"Jacob's Last Moments" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Jacob's Last Moments" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

If I blend my plea to God, does that make it a mixed blessing?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vayechi

Genesis 47:28-50:26


The Rabbi of Chelm thought about the question. It was a good question, yet rarely asked. Most of the townspeople of Chelm would ask about blessings in a utilitarian way, such as: “What is the blessing for organic tofu?” “Is there a blessing for getting into the right preschool?” “The blessing for gluten-free, fat-free, sodium-reduced, vegan, non-alcoholic wine?”

To the children we teach the blessings of everyday: Upon awakening, elohai neshamah — the soul you have given me is pure. On sitting up in bed, matir asurim — who frees the captives. Getting out of bed, hamechin mitzadei gaver — who strengthens my steps. On getting dressed, malbish arumim — who clothes the naked. Then the blessings for the toast, the cereal and so on.

But trust a teenager to ask a question that gets her tossed out of class and sent to the rabbi. All she did was ask, “What does a blessing do? Does God care?” This was not a child, but a young adult.

“So,” the Rabbi of Chelm asked, “What was the context of blessings today?”

The teen responded, “Genesis 49, Jacob’s death-bed blessings to his sons. They’re not all nice.”

The rabbi realized this was not an elementary question, like what is the blessing for an apple as compared to a potato.

“OK, let’s see what a blessing is not. You’re correct, according to Sefer Hachinuch, a blessing to God does not affect God: ‘The words of humanity and all our deeds, good or bad, do not increase or diminish God.’ Therefore, you must learn that our constant recitation of “Blessed are You, God” does not mean, as it would appear, that blessing is added to The One Who requires no Addition … we must seek to understand the intent of this matter [of blessing].”

“And I got sent to you?”

“Well, it gives us the opportunity to learn together. That’s a blessing. A blessing is not only about something you are about to do, like eating or drinking. In Genesis 1:22, we see, ‘And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply in the earth.’ Creation had begun, the blessing was about what living creatures do.”

“Well sure,” said the teen. “That’s what all living things do. We learned that in bio.”

“Right!” replied the Rabbi of Chelm. “A blessing is seeing the essence of a thing. It is a radical acknowledgement, like saying, ‘I see you.’ The blessing does not change the thing that is being blessed; it puts into words what we are seeing. Like a poem. And Jacob’s blessings to his sons is a poem. The text (Genesis 49:28) concludes, ‘All these are the 12 tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.’”

“That’s redundant. I would get a red mark for writing that in English class.”

“Yes, but look closely. According to the plain meaning, the words vay-eva-rech o-tam (blessed them) applies to the collective blessing. The words ish asher k-vir-ka-to (every one according to his blessing) applies to the individualized blessing Jacob gave to each son. Not what they will be, but who they are in Jacob’s eyes. Reuben is ‘unstable as water’ based on his inappropriate behaviors. Simeon and Levi are indeed ‘quick to anger.’ ‘You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise,’ well, yes, Judah has been thoughtful and dependable; his is a 55-word blessing. Zebulun is industrious, Issachar, not so much. And so on.”

“Where’s Dinah?”

“Not her fault. Missing from the text.”

“Missing from life, I would say. Gone since Shechem, where Simeon and Levi did so much harm.”

“Let’s do some good. Here is a modern midrash, a poem by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell to Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob.

I have wrestled with the words with which to bless you,
Dinah, daughter of Leah.
A child, you went out to see the daughters of the land.
You returned a woman.
Did you raise your voice? Your cries were not heard.
Blood flowed through the streets of Shechem
and I was afraid. 

Like your mother,
you walk among the people with head unbowed.
May that strength and clarity of vision
continue in the generations to come.
To you, my daughter belong the blessings of breast and the womb,
blessings of justice and care.
Your offspring will learn many tongues
and practice healing arts.
They will build cities of righteousness
and none shall make them afraid.

“By the way,” asked the Rabbi of Chelm, “What’s your Hebrew name?”

“Dinah.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].