The Struggle for the Blessing
Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion - Vayechi
When I was a graduate student at USC, I frequented a supermarket with a deli inside to get lunch. Once when I was standing in line, a young man ahead of me, about my age, was dismayed to find that he had forgotten his wallet. It was a sandwich and drink; I offered to pay. He protested, and I insisted. I paid for both our lunches and as we left the checkout counter, he stopped me - I thought to thank me. What he did say next I did not see coming.
"Do you know what you have done?", he asked me. I knew the answer was not that I had bought him lunch, so my face registered curiosity. "Do you know what a Brahmin is?", he asked. I was working on a doctorate in Religion-Social Ethics, so I could answer in the affirmative. "Yes," I said. Brahmins are the highest of the four traditional castes in India - holy teachers and preachers, guardians of religious rites.
"I am a Brahmin," he said. I sized him up quickly - truly, a fine looking Indian - tall, handsome, and graceful in bearing. If anyone could exemplify a young Brahmin, this would be the guy.
"You have bought me a meal. This is a high honor for you. You will have God's blessing all of your life." He was beaming as he announced this to me. He wasn't thanking me exactly, but he did seem to say that life itself, the cosmos, would express its gratitude in return for my providing a meal for a Brahmin. "Thank you," I said, followed up with something like "It is an honor and pleasure to benefit a Brahmin."
I am open to mystery, so I thought to myself, "Why not?" His deportment was so regal, so confident that he seemed to be exactly the kind of person who could dispense blessings.
That momentary feeling, as our eyes locked in some kind of metaphysical embrace, has stayed with me. Something about the randomness of the moment made it feel more real than, for example, the blessing that I received from my rabbi at my Bar Mitzvah. As I think about it, I am not sure that my rabbi saw himself as the kind of man who could channel God's blessings. Or maybe at 14 I was just too young and callow to absorb it. Whatever the case, the Brahmin at the supermarket certainly saw himself that way.
Ever since then, I have had a better understanding of the struggles in the book of Genesis for the blessing of the father. I think blessings in our times are offered more casually, and maybe over time. Kind words of praise, words of approval, a nod and a look that communicates a parent's affirmation of the child is a moment a child can cherish forever. Some of us yearn for that from parents, and some parents, of the incompetent or punitive sort, withhold it. I hear so many parents say, for example, how much they hate the video games that the boys, typically, love. You'd have to do something like watch the South Park episode (season 10, episode eight), "Make Love, not Warcraft" to see how existentially significant the agony of video gaming is.
I know that some kids play these games to morbid levels, and that has to be handled. But for the non-damaging levels of playing, a parent should express praise and admiration for the child's skill and tenacity. The video game phase will pass eventually; the blessing will be remembered forever.
In a family where only one child can receive the blessing, I can imagine the fighting and jealousy, especially when the blessing was understood as being ontologically so real. Imagine yourself receiving a blessing from a parent or other revered person, a blessing that you know without a doubt was the channeling of divine favor upon you for your entire life. Imagine going throughout your whole life with this blessing - or without it.
The subtitle of Genesis might be: "The Struggle for the Blessing." The jealousy, conniving and bloodshed tell us how much they yearned - and how much we yearn for that affirmation. Perhaps that is the reason in traditional Jewish homes, parents bless their children, the males with words from this Torah portion, females with words that bring down the lives of matriarchs. It is a beautiful custom, but like any well-worn liturgy, it can feel rote.
The Chasid in me (and maybe the Reform rabbi in me) says that the tradition may not be enough. I think we need to reach down inside ourselves with blessings of truth. Our children are never too old not to need the blessing and guidance of their parents, if the parents are the kind of people who can offer such. When one lacks parents with the inner stature to offer such blessings, I think we have to find people in life who can. And even if you have such parents, we need the blessings of others anyway.
In honor of this Torah portion, perhaps we can look at our lives and see whom we can bless, to whom we can offer a word of sterling affirmation from deep within, and to find a way to offer that word.
We don't have to wait for someone to buy us a sandwich.