Each to His Blessing
A student pouts, kept after school for misbehaving in class. When it is time to finally dismiss the student, the teacher looks up from his desk. “You can go now,” he says.
“It’s not fair,” the student complains. “You never keep any of the others after. They misbehave too.”
The teacher considers the student’s words. Then he nods. “I understand your feelings. But I do treat you fairly. What I don’t do is treat you the same as the others.” He then explained that some students respond differently to different motivations and different punishments. “You,” he said with the hint of a smile, “you are very, very bright. But tough.” He shrugged. “The least fair thing I could do would be to treat you like every other student.”
Wise teacher! He understands what so many of his colleagues fail to understand.
Even as we recognize uniqueness and diversity all around us we remain blind to it in our students and children. We give different blessings to the different beasts of the fields. Why? As Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains, “each animal has a unique capability.” Each to its task. We intuitively understand that even animals show diversity and uniqueness. Lehavdil! How much more therefore, do people! And yet, too often, we simply lump all our children, our students – even entire communities – together as if they are a single entity. We impose identical goals and aspirations upon each and every one. We seek to motivate them with the same words and incentives. We admonish them with the same punishments.
In doing so, we do them and ourselves a terrible disservice.
We pursue “sameness” with daunting vigor. In some communities, sameness renders each almost indistinguishable from the other. Same hat. Same clothes. Same curriculum. Lots of same! Pity the poor soul who cannot allow himself to be “the same” as everyone else.
Not long ago, I was speaking with a prominent social worker about the many ills plaguing our Orthodox community. What is the common denominator, I wondered, in the recent tragedies that have befallen our community?
Disconnection. Disconnection from parents, from rebbeim, from their community. They have been shunned, thrown out of yeshiva and their homes. They have no one with whom to share their sadness and loneliness. No one from the community from whom to be recognized and acknowledged, no one from whom to receive a blessing.
There is a difference between a prayer (tefillah) and a blessing (beracha). A prayer is “between man and God”. Through prayer, we find our connection with God. A blessing is between two people. Through blessing, we establish a powerful bond between people. As such, a blessing can only have meaning and power if the person receiving the blessing believes that the person who is bestowing it has the power, the desire and the will to bestow it.
To earn the faith of the recipient, the giver of a blessing must recognize that person’s uniqueness.
By definition, bestowing a blessing acknowledges the special quality of each person – not only for the benefit of the individual but of the community itself. For are not goodness, learning and holiness the individual and collective mission of the Jew? Shouldn’t everyone share in them? Of course. That is the individual and collective mission of the Jew. .
Goodness, learning and holiness are the reasons why Yaakov not only blessed the individual with unique blessings but assured that the twelve would form a prototype community to usher in all Jewish communities of the generations to follow, communities that would support and reinforce each of their individual members, with their unique, individual talents and gifts.
This is why, in conferring his blessings, Yaakov did not give each the same blessing. Rather, he focused first on the inspired, caring leadership that would, among its other goals, encourage and allow for each of his sons and tribes to reach for its unique potential. As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches, such leadership calls for the “courage of youth with the prudence of age”; that is, it calls for the inspired and admired Yehudah.
The tradition of “blessing of the first born” would have Yaakov conferring the blessing of leadership on Reuven, or even Shimon and Levi. And yet, the father knew his sons well; he loved and appreciated their differences. He knew Reuven to be impetuous, Shimon and Levi to tend toward violence and insensitivity. These were acknowledgements, not judgments! He knew that they were not capable of leading a community in need of sensitivity and sympathy; not capable of recognizing each individual’s worth and potential.
In their eyes, the individual would be lost in the sea of community rather than fully integrated as an individual.
Yaakov’s sons and their tribes share a common destiny, a destiny that relies on each and every one of them. They need each other, not only because they share an historical destiny but because realizing that destiny depends on their unique, individual traits. As Rav Soloveitchik explains, “Zebulun excelled in commerce. Yissachar was engaged in research in the study of Torah, and had an analytical mind. Joseph had a magnetic personality. Benjamin had courage.” Yaakov’s prayer and aspirations was that each fulfill his potential. His wisdom made clear that no two people are the same, and no two possess the very same talents and abilities.
