Tuesday, September 22, 2020 -
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Shabbat, a time to bless your children

SHABBAT is a unique time of the week. For many Jewish families struggling to balance school, work and extracurricular activities, Shabbat may be the only time during the week everyone can sit down together for a meal.

On Friday night the table is set with a white cloth, flowers, a challah and candlesticks, creating a sense of anticipation that the evening will hold something special.

Traditionally, the lighting of Shabbat candles is a woman’s domain and two candles represent the commandments to remember (zakor) and keep (shamor) the Sabbath. In some homes today, both men and women light candles together and additional candles for each child adorn the table.

When my family first began to observe Shabbat, I treasured more than anything that moment when I would light my grandmother’s brass candlesticks, brought over in the lining of her coat from Russia.

Covering my eyes, I would imagine the generations of Jewish women before me and place myself among them.

Then, as I lit the wicks, I focused on my breathing: inhaling the peace of Shabbat and letting go of the stresses and tensions of the week.

But my favorite part of lighting the candles came a few seconds later — when my husband and I would bless our children.

We began this tradition in a fairly untraditional way: not by saying the conventional Hebrew blessing but by telling our children what they did that made us happy that week.

As they got older, they offered their own happy thoughts ranging from pride in getting good grades to fun times with friends and family.

One favorite memory is of five-year-old Lauren as she twirled around the kitchen table shouting: “I’m happy because I got new party shoes!”

JEWISH tradition provides us with two blessings; one for girls and one for boys. The blessing for daughters includes the hope that they will grow up to be like the matriarchs: “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”

The blessing for sons, however, does not reference the patriarchs but instead invokes the names of Joseph’s two sons: “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

It’s curious that Joseph’s sons trump the patriarchs. Why were Ephraim and Manasseh chosen as the ideal, rather than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

The book of Genesis reveals many stories about human nature and particularly about family dynamics. A recurrent theme throughout is the destructive nature of sibling rivalry.

Beginning with Cain and Abel, we see how jealousy between brothers can cause  the worst: murder.

Generations later, siblings are alienated beyond repair when Ishmael is banished from Abraham’s house after Isaac’s birth.

The legacy of sibling rivalry continues when Isaac’s son Jacob, as the younger twin, takes his older brother Esau’s birthright.

In the next generation, Joseph, as the favored son, is so hated by his brothers that they sell him into slavery.

So the story goes — until we meet Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, in the last chapter of Genesis.

JACOB, blind and close to death, asks Joseph to bring his two children to him for a blessing. Joseph places his older son, Manasseh, on Jacob’s right side, to receive the blessing reserved for the firstborn son.

But Jacob stretches his right hand across his body and places it on Ephraim’s head instead. When Joseph attempts to correct his father by reversing his hands, Jacob reassures him by saying:

“I know, my son, I know; he too will become a people, and become great; yet his younger brother shall become greater than he, and his offspring will fill the nations” (Genesis 48:19-20).

Manasseh remains silent during this scene and does not appear to hold a grudge against Ephraim. In contrast to the other brothers in Genesis, he trusts the wisdom of his grandfather Jacob and does not lash out against his brother.

When we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, we are hoping that they, too, will have faith in our tradition and remain supportive of each other.

IN our family as our children grew older, our happy thoughts turned into traditional Shabbat blessings. But we saw this moment as a rare opportunity to connect with our kids and whispered a personal blessing, too, telling each of them why they were special and why we loved them.

Sometimes, especially during the more difficult teen years, Shabbat was the only time during the week that guaranteed an intimate moment. I craved it and I think they did, too.

Blessing our children on Shabbat can be more than a beautiful tradition.

It offers parents an opportunity to connect to their children from the heart, particularly when lack of time, family tensions and the stresses of the week make that kind of communication challenging.

Amy Lederman

IJN Columnist | Reflections

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