Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26
The power of ritual may rest on specific words or particular actions, but the essence of ritual's value is its ability to transform mundane moments into sacred time. One of the most powerful family rituals in our tradition takes place each week before Shabbat dinner, when, in the light of the candles, parents lay their hands upon the heads of their children and recite ancient words of blessing over them.
Even before a child reaches the age at which he or she can comprehend the meaning of the blessings, the coming of Shabbat becomes synonymous with the proximity and love of his or her parents, and the feeling of a hand on a forehead followed by a gentle kiss and a warm meal.
While the experience of being blessed is perhaps more important than the words used, there is nevertheless an undeniable power to these words. Girls are blessed with the qualities of our matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — a blessing that deepens as the complexity of each of these characters is learned and considered.
The blessing recited for boys is a bit more obscure. Boys are imbued with the attributes of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Menasseh — clearly less prominent personalities than the mothers of our people.
It is derived from a passage of the Torah found in this week's portion, Vayechi. Our patriarch, Jacob, lies on his deathbed in Egypt, where he and his family have come to live with his son, Joseph, in order to weather the famine in Canaan. He summons Joseph to his bedside along with Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, to bless them.
As is customary, Joseph presents his sons so that the oldest, Menasseh, may receive the principal blessing, from Jacob's right hand, and the youngest, Ephraim, may receive the secondary blessing from Jacob's left hand. Jacob, however, crosses his hands and delivers the more prestigious blessing to Ephraim, the younger child. When Joseph tries to correct his father, Jacob persists, predicting that Ephraim will be the more prominent of the two.
While this frustration of societal expectations is striking, it is not unprecedented in the narrative of the Torah. Joseph himself was not his father's firstborn — nor were Jacob, Isaac or even Moses. Nevertheless, this passage is the most prominent mention of Ephraim and Menasseh, which makes the blessing that we deliver to our sons on Shabbat even more of a mystery.
Blessings on Their Heads
Why do we pray that our children will be like two young men whose salient characteristic is that they will not follow the paths society would expect for them?
Perhaps the answer can be derived from a more careful investigation of Jacob's actions.
Most of this week's portion is comprised of the final blessings Jacob delivers to his sons. Each of Jacob's sons receives an individual blessing (with the exception of Joseph, who has his blessing commuted to the blessings for Ephraim and Menasseh).
When we re-enact this process around our Shabbat table, perhaps the blessing is not only for our children. Perhaps it's for us, too. Maybe as we pray that our children might be like the children we meet in the Torah, we are also praying that we might embody some of the finest qualities of their biblical parents.
Specifically, maybe the unspoken prayer in this blessing is that, as we lay our hands on the heads of our children, we might know them deeply enough to deliver a blessing to them — not that they will fulfill society's expectations for them, and not even that they will fulfill our expectations for them.
Maybe, each Friday night, we pray that we might know our children well enough to craft individual blessings for them — ones that will help each of them fulfill their own highest potential, whatever and however that might be.
Rabbi Eric Rosin is the religious leader of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.