Some will become the great “Zebuluns”, scholars, steeped in Torah learning. Others will fulfill their technical, mechanical, commercial skills. Some will transverse the land and seas, joining with Yissachar in international trade. Only by each realizing his individual gift and talent would the community thrive!
Yaakov knew that God’s promise would be fulfilled so long as the individuals of the generations, with their uniqueness intact, unite as one People serving the will of God. Rav Soloveitchik continues: “Knesses Yisrael is a confluence of talents, of approaches, of thoughts, of emotion. Without all twelve components, Knesses Yisrael would never arise…”
We must learn from Yaakov’s example and always encourage our children and students to develop and pursue their unique strengths and gifts. Sadly, in too many of our communities, the mere idea that each student has a “real you” to be explored and realized is hateful. As a consequence, rather than realizing their gifts, individuals are taught to be afraid to discover who God fully intends them to be.
Foolishness!. No one should ever be made to feel afraid to discover who they are, and what their gifts truly are. Faith in God presumes that all genuine gifts will benefit the Jewish people and community if they are allowed to be realized!
And this then is the true meaning of conferring blessings – not the pouring of all into a single mixing bowl so that the result is a single, smooth, bland sameness. God forbid! Of course, we bless our children and students with the same love and commitment to God and His Torah, but not to be indistinguishable from one another, to become little more than drones in a hive-like community. God has graced each of us with the crown of holiness; we must each pursue what that means in our lives.
Yaakov did not gather his sons and bless them all with a single, universal blessing. He didn’t simply tell them, Zeit ge’bentscht. He blessed each individually, focusing on the characteristic and ability of each. In doing so, he teaches us what it means to truly bless another. First and foremost, it is to recognize the uniqueness and gifts of the one (one!) being blessed. It is then to support and to guide the one being blessed to fulfill the potential of his or her uniqueness.
Imagine how powerful our communities would be if each parent and every teacher were to bless this way! Yitzhak recognized and supported Yaakov’s gifts of piety, perseverance and scholarship. Yitzhak recognized Esav’s nature as a warrior and his essence. He understood his son’s ability to accumulate the fat of the earth, the corn and the wine. At the same time, “Let the nations serve you…”
Esav, even Esav, was blessed by his father. He was not expelled, rejected or shunned. Yitzchak blessed him, recognizing him, supporting him and guiding him. Our generation would be wise to remember this, rather than willfully forgetting the message inherent in the blessing!
Rav Kook did not forget. “Every person must know and understand, that in the depth of one’s being there burns a candle and one’s candle is not at all as your friend’s candle… and there is absolutely no one that has no candle. Everyman must know and understand that it is his goal and responsibility to divulge the candle’s light publicly, and to allow one’s candle to be lit as a great torch that will give light to the entire world.”
This past Chanukah, did you gaze at the menorah? Did you note that no two candles burned alike? Likewise, no two people are the same. Each has a light to share with the world. It is not enough to simply allow it to be ignited. To truly bless another, we must recognize that light and then encourage and guide its glow.
Rav Nachman of Breslav sees not the light of a candle, but hears the notes of song. “Every Jewish child has a nigun miyuchad, a unique melody. The job of parents is to nurture, cultivate and fully develop that unique melody. When they do, the most beautiful symphony evolves…” Another Master hears the individual’s melody too, “Each soul has its own note to sing in the divine chorus and no voice is more important than another.”
If each child, if each student, is unique and possessing of special gifts then each blessing must likewise be unique. Just as Yaakov’s blessings were unique to each of his sons, so too must ours be fitting for each of our children and students. As Shannon Alder teachers, “No two persons can learn something and experience it in the same way.”
Social workers teach us that no two children – siblings! – grow up in the same household. No two students learn the same lesson, even when they sit side by side in the same classroom.
Teachers, do you hear? Rebbeim, Moros, are you listening? Parents, are you paying heed? Isn’t it time we bring Rav Kook and Rav Nachman into our current trends in child rearing and student orientation; isn’t it time we allow them to be who they were meant to be? Remember never to “free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.”
Let us bless our children and our students with the gift of themselves, nurtured by those who love them and care about them, so that they will become everything that they are capable of being, strengthening themselves, the community and the Jewish people.