It was not your typical Shabbat candle blessing moment at our house. Usually, people group more or less by age around the table – teens bunched together whispering and laughing, younger kids up near the candles and challah hoping for a chance to light, pass, tear, or hold during the blessings, parents on the periphery shmoozing and watching out that their kids behave.
But on this particular night, families were huddled together, hugging. More than a few folks were (or had been) crying.
What was different?
Earlier in the evening I had pulled the “teenish” kids – those 11 or older – to join me for a brief bit of Torah study. It was the last portion in Bereshit (Genesis) – where Jacob gives his blessing on Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim (not to mention the rest of his brood). We talked about how this moment in Torah had evolved into the traditional blessing over children – invoking the attributes of Manasseh and Ephraim for boys; while for girls we look for them to be like Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel and Leah. We talked about why that would be any particular benefit – what those ancestors did which was noteworthy.
Then I tasked kids with finding their parents, and asking them for their blessing.
Meanwhile my wife had been briefly prepping the parents – telling them that their kids might come to them seeking a blessing. She handed out cards with the traditional Jewish blessing but let them know that they were free to improvise or to invoke a blessing from a different culture if it suited them.
Moments later the kids came into the room, some quietly and others brazen, to pull a parent aside. It was interesting to see that the younger the child, the more open and unabashed they were in asking while the teens were generally more restrained, even sheepish.
In every corner you could see private moments and hear snatches of whispered conversations. Some adults spoke haltingly, looking for just the right words. For others the words flowed like a torrent.
“You have my grandfather’s name and his gift for making people feel welcome…”
“Yisimcha Eh-lokim k’Ephraim v’chi’Menashe…”
“…and I should remember to tell you more often…”
“…and it harm none, do what you will…”
“…then when I saw this week that you had…”
“…had some rough patches, but beyond that you know I…”
One young man, eager to hear his mother’s blessing even though she was 3 states away, called her despite the time and the fact that she was likely in the middle of a dinner meeting. No matter how great cell phone companies say their network is, nobody has built a system with the capacity to transmit the quantity of love and pride her words held that night. Days later she told me that her dinner guests were bemoaning the lack of Jewish connection teens had, and how it was so difficult to get them to care about the importance of ritual. She was arguing that many do and a lot has to do ith adult role models. When her son’s call came, she gave her blessing (which included the traditional Jewish version and her own personal message) while still seated among her dinner companions.
And so we all stood a while later, in front of the candles, wine and challah, both energized and introspective by the connection we had experienced. Some of us were raw with emotion, but in a good way. When the adults read the interaction between Jacob and his family later during Torah study, we all admitted to how it had a different feel, that the words resonated with us differently than we expected.
A friend who was there recently commented that we’ve never blessed our children together since that night. Given how successful it was, I am not sure why it didn’t become part of our weekly routine. Maybe the experience was so intense I was afraid people would be uncomfortable with it week after week. Perhaps I was afraid of such a powerful moment getting lost if it turned into “just another thing to do”.
Whatever the reason, the portion with Jacob’s blessing is coming around again. In a time and culture where (in my opinion) the term “parenting” either implies “over indulging” or conversely “punishing”, I think it’s high time I made a place during Shabbat for (at least) a moment of honest communication with my kids: to tell them that I love them, believe in them, and hope the best for them.