Thursday, December 20, 2007

Your Blessings Count

Yaakov's blessings makes it clear that he gave special attention to the strengths of each of his children. If Rav Hirsch is correct in suggesting that Yitzchak and Rivka ruined Eisav by trying to squeeze him into a Yaakov shaped box, we can infer that Yaakov responded to this mistake by being super cautious in focusing on the specific needs of each of his offspring. (Such reactions are neither unreasonable nor uncommon. I have a dear friend who's father who is sometimes less careful than he should be with the secrets people entrust him with, while his son is probably the most discreet, trustworthy person I know.)

Some of Yaakov's blessings sound less like blessings than statements of fact. The lesson may be that our greatest blessings are the givens we are given. Yaakov points to the negative in some of his son's personalities, (like violence for Shimon and Levi) indicating that strengths can be a double-edged sword. That which makes us who we are in a positive light will be the flaw that brings us down (G-d forbid) if we are not careful. This fits with Rav Hirsch's observation that had Eisav's inclinations been properly channeled world history would have played out differently.

Yaakov goes out of his way to show his children that everyone has his own strength. Some may receive titles that others don't but no one is insignificant in the eyes of G-d. When Yosef sees that Yaakov seems to have favored Ephrayim over the first born Menashe he is bothered enough to forcibly correct the mistake his father made by switching his hands. Yaakov tells Yosef that he knows what he's doing, and that Ephrayim will be "greater" than Menashe. While Yosef might have feared a repetition of history in the worst way, Yaakov was telling him that that need not be the case.

Parents and teachers know that pretending that everyone is equal is neither fair nor honest, and kids don't buy it anyway. While everyone is equally important, not everyone is blessed with the same gift. We are each talented even though we don't all become famous for our political acumen or other traits that history tends to photograph. Denying the fact that one child stands out in ways that the other does not can foster jealousy rather than prevent it. Parents should strive to teach themselves and then their children that one person may be noticed for a talent that another lacks, but this does not give the first person a right to be haughty, nor does it permit the second person to be resentful. This is difficult master or even to understand at any age.

Perhaps in blessing Ephrayim and Menashe, Yaakov was noting that they were role models because they knew who they were and harbored neither boastfulness nor resentfulness. And in blessing our children to be like Ephrayim and Menashe we are blessing them to be people that accept their place in life, realizing that despite the title or attention attached to their name, they are all holy children of their parents and of G-d. (I find it fascinating that we all know the names Ephrayim and Menashe, and we all know the story of the switching of the hands. But how many of us don't have to remind ourselves as we reread the story which one was really the first born and which one Yaakov gave precedence to?)

The Ari-Zal (Rabbi Isaac Luria 1534-1572) notes that Yaakov called all of his sons together before he blessed them. Calling them together and blessing them publicly served to drive home an important truth. Every son of Yaakov had to remember that just like he had his own unique role, so did each of his brothers. We too have to remember this lesson, that while we are unique so is everyone else.

May we each be blessed to embrace our own blessing with gratefulness and equanimity.

(I am grateful to Phil Chernofsky whose ideas in Torah Tidbits provided the fodder for much of this piece)

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