When they were little, they would stand before us. Then, we would place our hands on their sweet heads and recite over them in Hebrew and then in English: May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe (over our son). May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah (over our daughter.) And then over each of them in turn the words of the Priestly Blessing: May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face shine toward you and show you favor. May God look favorably upon you and grant you peace.
Friday after Friday, year after year, at first with hesitancy (this was new and unfamiliar to us), and then with growing confidence and authority, we would recite these ancient words over our children. Judaism understands parents to be God’s stand-ins on this earth, and so it was through our hands that God’s blessing came upon them week after week.
As they grew older and taller I had to reach on tiptoe. When they went to college, Friday afternoon became our check-in time. We have blessed them in unorthodox ways and places. They have called in for their blessings from Spain; they have read their blessings in letters written to them not to be opened until Friday. They have called from Glacier National Park, from dorm rooms and first apartments, beneath Manhattan’s skyline and the starry skies of Bryce Canyon. More traditional parents forego phone and letters, and simply hold their hands out and recite the blessing – north, east, south, west – in whatever direction their children reside.
Why did we start this? Neither of our parents had ever blessed us. Incorporating the blessing into the rest of our Friday Sabbath dinner rituals seemed like a good and proper idea. It was, and so it remains. This blessing is a constant in our lives at a time when we live in three different states and near as many time zones. Within its words are the memories of decades of Sabbath dinners shared with family friends. In its words echo the impatient times, too, when adolescent angst was held at bay as the blessing smoothed over the week’s discord. Our son will soon marry and we now bless his fiancee as well. The first time Elizabeth looked up into my eyes as I blessed her, I felt a rush of so many feelings. We didn’t know each other too well, but the blessing was my way of saying You belong to us, you are a part of us now, too, if you want to be.
Somewhere along the way I understood that within the blessing is immortality. One day, when I live on only in memory, our children will bless their children and feel my hands upon their head; they will hear my voice alongside theirs as they repeat the ancient words of the Priestly Blessing, May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face shine toward you and show you favor. May God look favorably upon you and grant you peace. It is good to know this. It is good to know that a tradition my husband and I began hesitantly and a bit awkwardly, will be an immutable part of them and their children. There is power in this. Such simple, beautiful, and blessed power.
You don’t have to be Jewish to recite the Priestly Blessing over your children. Pick a time. Establish it as routine and soon it will be come a ritual. What other family ritual have you created over the years? How has it added to your family’s life?
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