Posted on December 17, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
My mother taught me a valuable lesson when she said, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Though I am essentially a positive person, I needed that reminder then — and I still need it now.
There is a human propensity to focus on the negative that undoubtedly stems from our primal instinct to guard against threats to our survival. But we know that seeing the bad instead of the good can lead to acrimony in our relations with others, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction with ourselves.
Our tradition offers an antidote to this tendency to negativity: the spiritual practice known as hakkarat ha-tov, acknowledging the good. It seeks to cultivate a mindset, an attitude, that conditions us to see beauty and goodness by requiring us to recite blessings of appreciation for just about everything — what we eat and drink, the phenomena of nature, the people we encounter, and more.(1) The Talmud teaches that if we enjoy something of God’s creation without reciting a blessing, it is as if we have stolen it.(2) And Rabbi Meir famously taught that we should recite one hundred blessings every day(3), by which meant we should consciously and consistently express appreciation and gratitude.
In this week’s Torah portion, there are two examples of a very special kind of blessing — the kind that shapes a family and defines its values for generations. Both depict Jacob blessing his children at the end of his life, but they are very different in their tone and tenor.
In Genesis 49, Jacob gathers his children around him to offer them his final testament. But what is purported to be a blessing turns into his unvarnished judgment of the character and destiny of each. Apparently, Jacob did not receive the message that I received from my mother.
To Reuben, his firstborn he says, [You are] “unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…” He tells Simeon and Levi that they are “lawless,” and curses them for their anger. He tells Judah that his brothers “will bow low” to him. Oy gevalt! Having lived through the trauma caused by Joseph’s dream of his family bowing down to him, you would think Jacob would have kept this vision, this “blessing,” to himself.
What was it like to be on the receiving end of these words? How did their father’s words make Jacob’s children feel? Did they feel inspired and motivated, or resentful? Did they open their hearts, or harden and close them? I imagine that Jacob’s words sowed the seeds of dissent, bitterness, and discord that would plague the nation of Israel in future generations.
Thankfully, in Genesis 48, we have another example of Jacob blessing his children. Though this time it is only Joseph and his sons Menashe and Ephraim who are blessed, here Jacob offers loving words of praise. He affirms the goodness he sees in them and his faith that generations to come will look upon them as role models and pray that their children will grow to be like them. It is from this scene that our tradition derives the custom of parents blessing their children on Shabbat and holy days.
To this day, Jewish parents place their hands upon the heads of their sons, as Jacob did, and repeat his words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe…” (4) And we bless our daughters with the words, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” From generation to generation these words have inspired and moved our people to embody and carry on the faith and spirit of our ancestors.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed the fruit of this kind of blessing. At the funeral of one of our founding members, his family offered loving words of tribute that reflected the many ways he had blessed them.
Speaking to her grandfather as he had always spoken to her, one of the grandchildren said, “There wasn’t a phone call we had where you didn’t tell me how amazing I was, how proud you were of me, how beautiful I was and how much you loved me. You couldn’t say it enough. There are a million amazing things you did in this world but it’s the way you made me feel that will stay with me forever.”
This is the kind of blessing we can give each other, one that sees and affirms the goodness in our children and our grandchildren, and, indeed, in all people. It is a blessing that bequeaths a legacy of love. It is a blessing that will yield blessings for generations to come.
1. Talmud Bavli Berachot 35a
2. Talmud Bavli Berachot 35b
3. Talmud Bavli Menachot 43b
4. Genesis 48:20