Every Friday night, when blessing my daughter, I marvel at how articulate and relevant my wife’s improvised preamble to the traditional text unfolds, speaking of her wishes for my daughter in a weekly, ever-changing invocation. I’m always thankful there is a traditional text to rely on because, otherwise, I might not have something to say.
So I wonder -- is there a formula, a recipe for blessing others?
I looked for guidance in our Torah portion today.
Dreading his imminent re-entry to the land of Canaan and encounter with his well-armed and likely-angry brother Esau, Jacob wrestles with some kind of being in the dead of night. In the midst of the struggle, the indeterminate angelic being demands that Jacob let him go but Jacob won’t without a blessing. The angel asks his name and tells him that from now on he will also be known as Yisra-el, the one who struggles with divine beings, with God.
When Jacob asks the name of the being, the answer is “Why do you ask?” Clearly the angel is Jewish. But why doesn’t the angel give Jacob/Israel his name? According to Rashi and others, an angel has no fixed name, only a mission. Others add that the name would be incomprehensible to a mere mortal. Ramban adds the name would be of no use to Jacob, that the divine being has no power beyond God’s and that if Jacob called there would be no answer.
And why is the blessing which follows the query not articulated? “And he blessed him there.” Some suggest that the name change is a blessing in and of itself. When I think of blessings that are composed for a specific individual, they have two components, a positive wish for the future based on the credibility of the present. Jacob, the heel, the follower, has earned the name of God-Wrestler which will be a double edged sword of a blessing for the rest of his days and those of his descendants.
Perhaps then the later commentary is right about the alchemy necessary for constructing a blessing: rely on the reality of the individual and express a hope for them to maintain the good they have earned and step further into a future of greater good fortune and well being. In order to do that, we have to remember the key to engaging the divine in our pursuit of a more blessed future is answering the angel’s question: Why do you ask? Translated into the language of human-kind: What is it I wish for you and upon what basis can I ask for it?
We’re all still Wrestling with that question.