With two little kids in our house, a lot of parental conversations start with the words “Please stop” and end with something like “tackling your sibling” or “jumping from the couch to loveseat” or “turning the lights off while someone else is in the bathroom.” If it’s not that, we’re asking them to put their shoes on or finish their carrots or put their shoes on or get in bed. Or put their shoes on.
We say these phrases over and over because as parents we feel a responsibility to help our children learn proper etiquette — or just how to get out the door in less than half an hour. So yes, we offer carrots and sticks, with a general amount of dessert and TV time that can be increased or decreased or taken away entirely based on how well (or poorly) they behave.
But there are some things that, no matter how they act, they will always get from us — at least until they are old enough to tell us to stop. A hug, a kiss, a story before bedtime, encouragement when they stumble, comfort when they’re in distress. And a blessing on Friday night.
The traditional blessing parents offer their children on Friday night is the oldest blessing in Judaism. It is based on the Priestly Blessing, recorded in the book of Numbers, which asks God to bless, protect, be gracious with us and grant us peace. The Friday night version is preceded by a prayer that our daughters be like the Jewish matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — and that our sons be like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph. (Why Ephraim and Menashe? There are a few reasons offered.) We pray that God’s face be turned to them, that God guards them and grants them peace.
We say this blessing because, as important as it is to help our kids learn how to act, our bigger responsibility is to love them and let them know they are loved. That’s what offering a blessing truly entails. It provides a benefit that we didn’t ask for and maybe don’t even deserve. It’s something that simply comes down to us, like rain.
Indeed, in rabbinic times, one of the paradigmatic blessings was for rain — something so crucial that even now we pray for it three times a day in the Amidah. Rain nourishes us. It is life-giving. But we can’t predict it or make it happen. Even more importantly, it comes down independent of any human action. It is simply given to us.
When we bless our children, we’re communicating a similar message, that our children deserve unconditional love — regardless of what they do. We don’t have to love their actions necessarily, but we do need to love who they are as full human beings. They shouldn’t earn a blessing because they cleaned their room. They are a blessing just for being who they are.
When we bless our children on Shabbat, we can see them in a fuller light. On a day-to-day basis, we may struggle with them. But after lighting the Shabbat candles, we put our hands on them and transcend those moments. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in The Book of Words: “Blessings keep our awareness of life’s holy potential ever present. They awaken us to our own lives. Every blessing says, ‘I am grateful to be a creature and to remind myself and God that life is good.'”
When we bless our children, that blessing comes down like rain, helping us appreciate them and helping them appreciate the world. Blessing our children enables us to model for them that our love is unconditional — and in so doing open their eyes to the blessings of this world.