Doing Jewish Differently

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The Rabbi’s Rave – Parsha Vayechi (B’reisheet 47:28-50:26)

This week in Parsha Vayechi, Jacob lies on his deathbed as his children gather around for his final words. Jacob lifts his hands to bless his sons, and bestows upon them blessings in which lie the destiny of the Jewish people. The light of these blessings illuminates the darkness to come of generations who will live through dark times of slavery and despair. Jacob’s blessings, while in some cases do not seem to be blessings at all, still contain within them the power of hope and the promise of a future beyond what is happening right now.
Our words have great influence in the lives of those around us, and spoken blessings can bring encouragement, and direction to our families, friends, and others. Many people are experiencing deepening relationships and spiritual encouragement as they discover the power of spoken blessings.
A spoken blessing does good for those who hear it. In the Septuagint, the English word bless is a translation of the Greek word eulogeo. Eulogeo means “to speak well of, i.e. (religiously) to bless. Think of the English word Eulogy, and you get the idea. When you bless others, you direct Divine grace (Chein) to them; you intercede for them, you express new possibilities.
Our blessings to others can lift the cloud from over those who believe their lives are cursed. I am not talking about a curse pronounced over another person by a witch or someone seeking revenge, I am speaking about those who feel as if “nothing good ever happens to me.”
Your blessing can turn around this sort of “stinkin’ thinkin’. A blessing contains within it the power of hope.
Why we do not give blessings to each other?
I believe it is because we are too uptight. We don’t want to let others think that we’re weird or superstitious. Certainly if we give blessings we should be ready for rejection, especially from those closest to us such as members of our families.
Do it anyway because you never know when someone needs to know that you care. That you care so deeply that you a willing to risk ridicule to express your hopes and dreams, and your love.
Perhaps this is why the late Lubavitcher Rebbe used to encourage all Jews to grant blessings to their peers at every possible occasion, pointing out that each one of us has the power to bless.
I often tell the story of a man who gave blessings. It is one of my favorites.
There was an officer of the law, a recent graduate, proud as you can imagine, in his uniform of blue with brass buttons and gold epaulets. He was arrogant and bold and callous. Every letter of the alphabet served only to demonstrate his authority and exalt his being.
One day he was walking his beat and he heard a commotion in the alley. He ventured into the darkness, and there in the distance he saw a man in rags.
“Come forward,” he commanded. “Come forward, now!” But the man in rags did not come forward. “I am an officer of the law, and I command you to come forward!” However, the man in rags did not move. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and spoke from the darkness, “I don’t know what I am going to do with you!” “Do with me?” the officer boomed. “Do with me… You don’t do with me! I do with you… I am an officer of the law and I command you to come forward!”

“Now I know what to do with you,” the man in rags said. And as he spoke, he drew his sword and moved to attack the officer. In defense, the officer of the law drew his own sword. “Stop that… Put your sword down right now!” he ordered the man in rags. But the man did not stop. The officer of the law had to parry thrusts left and right as they dueled. “Stop, I command you!” he said again, but to no avail. The officer of the law sensed that he was overmatched and was forced to retreat.
When it seemed that the man in rags would prevail, the man lowered his guard, and what the officer of the law intended to be a parry became a thrust. His sword injured the man in rags. Upon seeing what he had done, the officer responded; I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why didn’t you stop when I ordered you to? Why did you attack me?”
The man in rags waved the words away. “I am leaving you,” he said. “And as I do, I put upon you the Curse of Blessings.”
Quite confused, the officer of the law responded, “What do you mean? You put upon me the Curse of Blessings!”
The man in rags spoke, “The Curse of Blessings – Every day you must say a new blessing, one you have never said before. On that day when you do not say a new blessing, on that day you will die.”
With these words, the man in rags closed his eyes. The officer of the law turned around and looked about for help. There was none to be found. When he turned back , the man in rags disappeared as though he did not exist. He was gone!
The officer of the law said to himself, “this is a dream! Only a dream can be so strange! …”
So, the officer continued his rounds until late in the afternoon. When it was time for the sun to set in the sky, as much as he tried to ignore his experience earlier that morning, the officer of the law could not forget what had happened to him. He felt his body growing cold, and he knew from the chill in his bones that his life was leaving him. In a panic, he uttered these words of blessing: “You are blessed, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has created such a wonderful sunset.”
At once warmth and life flowed back into him. He realized with both shock and relief that the curse had been for real.
The next morning he did not delay. He woke with words of blessing. “You are blessed that You allowed me to wake up this morning.” His life felt secure the entire day. The next morning he blessed his ability to rise from his bed, the following day that he could tie his shoes.
Day after day he found abilities he could bless. That he could go to the bathroom, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger of his hands still worked, that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. He blessed his clothes, every garment. He blessed his house, the roof and floor, his furniture, every table and chair.
At last he ran out of things to bless, so he began to bless relationships — his family and friends, fellow workers and those who worked for him. He blessed the clerks and the mailman. He was surprised to find they appreciated the blessings.
His words of blessing had power. They drew family and friends closer to him. Word went out that the officer of the law was a source of blessing.
Years passed, decades. The officer of the law had to go farther afield to find new sources of blessing. He blessed city councils and university buildings, scientists and their discoveries. As he traveled through world he became in awe of its balance and beauty and blessed that. The more he learned, the more he had to bless. His life was long and he had the opportunity to learn in every field.
He passed the age of one hundred. Most of his friends were long gone. His time was relegated to searching for the purpose in his life and the one source from which all blessing flows. He had long since realized he was not the source but only the conduit. Even that realization welcomed with a blessing that sustained him for yet another day.
As he approached the age of 120, he considered that his life was long enough.
Even Moses had not lived longer. On his birthday he made a conscious decision not to utter a new blessing and allow his life to come to an end. Still he could recite old blessings and throughout the day he reviewed them – all, the blessings for his body and his possessions, for his relationships that spread throughout the world, for the awesome beauty and balance of creation, and for the deep resonance, the pulse of purpose that pervaded his very being. But no new blessing passed his lips.
As the sun was setting, a chill progressed inward from his extremities.
He did not resist it. In the twilight a figure appeared. It was the man in rags. “You!” the officer of the law exclaimed. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me.”
Forgive you?!?!?
“You don’t understand,” said the man in rags. “you don’t know who I am , do you? I am the angel of death who was sent a hundred years ago to harvest your soul, but when I looked at you, so pompous and proud, there was nothing there to harvest. An empty uniform was all I saw. So I put upon you the Curse of the Blessings, and now look what you have become!”
The officer of the law grasped in an instant all that had happened and why.
Overwhelmed, he said, “You are blessed, my God, Ruler of the Universe, that you have kept me alive and sustained me so that I could attain this moment.”
“Now look what you have done!” the man in rags said with a smile.
“A new blessing!”
Life flowed back into the officer of the law, and he and the man in rags looked to each other, neither of them knowing quite what to do…
When The Holy One of Blessing puts a desire in your heart to bless someone in particular, be attentive to the needs he may be experiencing.
To give a blessing, you don’t have to remove your shoes or wash your hands. To give a blessing, you don’t even have to cover yourself with a tallit. The only ingredients necessary are love, joy and compassion.

With this, we complete the reading of the first book of the Torah, Bereisheet. We finish with the words; “Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek! Strength, More Strength, and you will be strengthened.
See… another blessing!!

Rabbi Elchanan ‘Sunny Schnitzer

Bethesda Jewish Congregation

Bethesda Jewish Congregation