A Blessed Goodbye
There is a statement in Jewish mystical literature to the effect that the end of every story is already implicit in its beginning, and that at least some elements of the story’s beginning endure until its end.
I have certainly been witness to such stories. But I have also experienced stories in which the end could never have been foretold from the beginning. In these stories, characters and the circumstances become thoroughly transformed so that only a prophet could have predicted at the beginning what the end would be like.
The story that I have been relating in these weekly columns over the past few months is one whose end was unpredictable. Who would have thought that this group of novices to Jewish religious education would be consulting a variety of advanced reference works on their own?
The only required text was the translation of the Pentateuch, the Chumash, by the early 20th century British Rabbi, J.H. Hertz. Yet in the final session, which I am about to describe, each of the three students had an additional and unassigned textbook at the ready.
And who could have anticipated that the shy and bashful Simon would emerge, not only as the first to speak that evening, but also as the spokesman for the entire class?
“Beracha, blessing,” he began. “That is a fundamental Jewish concept, one that we have encountered before in our study, and one which pervades this week’s assigned readings.”
The assignment for this, the last session of the course, was Genesis 47:28-50:26, the Torah portion of Vayechi. I could not argue Simon’s point. The parsha opens with Jacob’s blessings to his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, continues with the poetic blessings that he bestows upon his own sons, and culminates with the verse, “All these were the tribes of Israel, 12 in number, and this is what their father said to them as he blessed them, addressing to each a parting blessing appropriate to them.” (Genesis 49:28)
Richard, who in the early sessions of the class seemed to be the least serious of the three, confirmed Simon’s observation, but he went on to report on some of his own research. “I was intrigued by the concept of beracha, and so consulted a dictionary to find out its derivation. I learned that some scholars find a connection to the word bereicha, which means a lake or reservoir of water. I take this to mean that the person who gives the blessing draws upon his inner wellsprings to quench the thirst, or water the garden, of the one being blessed.”
Leon, whose attitude during the early weeks of the course would have best been described as skeptical, if not cynical, could not suppress his enthusiasm. “I found myself leafing through a Jewish prayer book, a siddur, and was reminded of something I was taught as a child in Hebrew school. I remember the blessings that we are to make over food and drink. In those blessings, we humans bless the Almighty. In our readings in Genesis, people bless people. Is it not presumptuous, indeed audacious, for us to bless God?”
As I recall these conversations of more than two decades ago, I find myself wishing that I could have responded with some of my more recent experiences. Leon would have been thrilled to hear that a question very similar to his was asked of me by, of all people, then-President George W. Bush.
The President had granted a meeting in the White House to a group of rabbis. The president asked us for a blessing. One of my colleagues responded by pronouncing the traditional blessing one makes for a sovereign: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God King of the universe, who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” The President was taken aback, looked at me, and exclaimed, “I asked the good Rabbi to bless me, but he just blessed the good Lord! How can we mortals bless God?”
I gave President Bush the same explanation I would have given Leon, had both Simon and Richard not interrupted. “It’s a great question, Leon, no doubt about it. And there are many questions that we have found in the few commentaries we consulted about the concept of beracha. But we have a much more immediate concern that must be addressed. This is our last scheduled session. Where do we go from here?”
I was ready to wager that Leon would ignore the concern of his fellows and press for an answer to his question. But again, he surprised me. “You guys are right. But here is how I would frame the problem. All three of us enrolled in this class to learn some of the basic concepts of our Jewish faith. We learned some concepts; that’s a fact. But what we really learned is how much more there is to learn. So now we have to decide what we will be doing to learn more.”
I was ready for the class to suggest to me that we continue, perhaps studying Exodus next. I found myself thinking about my busy calendar and figuring out ways to juggle my schedule to allow for a sequel to this class. But that is not what happened.
Simon, this time in unison with Richard, spoke next. “Rabbi, give us a beracha. You know us now; maybe not as well as Jacob knew his sons, but quite a bit. Jacob was not a controlling father. He did not live his children’s lives. He blessed them and encouraged them to achieve their maximum potential on their own. That is what we would like you to do. Bless us and release us!”
Nothing in any of the teacher training courses that I ever took prepared me for this. At the time, the only experience I had with blessing others was the custom of the Friday night benedictions that I gave to my own children when they were quite young. But I knew that I could not escape this unprecedented challenge to my pedagogical creativity.
I can no longer recall exactly what I said. But here is a rough approximation:
“Jacob was careful to recognize the individual differences among his children. He knew that, although they had a lot in common, they each had different talents and virtues. Each blessing he bestowed was tailored for the son who received it. The three of you also have a lot in common. You all were interested in learning about Judaism, which is why you signed up for the course. Now you’re all thirsty for more learning.
“But you are three very different people, and I suspect that you will find that the method that one of you chooses to learn more Torah will be incompatible with the methods chosen by the others. My blessing to each of you is that you find your own distinct paths to greater knowledge about our Jewish faith. You know that this course was but the first step along that path.”
They all received my blessing in silence. Only Leon could find the words to bring the class to its conclusion:
“Rabbi,” he said, “we would like to give you a blessing. We cannot promise you that we will stay in touch with you. But we can pray that one day you will look back upon this class fondly. And we can hope that you find your experience with us meaningful enough so that one day you will write about our little story for an audience of thousands.”
I never did hear from any of the three again. I have often looked back with fond memories of this remarkable teaching experience. And for the past three months, I have shared the story of Richard, Simon, and Leon with all of you. Thank you for being that audience of thousands.