Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 2

Before his death, Ya’akov gathers his children around him in order to bless them. But listen to what he says to them. “Reuven, you are my firstborn... Because you were as unstable as water, you will no longer be the first. Shimon and Levi are a pair; instruments of crime are their wares. Let my soul not enter their plot.... Cursed be their rage...” By the time he got to his fourth son, Yehuda was already backing away anticipating a rebuke like those his brothers had just received! On his deathbed, has Ya’akov nothing better to say to his sons than to point out their weaknesses? Is this the blessing that he summoned them to receive?

Earlier in the reading Yosef brings his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim to Ya’akov for a blessing. Ya’akov switches his hands to place the right on Ephraim’s head, even though Ephraim is the younger. This displeases Yosef and he tries to move his father’s hands. Ya’akov justifies himself by saying that though both sons will become great, the younger will become greater than the older. It appears that Ya’akov is doing things the wrong way round. If the purpose of a blessing is to bestow greatness, couldn’t he decide through the way he places his hands, which son will be the greater? He seems bound by the future, and is not conferring greatness, but making a prophecy.

The Midrash1 states that the Torah opens with the letter beis because this is the letter of blessing. In what sense does beis represent blessing? Certainly the word b’racha begins with beis, but so do many other words, some of which even mean the opposite of blessing.

The Maharal explains that the word b’racha which is usually translated as “blessing” in fact means “increase” or “many”. Therefore the letter beis is in essence b’racha, because its numerical value is two. It is by definition “many”. Furthermore, the root of the word b’racha is the letters beis, reish, and caf. Each of these letters has a numerical value representing double. Beis is two, reish is two hundred, and caf is twenty, two tens.

When Ya’akov comes to bless his sons, he cannot redefine who they are. Rather he points out their strengths and weaknesses. Then they are able to improve themselves, by channelling their negative traits toward positive actions, and by increasing their good qualities. Similarly, Ya’akov cannot change the future for his grandsons, but he can bless them that G-d should help each of them to realise their fullest potential. Actualising one’s abilities is the increase inherent in b’racha.

The Talmud uses the following story to illustrate the concept of b’racha:

A man was walking in the desert. He was tired, hungry and thirsty. He came across a tree with sweet fruit, nice shade and a stream of water flowing beneath it. He ate from the fruit, drank from the stream and rested in the shade. When he was about to leave he said “Oh tree, how can I bless you? If I would say that your fruit should be sweet - your fruit is already sweet; that you should have pleasant shade - your shade is already pleasant; that you should have a stream flowing beneath you - you already have a stream flowing beneath you. Instead may G-d bless you that all the saplings that come from you should be like you.”2

The best blessing that one person can give to another is to help them realise and fulfil their true potential. In this way they will grow and expand and become the embodiment of b’racha.

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