Of all the memorable experiences involved with having a child, I’d say the “moment of birth” would have to be at the top of my list. The birth of my son was, indeed, “miraculous” (and quite painful, too.) I was awed that my husband and I brought new life into the world. I saw on my newborn’s face uncanny resemblances to relatives, both alive and long gone, and was reminded of my child’s link in a chain that extends beyond himself. At that moment of birth, the reality set in that our new names, “mom” and “dad,” would propel us into a world of responsibilities to protect, guide, and nurture our newborn son.
It’s amazing then, how all of these lofty thoughts flew out of the window once we got home from the hospital. Who has time for such musings when immediate concerns about whether the changing table has the supplies we need and how, as a new mom, I would manage nursing, changing, and comforting my baby around the clock while also managing to get some sleep? The wonder and awe that marked the moment of birth quickly turned into mind-numbing monotonous work.
I felt a real need to distinguish between the everyday “sameness” of the job of parenthood with the outright wonder of it all. Luckily, this need is recognized by a Jewish tradition that takes place every Friday night: the blessing for children. Once a week, for just a few moments, the simplest blessing is offered and elevates the parent-child relationship from the mundane to the sacred.
While families have different customs related to when they bless their children, my husband and I place our hands on
our son’s head right after lighting Shabbat candles and utter an age-old prayer into his ears.
The blessing itself is remarkable.
The first part of the traditional blessing connects the child to a long line of Jewish heroes and heroines with characteristics worth emulating. It asks God to bless a son like God blessed Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s sons who, according to commentators, are the only brothers in the Bible who did not have a competitive relationship). For a daughter, it asks God to bless her in the way God blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, foremothers who possessed qualities of strength and softness, modesty, and conviction. The second part of the blessing asks for more general guidance from God:
May God bless you and guard you.
May God show you favor and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and grant you peace.
In a remarkable way, the traditional blessing for children on Friday night links us back to the profound feelings we experienced at the moment of birth–the power of a legacy this child is inheriting, coupled with the profound responsibilities we feel to protect and care for our child.
While saying a blessing with traditional God language may be limiting to those who don’t believe in a traditional sort of God, there is still a real power to a spiritual practice that includes blessing your children on a regular basis. There are easy ways to adapt the blessing. If you are not sure about using the word “God,” simply put the blessing in the passive form, “May you be blessed and guarded, etc.” Some families create new prayers altogether that express the same sentiments as the traditional blessing or add some new ideas of their own.
Making Up Your Own Prayer
While fixed prayers offer a measure of consistency and a power that the same words have been uttered for generations, I often feel the desire to offer a personal prayer that reflects my own special relationship with my son. Judaism recognizes the need for fixed prayer (keva) and prayers that also have personal meaning and intentionality (kavannah). When inspired, I add a spontaneous blessing, one that notes milestones in his life from the past week and anything else that moves me about my relationship with him. There are no specific formulations to these personal prayers, just simple sentiments like, “May you continue to approach the smallest discoveries in life with wonder and joy” or “May I continue to learn how to be the best mother to you.”
Adopting a spiritual practice of blessing my child on a weekly basis has helped me move from the banal to the sacred which, with all of the new routines and chores, is itself a blessing.