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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת ויחי, תשפ״א

Parshat Vay'hi, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, January 2nd, 2021

Friday Night's Blessing of the Children

Each Friday evening, as Shabbat begins, it is customary for parents to bless their children. For boys and men, we say ישימך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה - May God make you like Efraim and like Menasseh. For girls and women, we say, ישימך אלהים כשרה רבקה רחל ולאה. May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. We conclude our brief blessing with the same words with which we conclude our services here at Agudath Achim:

יברכך ה׳ וישמרך

May God bless you and protect you.

יאר ה׳ פניו אליך ויחנך

May God’s face shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you.

ישא ה׳ פניו אליך וישם לך שלום

May God’s face turn towards you, and may God grant you peace.

Each Friday night, we remind ourselves yet again that our Judaism depends not only on our own practice and dedication to the Divine, but more importantly, on our ability to pass down the blessings of our tradition to those whom we pray will live long after us.

Before Jacob breathes his last in Parashat Vay’hi, he blesses his beloved son Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, and he declares that they will be no less his progeny than Jacob’s two eldest, Reuben and Shimon. “By you shall Israel invoke blessings,” Jacob instructs, “saying, May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (Gen. 48:20). Even the youngest of Jacob’s large family deserve attention from their patriarch. Perhaps especially the youngest of his large family, two boys who grew up among Egyptians, with no Hebrews among their peers, deserve blessing from Israel himself.

We mirror Jacob, as we say each week, “May God make you like Efraim and Menashe,” able to return to Judaism and gratitude for God no matter where life has taken you. May God make you like Efraim and Menashe, attended by family, friends, and mentors who care about not only your physical, but also, your spiritual well-being. May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, vocal figures of Torah who trust in God enough to ask for assistance time and time again and who thrive as co-founders and promoters of the Jewish people.

It’s a simple practice, just saying Jacob’s blessing and the priestly blessing to children, grandchildren, and perhaps even students or mentees who wouldn’t otherwise hear those words on a Friday afternoon or evening. These words can be said in person, with the action of placing hands on the heads or shoulders of those children, even if they’re adult children. And of course, our blessings can be said over a weekly Zoom or phone call. While our Friday night blessings themselves can act as inspiration, these words can also open up further avenues for conversation. Each time we say a blessing, we open up space to ask the question, what have you done or learned Jewishly since last Shabbat? What can I do to help you cultivate your Judaism even further? Our Friday night blessing of the children not only gives us the opportunity to pray for the welfare of those we love, but also, to remind them of their familial connection to the Jewish people. And yes, it also gives us the opportunity to remember our importance as conduits of Jewish values and traditions to our descendents and their descendents after them.

We return each week to these blessings because we know that each week presents new challenges, both to faith and to physical well-being. If nothing else, we return each week to that in-person or online connection to our loved ones to remind them that they are cherished, not only by us, but also, by our Creator and Sustainer. They - each person who has ever been a child, a student, a niece or nephew, a mentee - are worthy of God’s peace and protection. Ken y’hi ratzon - for each of your children, whether by birth or by choice, may it be God’s will. Shabbat Shalom.