Last week I was invited to have a Shabbat meal with an observant family, and before the meal commenced I saw something beautiful: The father and mother each put their hands on their children’s heads, recited a blessing and kissed each one. It was almost sublime to see children, some in their teens, line up for the blessing and kiss. I was embarrassed to ask what they were saying, but could you please fill me in?
The blessing is known as the birchas hayeladim or the blessing of the children. It is based upon the blessing Jacob recited upon his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, before he passed away. At the end of the blessing, the Torah says: “So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you shall Israel bless (their children) saying, May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’” (Genesis 48:20)
We therefore bless our boys that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe, which is the first part of that blessing. We bless the girls with the wish that they should be as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
We end the blessing for both by reciting the priestly blessing, which says, “So shall you bless the Children of Israel, saying to them: ‘May God bless you and safeguard you. May God illuminate His countenance unto you and be gracious to you. May God lift His countenance to you and establish peace upon you.’” (Numbers 6:23-27)
While it only takes a few short moments, these blessings are important moments in the life of a child, something they look forward to all week, and remember throughout their lifetimes. (I’m not sure who looks more forward to this moment, the parents or the child!) It brings an aura of holiness into the family and the parent-child relationship, showing the child the love and respect his parents have for them. By the way, parents continue to bless their children even after the children themselves become parents and even grandparents. No child is ever too old to receive a blessing from their parents!
It has been asked, in what merit did Ephraim and Menashe become the source of blessing for the Jewish people for all time?
I think the reason is, because Ephraim and Menashe grew up quite differently than all their cousins. Their cousins, the children of the 12 tribes, grew up in an atmosphere of holiness, in the surroundings of Jacob and their holy parents, aunts and uncles. For them it was relatively easy to remain steadfast in their service of God.
Ephraim and Menashe, however, had it different. Joseph, their father, was forced to live apart from his family, in Egypt. They were surrounded by Egyptian children and their idol-worshipping parents. Despite their tremendous challenges, they remained observant. Not only were they observant, but they clung to their father and became great tzaddikim, righteous individuals.
For this reason, Ephraim and Menashe were later promoted by Jacob, their grandfather, to the full status of tribes in their own right (the tribe of Joseph was split into two tribes). Not only did they not sink below the level of their cousins, they surpassed them and were elevated to the status of the previous generation.
This is our heartfelt blessing and wish for our children. No matter in what surroundings they may find themselves one day, they should always have the strength and fortitude to rise above them. They should retain their holiness and greatness, even if the winds of their times are pulling them in the wrong direction.
The same greatness was exhibited by our holy matriarchs. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah all grew up in homes antithetical to the service of God and truth. All had the internal fortitude to rise above their upbringing, their families and the profanity of their generations to achieve the holiness befitting a mother of the Jewish people.
The renowned Grand Rebbe of Klausenberg, in the Displaced Persons camps after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, was approached by a teenage girl on the eve of Yom Kippur. She requested him to bless her with the special parental blessing conferred by parents upon their children before Yom Kippur, as her own parents were no longer alive. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he took upon himself the role of her beloved parents and bestowed the blessings. Soon word got out, and dozens of girls in the DP camp flocked to the holy Rebbe to receive blessings from this compassionate father of Israel.
Even in the worst of times, blessing our children is a source of hope and comfort. Certainly, in today’s world of disconnect, this act of love forges a connection between parents and children that nothing can replace.