating his favoritism for Joseph.
Then Jacob proceeded to both indict and cajole his own adult sons in what is usually referred to as “The Blessing of Jacob.” The JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis refers to Ibn Ezra’s recognition of the contentious aspects of Jacob’s soliloquy and instead names this section “The Testament of Jacob” vv. 1-33, (p. 331). Despite its content, ironically, this section is considered to be the “first sustained piece of Hebrew poetry in the Torah.” (Ibid.) Imagine presenting your kids with a verbal report card in rhymed, iambic pentameter moments before you die!
Jacob’s final words to his sons have always troubled me because they strike me as being mean-spirited, continuing his antagonist relationship with “the boys” to the bitter end and beyond. I have also wondered, since the Torah teaches us about human behavior, if we are to view his “blessings” as a paradigm to emulate or as a blueprint for how not to behave. What guidelines should we follow when we choose what to say and how to speak our “truth” to our adult children, not only at significant moments but also during every day communications? Is honesty the best policy, or is it wiser to restrain ourselves, despite our insights and desire to advise?
I have been pondering this dilemma for the last few years as my children have become adults, and I struggle with my own urge to continue to teach them. Are my words for their benefit or are they really about my own need to retain control? I think about this because I am concerned about my final legacy and realize that all the conversations between now and my final words will have a cumulative impact.
My mother and I sparred throughout my life, way into my adulthood, even after I had children of my own. Yet her last words to me, spoken before she entered the throes of active dying were monumental. Recognizing that she was near the end, after returning to New York from visiting her, I got a haircut before that last trip to Florida. When I walked into her hospital room and leaned over to kiss her, she opened her eyes. “Your hair looks beautiful, my darling.” She closed her eyes and did not say anything after that. This was one of the kindest things she had ever said to me, having referred to me as a mekhasheifeh (Yiddish for witch) throughout my life, due to my long, frizzy Jewish mane that I wore free flowing. She had always insisted that I tie my hair into a pony tail or cut it short, and I resisted. To this day, nearly 20 years later, I remember both: being called a mekhasheifeh, but finally told that my hair looked beautiful.
Ultimately, when we speak to our children, adults or young, the guiding spirit, I believe and aspire to, is to imagine how we would react if we were to hear what we were saying. Perhaps if Jacob had had this perspective and chosen his words carefully, we might be reading a very different parashah this week.
Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvah and other life cycle events.