Looking at Parashat Vay'hi, I see so many different kinds of blessings. Without even looking at the text itself, we have find blessings, in the words we say to each other as we reach the final lines of the first book of the Torah: חזק חזק ונתחזק (hazak hazak v'nithazek - may we all take strength from reaching this moment).
And then there's the text! Evocative blessings, powerful blessings, blessings we use today for our children - and also: confusing blessings, contradictory blessings, backhanded blessings.
There are a number of ways to mine these blessings for meaning (for a thoughtful, accessible take on a source critical reading of the text, check out this article!), but for this week, I want to look more closely at Jacob's interaction with and blessing of his grandsons, Menashe and Efraim. The interaction has always been an uncomfortable one for me. As Jacob greets his two grandsons and prepares to offer them his blessing, he crosses his hands to place them on the boys' heads, thus offering his primary blessing to the younger child, Efraim, rather than to the "rightful" heir, Menashe. Joseph at first believes this to be a mistake and tries to correct his father. But Jacob remains firm in his choice, explaining that the younger son will be the greater one.
There's so much of this interaction that feels like Jacob replaying the events of his own life, how he received the primary blessing from his father by deceit, how his father gave the overlooked Esau a blessing that kind of makes him sound like an also-ran, and which led to much strife, fear, and threats of violence. After all that Jacob and his descendents went through to get to this place, it's hard to see him carry this same problematic dynamic forward into the generation of his grandchildren.
At the same time, the words of the blessing that Jacob offers are powerful and beautiful. These are his own words, transcending the words of the covenant that was passed down to him, which he also references in his blessing. Some of these words, Jacob's words, have become part of the liturgy of our most tender moments. We bless our children on Friday nights with the invocation ישמך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה, May God make you like Efraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:20) A portion of his blessing, המלאך הגאל אתי, HaMalakh HaGoel Oti (Genesis 48:13) is part of the extended bedtime Shema. I have sung it to my own children since they were born.
It is true that there is a disconnect between Jacob's complicated actions and his moving words of blessing. This truth mirrors something that is likely also true about each of us. In many ways, we do what was done to us. We parent how we were parented. We build relationships that feel like and often replicate the relationships we saw as children. We follow the paths that were laid out for us by our upbringings. But this does not stop us from forging our own paths, from making (at least some) different choices than the ones that were handed down to us - choices that can have a lasting impact and enduring beauty.
Like Jacob, we are not carbon copies of what came before. There may be parts of how we interact in the world that we inherited, that we continue to pass down, that perhaps we might do better not to. And there are certainly ways that we are wholly individual beings, that the blessings we offer to our world and to each other are unique, entirely ours, and full of beauty.