There is a beautiful custom in many Jewish communities that on Friday nights parents will give their children the blessing to be like Joseph's sons, Efraim and Menashe. The blessing takes less than a minute to say but it is a time of very close connection between parent and child. Often, parents will take a few extra moments and follow the blessing with words of affection and compliments.
In this week's parsha, Yaakov is on his death bed and blesses his children. But his blessings are quite unusual. In fact they seem to be more like descriptions of their strengths and weaknesses than blessings. In some instances, such as with Shimon and Levi, he doesn't even mention their strengths, only their weaknesses. What kind of blessing is this?
But perhaps Jacob is teaching us an important lesson about what a true blessing really is. By being able to look deeply into another and share with them their strengths and weaknesses in the most honest, personal and loving way, the one giving the blessing gives more than just a mystical incantation bestowing good luck. He or she gives the receiver the tools to truly create their own blessing.
There is another time when one person is supposed to bless another. The Talmud says when we judge a person wrongly, we must make up for this by blessing them. We can now understand the deeper meaning behind this. When we judge a person wrongly, aside from revealing that we aren't focused on the person's virtues, it deflates the morale of that person even though they know they aren't guilty of the crime. The very fact that we projected this negativity on them can damage their self-confidence even in the slightest way and decrease their potential for productivity.
But when we bless them we are forced to look a little deeper, to judge them meritoriously, to focus on their strengths and to let them know what we see. It helps us reframe how we see the person and allows us to empower them and build up what we previously tore down.
Yaakov lived a life of an extremely devoted parent. He understood the depth of each of his children. He went through the pain of thinking that he lost a son but never stopped thinking about him, just in case. He understood which of his children could take on leadership roles and which could not. He stayed connected to all of his children no matter what they did and saw all their different sides. And, in his final conversation with each one, he gives them the greatest blessing, the secret to what makes each one unique in the hope that they will learn from the blessing and indeed be "blessed."