Bringing out the best in others
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:41 PM
By Jay Rosenbaum
At the beginning of Abraham's career, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, he is given an unusual charge by God: ``Be thou a blessing.'' We usually think of a blessing as something we have or receive, not something we are. What exactly does it mean to ``be'' a blessing?
To answer this question, we need to first look at what the Bible means by blessing. In Hebrew, the word for blessing is bracha. The Biblical scholar Johann Pederson once pointed out the similarity between the Hebrew bracha and the Arabic baraka, which means charisma.
We find, in fact, that overwhelmingly cognate words in Hebrew related to bracha have the sense of increase, spreading forth and bursting out -- as a chick breaks out of its shell. The most significant of these related words is bara, which means ``to create life.'' So, in the Bible when God blesses the creatures of the earth, they multiply energetically. And people whom the Bible describes as being blessed/having bracha are people of unusual charisma, vitality and life force. Their crops grow, they have lots of children, and a glow surrounds them wherever they go. People are drawn to them and admire them.
One of the very magical things about bracha/blessing is its transferability. Not only does God give vitality to each of us, God also enables each of us to bring others to life. It's even more than the ability to have children. The Bible tells a moving story about the relationship between Jacob and his son, Joseph. As Jacob lay weak and dying, a messenger came to tell him that Joseph was coming to see him. At that moment, Jacob suddenly became stronger -- strong enough to sit up in bed. The mere presence of the son he loved brought him back to life.
If we check our pulse when a loved one walks into the room, we will find that we suddenly feel more alert, more energetic and more alive. A hug, a warm handshake, a smile from someone who means a lot to us can literally revive us. The touch of a husband, a sister, a good friend can give us an infusion of bracha/blessing when we are experiencing low energy.
This then, is what it means to be a blessing. Other people flourish when they are in our presence. In the Jewish tradition, parents offer a blessing to their children at the Friday night dinner table as the Sabbath begins. This is more than a gift of words or good wishes. Parents place their hand on the heads of the children, transferring warmth and energy to them.
We have this power because our children sense our love. A word of encouragement or praise from us can give them newfound strength to take on a challenge or overcome an obstacle in their path. The same is true for all of our meaningful relationships. In our preoccupation with our everyday burdens, we often forget that we have the ability to bring others to life.
This is the reason that when a loved one leaves this world, we often say ``may her memory be a blessing.'' When a person has lived a life of exceptional goodness and vitality, even the thought of them can inspire. Our being a blessing is not limited to our lifetime. The memory of beloved parents, children, and good friends can continue to make us feel more alive long after they are gone.
The greatest compliment we can give to a parent, teacher, leader or friend is that their presence in the world brings out the best in others. How will we know whether our children have gotten this message from us? When we ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and they respond: a blessing.
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation.