Blessing our children... and being ourselves at Purim!

This has been brewing in my mind for a few months now, and finally became a sermon this weekend. Purim Sameach!

When I arrived at West London, I discovered a community minhag or custom that I hadn't seen elsewhere. That’s not to say it isn't done elsewhere, but in my travels I hadn't come across it. It is a rather nice one, and I still remember one of my firstShabbat Shirah  services when I hadn't quite learnt the pattern yet and I forgot to include it – I had a couple ofrather upset parents remind me and I never forgot again. I am talking about thecommunity reciting the blessing over the children, a blessing usually performedat home, but which we have brought into the synagogue, encouraging us to notonly bless our children but to bless each other as someone’s son or daughter,and also allowing those with absent children to bless them from afar.
Blessing the childrenis a beautiful ritual, which I didn't see done when I was growing up, but amexcited to now offer to Eliana. It is a ritualised moment when our parents, or when we as parents, or as fellow sons and daughters in community together, take time to offer blessing, love and friendship. But I have lately begun to wonderabout the origins of the blessing. Blessing one’s children was clearlysomething valued in the Biblical mind-set, with Noah blessing Shem and Yaphteh(Gen. 9:26-7) Isaac blessing Jacoband Esau (though he gets them the wrong way round!) (Gen 27 and 28) and Jacob blessing his sons (Gen 49) and grandsons, Ephraim and Menassah (Gen 48:13-22), in whose names we bless our sons today. Looking intoslightly later texts, we find other recommendations to bless our children.  In Ben Sira, a text which was a bit too lateto make it into the Tanakh but in which we find lots of wonderful aphorisms, weare told that
a father's blessing strengthens the houses of the children, but amother's curse uproots their foundations. (3:9)
So weknow that blessing our children can be a powerful thing. But what strange blessings they are that we offer. First of all, why do we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, Joseph's sons. Why are we not blessing our sons in the names of the patriarchs, especially aswe bless our daughters in the names of the mothers? The most common explanationseems to be that Ephraim and Menashe are the first set of brothers in the Biblewho don’t see each other as competition. They don’t try to overcome each other,and their family dynamic doesn’t embitter their lives as it does so many othersin the Bible. By blessing our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe we offerour children the legacy of brothers that get on with one another, of familyharmony, rather than the constant struggles seen between Isaac and Ishmael,Esau and Jacob and even Joseph and his brothers.
Another interpretation,from the 19th century Israeli Rabbi Shmuel Hominer, notes that Ephraim andMenashe grew up in Egypt, unlike the patriarchs who all grew up in Israel.Ephraim and Menashe maintained their distinct identity as Israelites, eventhough they lived in a place where they were surrounded and outnumbered by theEgyptians and their gods. The ability to remain faithful to Judaism, even whenit is a struggle, is a legacy that we want to pass on to our children.
But after hearing allthese wonderful things about Ephraim and Menashe, what are we to think aboutblessing our daughters in the names of the Matriarchs? While we can see thatthey were clearly strong women who kept faith with God in very difficult times,enduring marital difficulties, infertility, abduction, envy and the struggle toraise children who were, frankly, quite difficult from time to time. None ofour Biblical role models are perfect, and I think that is a good thing, butwere the matriarchs not also women who sent their rivals off into the desert todie, attempted to out-birth their sister, and manipulated and connived behindtheir husbands’ backs? Hardly values I am desperate to instil in the nextgeneration.
It is perhaps alsostrange that we insist on still blessing our children within genderedboundaries. Shouldn't our children be able to find role models and blessings toemulate within the men and women of Jewish history, regardless of their owngender? Perhaps we should be blessing our sons and daughters in the names of Ephraim, Menashe, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, hoping our sons and daughters can be siblings or friends that avoid rivalry and disharmony, and that keep faith through difficult times.
Then again, perhaps the struggle isn't against what is included, after all, we can find fault with most Biblical characters and that can be seen as a positive, especially as each of them has plenty to teach us in both their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps myproblem is more about what is not included. My favourite Chassidic story is that of Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, who lived in the eighteenth century. I think Ifirst came across this teaching in the High Holiday machzor, but it is also anappropriate one for the weekend of Purim when we do all we can to disguiseourselves. The story goes that Zusha was telling his disciples about the worldto come. He insisted he would not be greeted with the question ‘Zusha, why wereyou not more like Moses’ but rather, he would be asked ‘Zusha, why were you notmore like Zusha’.
While it is importantwe have good role models to inspire us and to look up to, it is also importantto remember that we are each unique, bringing something new and original to theworld that wouldn't have existed without us. And so I have begun a tiny littlerebellion at home. Every Friday when it comes to blessing Eliana, I pray thatshe be made like Sarah Rebecca Rachel and Leah, and then I add her name to thatlist (and perhaps I should also be adding Ephraim and Menashe!) She has beenmade as she is, and it is her life’s task to fulfill the potential that sheholds, not to be better than she can be, but also to try and avoid the pitfallsof the matriarchs before her, not to mention those her own mother may havefallen into.
So tonight as we bless each other, our children, and absent children, perhapslet’s take a moment to acknowledge who they are individually, what they mightbring to the world that is unique and special, and add their name to the listof who we hope they are made to be like. If nothing else, perhaps we will learna new name in the congregation, but maybe we will also remember that we are allmade to be like ourselves, and celebrate this fact together before dressing uptomorrow night and pretending to be something completely different!
Shabbat shalom!

Picture: Eliana celebrating Purim as a bee- the meaning of my name!


  1. Hi Debbie, I really like this post! Its very thoughtful and it is so nice to feel like I'm still connected with you even though I am all the way in Canada.


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