Picture the scene. It is a thought experiment — nothing more. Your father, old and dying, has summoned his children for a last parental blessing. You haven’t been the best sons and daughters — who has? But you haven’t been the worst either. Overall, you have been attentive and loving. With tears in your eyes, you take turns holding your ailing father’s hand while he whispers a personal blessing to each of you.
Scene two: Your father has died. As the memorial week proceeds, you sit with your brothers and sisters sharing your father’s last words. It turns out that the others received a blessing; you alone did not. There is no way to say this nicely, but you do: “I received no blessing from our father; his final words showed me all over again how little he appreciated me.”
That happens to many of us. Our parents die and as much as we wanted their blessing, we get lingering recollections of parental disappointment. Other people point nostalgically to family photos on their mantle or piano. Not us. The pictures we most honestly conjure are of parents who showed us little unadulterated love, even at the end. We are saddened, even angry, that they left us with wounds that may never heal.
I am not describing outright abuse — nothing so obvious as that. Maybe our parents favored our brother or sister, or they were self-centered or just inept. They did their best; they just never loved us absolutely and fully for who we were. Years later, we find ourselves in therapy or struggling privately with adult relationships that remain colored by childhood regrets. How do we deal with the unrelenting shadow of a parent’s failure to bless us before his or her death?
The issue goes back to this week’s parsha, in which Jacob blesses most of his sons, but virtually curses others. Reuben is “unstable; he will excel no more.” Simeon and Levi are angry and lawless; they will lose their family patrimony. How do Reuben, Simeon, and Levi go on with life, knowing they have inherited only parental disapproval?
Jewish custom provides an answer.
Ever since the Middle Ages, fathers have greeted their bar mitzva sons with the words, “Blessed is God who has rid me of the punishment due me on account of this one.” Modern responsa allow it to be said to a bat mitzva as well.
The most common interpretation is that parents are responsible for the sins of their children until their bar/bat mitzva day, after which the children are responsible for themselves.
A minority opinion has it that sons and daughters, not mothers and fathers, should say these words, acknowledging that as of now, they are exempt from punishment they have inherited from their parents. Custom still assigns the pronouncement to the parents, but attaches both meanings to it.
On the one hand, children do become responsible for their own actions, maybe not at 13, but it will do as a symbolic marker. On the other hand, it is in their power to mature as adults free of negative parental baggage. Whatever trauma their parents have saddled them with is not indelible.
Few of us inherit undiluted blessings or curses from our childhood days; many of us know some degree of parental disappointment or disregard. Even the most blighted among us, however, need not go through life with lasting childhood bitterness weighing us down. There comes a time when we are encouraged to break free: “Blessed is God who rids us of the punishment left over from our childhood.”
What a magnificent assertion — and not just for bar/bat mitzva day. It may dawn on us at any time that we need no longer labor under the curse of whatever pain or guilt our parents left us. We can make any day our metaphoric bar or bat mitzva, ridding ourselves at last of childhood burdens.
Even loving parents are apt to leave behind at least some bitter residue: memories of guilt, perhaps, or habits once drilled into us that bring us pain as adults. This week’s parsha is the opportunity to be free of it all. Blessed is God who rids us of the punishment we inherited from our childhood. Blessed are we, who have the power to start our adult life all over again — renewed, reassured, as if reborn.