Va-Yehi: Blessing your children

This week’s (ending 12/29/12) Torah portion, Va-yehi, contains a sequence that initially seems surprising.  Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, brings his sons, Manesseh and Ephraim, to see their aged grandfather Jacob for the last time.  Jacob places his hands on their heads.  The text then says “And he blessed Joseph saying …. ‘May G-d … bless the lads.’”  (Gen. 48:15) 

That is, Jacob blessed his son by blessing his grandchildren!   But is this really so surprising?  Does anything causes a parent to feel more blessed than healthy and happy children?  Parents usually take particular pleasure in fostering close relationships between their own parents and their children. 

According to tradition and Jewish law, each Friday night Jewish parents should bless their sons by saying:  “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manesseh.”  (Parents bless their daughters with “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”) 

Why did the rabbis wish all future Jewish boys to be like these two, rather than like the giants in Jewish history: e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, David, Solomon, the prophets, etc., etc.?   

The usual explanation offered is that Ephraim and Manesseh maintained their Judaism even amidst their extremely privileged upbringing in Egypt.   A less frequent explanation is that they were apparently the first Jewish brothers in the Torah not to fight with each other!  

I suggest a third reason – and it is perhaps the most important reason the rabbis had in mind when they picked these two boys as the exemplars for all time.  They received their grandfather’s blessing (in our day, we would include grandmother).  

The rabbis were emphasizing the great importance of intergenerational ties, specifically between grandparents and grandchildren.   In fact, I see the three “reasons” as being related -- and mutually reinforcing.  Children who feel close to (and blessed by) their grandparents are more likely to value familial traditions (including Judaism) and sibling harmony.  

Thus, when a Jewish parent blesses his or her son(s) with the traditional blessing, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manesseh,” I interpret this as an expression of the fervent wish: “May G-d bless you, my son, as those children were blessed by their grandfather [grandparents].  May your blessing include maintaining our traditions, values, and family relationships.”

Perhaps a Jewish version of the question “Have you hugged your children today?” is “Have your children spoken with their grandparents today?”

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.  

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