Surviving survival — Reuven’s blessing

Every few months there is a surge of social distress and accompanying commentary, addressing the problems of Jewish population growth. Worries abound about assimilation, low birth rate, intermarriage, lack of identification with religious values, and so forth. Great ideas bolstering the Jewish future are implemented. Everybody knows about Birthright, missions to Israel, JDate, and outreach programs. Yet, with all that is being done, there is no resounding rebound. The numbers are more or less holding steady, some increase in Israel, some decline in exile, but steady. But no rebound. Why is there no solution?

Take a good look at this week’s parsha, Vayechi. I believe an answer is there, in the parsha par excellence of the Jewish future. Yaakov approaches his death and has a strategy to help his children survive and thrive, one inherited from his parents and grandparents. He calls them together to share this strategy. The strategy, in a word, is “beracha” — blessing. After examining what this exactly is, I will suggest that the lack of a “beracha” awareness is the reason we are so frustrated today about the Jewish future. No beracha, no solution.[1]

But you might stop me in my tracks. Yaakov’s statements to his children do not all look like blessings. He criticizes Reuven – too unstable, not leadership material. Shimon and Levi – angry and violent, divide and disperse them. Yehudah – he’s all right, he’ll lead. And so on through the sons, some good, some bad, some just plain hard to understand. Are these berachot at all?

And yet, at the end of the session, in ch. 49 v. 28, Yaakov makes it clear: “He blessed each one with his own unique blessing.” There are only two ways this can be understood. The kvetched way is to say that besides what we read he said, he blessed each one of the 12. The simpler way is to say that the blessing is what we see in the text – Reuven no less blessed by what he was told than Yehudah.

What is a beracha? The first uses of the word are as a verb in the Creation story, Bereishit, ch. 1 v. 22 and 28. In the first two verses, it is clearly related to living beings multiplying, procreating. The next use of the term (ch. 2 v. 3) is a little more challenging. There, the seventh day of the week is blessed. How can beracha — fecundity — apply to a day?

Rashi gives an application, Ibn Ezra a definition. Rashi suggests it is a day of blessed food – the manna, which will provide plenty for the seventh day in the desert. Ibn Ezra says that beracha connotes providing more, the additional. As applied to the seventh day, it is greater well-being, renewal of bodily and spiritual strength, of intellectual acumen. Nachmanides takes this one step further – this beracha on the seventh day is the source of all worldly blessings and is the foundation of the world.

In short, beracha is verbalized aspiration. To bless is to aspire for more of something – to bless a friend is to wish them more or better. To bless God is to aspire for more of a relationship to God in that domain that you are giving the blessing.

To aspire, that is, to bring what you will to fruition, is not always up to you. Events can interfere. Personal weaknesses can block your aspirations. Thus, a blessing may not only be a “positive” aspiration. Sometimes it can be the aspiration to rid yourself of a block, that which interferes with one’s reaching one’s dreams.

With this is mind, we can understand Yaakov’s berachot to Reuven, Shimon, and Levi. He knows they are capable (“Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength!”), but they all have flaws that prevent the realization of their fulfillment. Here, it is a blessing to subdue the flaws. Reuven is being blessed, as are Shimon and Levi. The blessing challenges them — do they want it? History has shown that Levi wanted it – his descendants are still honored and active members of our community, no less so than Yehudah’s descendants. Reuven and Shimon were absorbed into anonymity.

I suggested above that the key element missing in the current Jewish predicament is a sense of beracha. A short elaboration is called for here. We moan and groan about the survival of the Jewish community, about its imminent decimation in Exile, and so forth. Yet, we have no program that really works to keep us not just together, but gives us national vitality.

This is because the people of beracha suffer from a weak self-awareness of beracha. How do we understand that the Jewish people “are a blessing”?

Some say we invented or popularized monotheism. Not only is that not perfectly historically clear, it is essentially done.

Some say we are unusually talented. Look at all those Noble Prize winners! Well, there are quite a few, but I’m not sure they all are blessings in what they did, and I’m certainly not convinced that the disproportionate percentage of winners is more than an historical coincidence. The proportion isn’t guaranteed to last. Oh – and we have a few losers too!

Some say that we are geniuses at survival – isn’t that what the Dalai Lama said? But that’s exactly what we are anxious about. We have had some failures at survival too.

Survival skills alone won’t help us survive, nor native genius, nor an earthshaking historical accomplishment of any sort. What will help us thrive is a commitment to being a blessing, a self-awareness that we are the conveyors of blessing to each other and the world, that we are an am segulah and goy kadosh – a people always conscious of the fact that we live to be benefactors. If we do not have this, there is nothing uniquely attractive to being Jewish. To meet this challenge is to thrive Jewish – it is indeed the exact theme God presents to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great; and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you I will curse; and through you, will be blessed all the families of the earth.

The loss of this awareness of purpose is the demise of the Jewish person, the threat to Jewish communities both in and out of Israel. This awareness is the key to Jewish vitality.[2]

This awareness cannot be taken for granted. If you are a happy Israeli without this awareness – will you resist buying a ticket out when the going gets rough?

And a tip for running a discovery trip to Israel – being Jewish is to strive to thrive, not just survive. If a trip won’t artfully foster this beracha awareness, it may be no more than just a nice trip.

[1] I would argue that beracha is the theme of Bereishit as a book – but that’s not the main point here.

[2] Ongoing is a debate about what, in our time, is the modern means of beracha. It is an important debate. See what has been written just lately about Judaism and Nationalism by Yoram Hazony, Meir Soloveichik, and Rafi Eis.

About the Author
Rabbi Moshe (Marvin) Simkovich is a professional development coordinator and consultant for the Associated Talmud Torahs, ICJA, and teaches at the Melton Institute in the Chicago area. He was the founding Head of School and Dean of Judaic Studies at Stern Hebrew High School in Philadelphia (now Kohelet YHS), and taught for many years at Maimonides School in Boston. He also served as the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefilla in Newton, MA, and was the Orthodox advisor at Brandeis University. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he received his semicha under the direction of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, and, among others, studied under Rabbi Yisrael Gustman zt"l.
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