“and he blessed Joseph and said, “May God, before whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God who sustained me as long as I am alive until this day; may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac” ... so he blessed them on that day saying, “with you Israel will bless, saying, may God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.’” (Gen. 48:15-16, 20)
The final portion of the book of Genesis begins with the last days of the patriarch Jacob, and concludes with the death of his favourite son, Joseph. Before he leaves this world, Jacob blesses his sons, and also the sons of Joseph. We take particular interest in the blessing of the grandchildren, since it is traditional for parents to make such a blessing at the beginning of Shabbat. And if you are wondering what virtue Ephraim and Manasseh might have had that could supersede the righteousness of their eminent ancestors, please note that they were the first set of Jewish brothers that did not fight with each other!
Eighteen years ago, I was assigned this portion for my Senior Sermon at rabbinical school. Now, as then, my eyes turn not towards the happy children being blessed by loving parents. We need not worry about such fortunate families. Rather, I see empty places at a Shabbat table. Then, I spoke of the pain felt by would-be parents who had been cursed by infertility and were thus unable to fill the seats with daughters and sons. I learned how this yearning goes back to the beginning of our history, where Israel’s wife Rachel pleads with God to give her a child or else she will die. Then I sat sadly in the synagogue, wondering what to do with my empty hands while parents were invited to bless “their” children. And I studied the sensitive response of the sages, who taught that nurture is surely superior to nature, e.g., “One who teaches a child Torah, it is as if one had created that child” (Talmud Sanhedrin 19b).
Rachel’s prayer was answered, but it is not always possible to grow children oneself. However, Sanhedrin 19b also refers to the five sons of Michal mentioned in the second book of Samuel. The Gemara notes that Michal (the wife of King David) never gave birth, and concludes that although Michal’s sister Meirav was the biological mother of these children, since Michal raised them, they were considered hers. Now, as then, adoption is considered a viable option for those who cannot take the usual route towards parenthood.
If one is able to overcome the genetic demand of the ego to leave some physical presence on the earth, there are so many children today in need of a loving home. Statistics from March 2011 show that in England there were 65,520 children in care of their local authorities. 74% had places in foster homes. 71% were aged between 1 and 4 years old, and 72% were taken from their families of origin because of abuse or neglect. Of these children, 3,050 were adopted. That is 4.7% who found at least one parent able to offer them a home. That is a shockingly low number.
Some rabbis now invite the entire congregation to join in the blessing of the children of the community, and in that moment my hands and heart are full. But the Shabbat chairs are still waiting. There are not that many cute, healthy, blank, unwanted newborn babies ready to be imprinted with our hopes and ideals. There ARE thousands of young children, somewhat injured by their experiences so far, yearning for a chance of family life. What can we do for them?
Jacob’s final act is to bless his children. He understands that a blessing cannot create potential that does not already exist. It can, however, help existing potential to materialise. Who knows what currently lies dormant in these children? We may not be able to adopt them ourselves, but they are part of our community. I believe we have a duty to find a blessing for each and every one of them, so they too may become like Ephraim and Manasseh, both loving and loved.