Blessing the whole world
The Jewish world consists of a continuous and steadfast process and natural move to blessing the creation, creatures and the human beings. It starts when waking up early in the morning. It continues with the washing of the hands, the putting on the great prayer shawl and the donning the tefillin. Thus Jewish life consists in a series of repeated daily actions such as eating and learning.
We are compelled to accept our being controlled by the guidance of uttered words that emphasize how sacred, beautiful and new it is to be alive and see the marvels of our environment, nature, humans, animals…
We bless our homes, cats, friends, wives or husbands or betrothed; we say (or at least should say) blessings upon our cups of tea, peanut cream, wine, water or mitz (fruit juice), when seeing a rainbow, a scholar or going on a trip.
The problem is to avoid getting like automata. Or also avoid the blessing anything that only relates to ourselves. Life does not allow us – no way – to spend our days in scorning the others, and only to take a sort of selfish breath. There is a very close link in Judaism between blessings and curses.
We are quicker to judge people and curse them than to curse ourselves, God forbid! The problem of this systematic recognition that holiness is everywhere in the world maybe tiresome. It may be boring to handle with continuous and really perpetual blessings that ring up like bells (some would only try on a trip to Israel).
It is definitely not evident to bless. True! Or to accept that these words of the blessings are indeed efficient. Just have a look: this neighbor, co-worker, politician, actor, doctor; we ought to bless them!? And just have a real look at this cracked-up auntie who could give a loan on a free basis; she is just a mess. Well, we all love to switch to “lashon hara’ahלשון הרעה – vicious gossiping, venomous speech”, but it is so refreshing!
There is also the worse defect of the thing: to say wrong, malicious and killing words against anybody in our thoughts while uttering holy blessings. But we so desperately need enemies. There are special moments though: for instance when people die. An energizing flash of peaceful meditation and possible care. Last wills can be intriguing.
In the reading portion of the week – “Vayechiויחי – (and Jacob) lived”, we meditate the time when (Yaakov-) Israel was about to die. He called his son Joseph, got acquainted with Menashe and Ephraim and, seemingly dim, he blessed Ephraim (junior) instead of Menashe (senior) with his right hand.
He saw in anticipation a greater and more fruitful descent for him. It is important that their grandfather confirmed their adoption in the Tribes, because, in spite of some link through Dinah, Joseph’s sons are not Jewish by their mother.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that each Shabbat, a family father blesses his children in recalling their names. Israel asked Joseph to bury him in the Land of Canaan. Thus, he called each of his sons and blessed them with very relevant phrases and statements about their characters and specific future for each tribe. It should be noted how he blessed “Simon and Levi (who) are a pair (achimאחים); their weapons are tools of lawlessness…let not my person be included in their council… cursed be their anger so fierce… I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Gen./Bereishit 49:5-7).
This sounds a bit rude. Jacob-Israel is quietly ending his life abroad but with his family and a prophetic future that shall be accomplished by his sons. The patriarch (third “avאב = father) ends his days with decency, after a life of labor and cheat.
He grew old as a man and became mature in the face of God. Isaac would not have blessed Yaakov and Esau the way Israel blessed his sons. The twins were competitors bogged down in lentil soup, birthright and blessing capture with a mom’s push; this does not show the same grandeur as leaving the world without any lady’s care, honored by Pharaoh (70 days of wailing were decreed in Egypt after Yisrael’s death).
Still he departed in exile, envisioning his own gathering with Abraham at Machpelah cave. Yaakov presented a remarkable demand to Joseph in such circumstances: “Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty (chesed ve’emetחסד ואמת)” (Gen. 47:29). It is both the sign of a paternal symbolism and a recall of his personal intimate wounds forever as having taken up the identity challenge of being Israel. Joseph will receive Simon and Levi’s portions but he firstly had to witness to the fragility of unexpected divine assistance.
There is a joke: a woman went to her gynecologist who asked her to take off all her clothes. Softly stunned, she answered : “Does your mother know what you make a living?” The Jewish people has been and is being called to bless all the other peoples and to teach them how to bless and not to kill anyone. Subsequently, the problem of Jewishness is that “the Jews as a serving nation” is to feel naked. There are no possessions or at least they have to be taught and get aware of the fact that they are “nil and temporary witnesses”. And what with the blessings? Is this a living? Even if they might be disguised in brilliant dressings or know-hows.
“Blessaðu” is still normal in Icelandic to say “Hello” in a polite way. “God bless” is Christian and interfaith Anglo. The word is related to “blood” (Old Germanic: “Blothisojan = to sprinkle blood on the altars”). The Anglo-Saxon word got sweeter by a mistake when specialists thought the root was the same as for “to bliss” which is lovely.
Indeed, “bless” corresponds to the meaning of sacrifices (korbanotקורבנות), the blood of lambs at Pessah (and Christian Easter), as the “Aid al Adha” (Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice) in which so many sheep and lambs were slaughtered in a way that tracks back to Abraham and Isaac’s binding to the Prophet: “like a sheep being led to slaughter, like an ewe dumb before those who shear her” (Isaiah 53:7;cf. Preparation of the Gifts in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition).
In Hebrew, the usual word is “brachahברכה”(blessing) and “barechברך” (to bless). It is basically connected with “beri – baraברי-ברא” (to create) that initially consists “to perforate” – “think out a plan”.
