The Struggle for the Blessing
Torah Portion VaYechi 2021 (adapted from previous versions)
When I was a graduate student at USC, I frequented a nearby 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 probably not that I had bought him lunch, so my face registered curiosity. “Do you know what a Brahmin is?” he asked. I did.
“I am a Brahmin,” he declared. I sized him up quickly – truly, a fine looking young man from India - 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.” Brahmins are people, too.
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 whose very being 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 real.
Ever since that odd but authentic moment of blessing, I have had a better understanding of the struggles in the book of Genesis for the blessing of the birthright. Such a blessing was an affirmation of enormous privilege, but not an earned one. The book of Genesis, in some ways, is a subversion of what was obviously an ancient custom (and not so ancient). In Genesis, the status of the firstborn is in doubt. When status is in doubt, struggle ensues. The subtitle of Genesis might be: “The Struggle for the Blessing.” The jealousy, conniving and bloodshed tell how much the blessing was yearned for. We think of the struggle between Cain and Abel, Ishma’el and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. I think of Adam and Eve, who were blessed with fertility, and then cursed with banishment.
Imagine yourself fighting for receiving a blessing that could only be given to one 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. Now imagine your life with this blessing withheld from you. In some way, each of us is fighting for a blessing.
Perhaps the struggle for the blessing is behind the custom, in traditional Jewish homes, where parents bless their children on Shabbat. In Judaism, we have an obligation to bless our children. Sadly, I have known many of those children who had the formal blessing recited for them, but the rest of the week was filled with expressions of dissatisfaction and even condemnation. The Chasid in me (and maybe the Reform rabbi in me) says that non-liturgical blessings are more powerful.
Expression of love, respect, admiration and kind guidance are blessings we can give our children. Facial expressions and gestures of affection and affirmation are blessings. Kind words of praise, words of approval, a nod and a look that communicates a parent’s affirmation is a moment a child can cherish forever. I find that parents so often are invested in advising and correcting, that they forget to offer a pure, simple unqualified blessing - expressing admiration for a kid sticking through something they weren’t good at but hung in there anyway. A blessing for their tenacity and humility. Our children are never too old not to need blessings from their parents. And at a certain point, children have an obligation to bless their parents.
Sadly, many people did not have parents who blessed them, and can live life with a void. And even if we have or had parents who gave us their blessings, we still authentically need the blessings of others. We human beings are relational at our core. I often speak about irrational and useless needs we place on each other. The need for blessings from each other, however, such as love, admiration, respect, gratitude, offers of support and guidance, are authentic and righteous needs, needs that define close relationships. We have an obligation to offer blessings to others; perhaps this is the core of the commandment to love others as we would like to be loved.
Relationships are constituted by authentic needs, and the gracious granting of those needs. We have a duty to love, a duty that should be fulfilled with grace. The virtue duty of restraining harsh words allows a space to be formed that can be filled with words of gracious blessing.
In honor of this Torah portion, perhaps we can look at our lives and see whom we can bless, and find a way to offer that word or deed.
Perhaps we can find the part of ourselves that does not feel worthy of a blessing, and work on healing that wound. Eventually, hopefully, we can find our way to people who can bless us, perhaps not using that word itself, but who bless us nonetheless.
We don’t have to wait for someone to buy us a sandwich to offer such a blessing, or buy someone lunch to get one.