“When the Lord wanted to create man (adamאדפ), He first created (thought out) all the means of his support and then created Adam (Talmud Sanhedrin 38b – Gen. Rabba 8). It should be noted that, indeed, Adam is a “barבר” (son) of the same root as “to create”.
Thus, a blessing consists in “sorts of perforations, holes, apertures allowing the instilling of strength, growth, refreshing, new creation. God proposes to screw us up although we don’t feel hurt nor see any holes! Say that the blessing firstly renews or achieves something we got with regards to our diversified environment. We exist, we have been shaped and entrusted a special mark.
A sort of spiritual, legal piercing! The “Laying of the hands” is important in the Jewish tradition; it is a kind of “sacrificial offering” that aims at changing the life of the blessed. The hands were exerting a pressure upon the head (semichahסמיכה; samechסמך = stamp, perforate). “Samechסמך”, the name of fifteenth letter /s/ means “punch” as the thin knife used by the shochetשוחט (kosher slaughterer) to speedily kill the animal that must die immediately and be kosher.
Blessings imply a change from death to life. Interestingly, the reading of the week is called “Vayechiויחי” (And Jacob lived) because Jacob’s death and repose at Machpelah introduces a new move of fertility and growth linking generations by means of blessings.
Then “barekhברך” means “to cave out, select, choose, point out”: “HaQadosh Baruch Huהקדוש ברוך הוא – הקב”ה” (The Holy One, Blessed He be) as in Talmud Pessahim 118a, Who, in turn, praises and blesses His creation, not the contrary.
“Hivrikhהבריך” develops the action: “to form a knee, to engraft a plant, wine” as “two good shoots (proselytes) have been engrafted to Ruth” (Talmud Bava Kamma 38b; cf. Epistle to the Romans 11:13 about the Gentiles engrafted to share the roots of the olive tree without boasting). Then, a blessing implies the growth of “birkaiברכ-א-י” (shoots, branches) who will be satisfied with waters.
As it is a rule in the Semitic tongues, positive and negative aspects can alternate in ways of paradoxes according to the context: “barekhברך” can also mean “to blaspheme”: “…Until he blasphemes the Lord by His name” (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a). This is a very profound and sensitive experience that blessing and cursing are closely tied, as love and hatred, praising and scorning, mocking.
This is a very specific call to bless people and be a mark of blessings. In the case of Israel, it is a “congregational, community, international” service of God. This is at the heart of Israel’s destiny: the act of blessing intrudes that we take over the sufferings and the joys of the nations. Blessings comply with the order of the words as in the verse: “Bo’uבאו (come), nishtachawehנשתחוה (bow down til earth), venikhra’ahונכררעה (kneel down) venivrachahנברכה (bend the kneels to be blessed) lifney HaShem ossenuלפני ה’ עשנו (in the face of God Who makes us)” (Psalm 94:6, said before reading the Psalms in the Jewish and some Christian traditions).
This move is special because it induces yeridahירידה (falling, getting to nil) and then olahעולה (raising) with the blessing. In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai refused to kneel and bow down before Haman (Esther 3:2-5). This move is reversed compared to the psalm.
The three Wise Men who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem acted according to the correct order of the verse, i.e. giving thanks to God for the new born child (Matthew 2:11). As we read this reading portion, the Eastern and Oriental Churches celebrate the Nativity of Jesus on January 6-7 in Bethlehem, the city of David whose death is also read as Haftarah (Additional reading) in the Jewish tradition (1 Kings 2:1-12).
“Yechiיחי!” The weekly reading recounts the death of Yaakov-Israel in exile. “Yechiיחי” = may he live” is similar to Batshevah’s cry: “yechi adoni David le’olam va’edיחי אדני דויד ךעולם ועד – may my Master David live forever” (Kings 1:1-31).
He had left Bethlehem. He built, combated and killed his enemies or competitors. On the other hand, Yaakov-Israel could be murdered several times. The same prophetic call to universal blessing echoes from Bethlehem, as David is “Messiah” in the Jewish tradition and “yechiיחי – may live or he lived” incites to bless our society with the mark of goodness and hope in these days of hardship.
We are born to bless. Consequently, it is at times more than amazing how we can judge and destroy each other as individuals and nations. It shows a profound disregards and lack of respect to the value and the personal history entrusted to each soul and human body.
There is some sort of a spiritual confusion, mental “mish-mash” that can be felt in the transitional region of the the Land of Canaan that became the Land of Israel according to the Scriptures. Just as the people migrate from here to the ends of the world and may come back or settle in the neighboring countries, the quality of confessing the Messiah is not inscribed in our genes or DNA. It comes from the Spirit.
The Hebrew blessing also relies upon the Spirit. it has nothing to do with human capture or seizing capacities or abilities. This is why the little new Jesus was “tied in a manger” as on the throne. When the Orthodox priest proceeds to the preparation of the Gifts (proskomedia), he covers the Gifts with veils. This has been a long liturgical process. It does not only protect from the flies and little insects. It shows that the Child is born, hidden, tied up. He took his way to Jerusalem and the whole of his ministry consisted in blessing (i.e. also healing, visiting, comforting) the human nature and identity.
It did not only come from himself, but from his Father Who is in Heaven and from the Spirit that sustains, maintains and call to life.
av aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)