By Berel Wein
Everyone wishes to be blessed. Therefore people flock to perceived great and holy personages to receive blessings from them. The Talmud taught us that a blessing even from a common and not especially noteworthy person is also not to be treated lightly. In the Torah we find that blessings - and the lack of them - are a cause of controversy and bitter rivalry.
Yishmael and Yitzchak, and Yaakov and Eisav competed for their fathers' blessings. The sons of Yaakov received individual and differing blessings (and admonitions as well) from their father at his deathbed. Moshe departs from the Torah and the Jewish people in the parsha of V'Zot Habracha with blessings to all of the different tribes (except for Shimon (?!) ). King David blesses the Jewish people upon his entry into Jerusalem and his son, King Shlomo, delivers a long blessing oration at the dedication of the First Temple. Ezra and Nechemia bless the Jewish people at the beginning of the Second Temple era.
The Talmud is replete with instances of blessing from one generation to the next, from teacher to student, even from stranger to stranger. There is a strong strain within Judaism that believes that blessings given by human beings to other human beings have a positive influence even in Heaven. Apparently good will expressed on earth between humans creates a climate that allows goodness and blessungs to descend more easily from Heaven to our earth. Because of this belief it has become customary (in some circles it is mandatrory) to attempt to obtain blessings from noted and respected people at many occasions during one's lifetime.
In the Chasidic community one does not embark on a life-changing event without first obtianing the blessing of one's rebbe or mentor. This is now true even in the Lithuanian yeshiva world and certainly in the Sephardic society. In short, blessings from one human being to another are an integral part of Jewish life and tradition.
Judaism is a matter of proper values and balance in life. Any overt and extreme reliance on blessings of humans, no matter how great and holy the blessng personage may beis contrary to the balanced view of life that Torah preaches. A man once approached the venerable and sainted Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisreal Meir Kagan, and asked him for a blessing that a certain venture upon which he was embarking would succeed. The Chafetz Chaim said to him: "I don't understand your logic in this matter, of asking me for a blessing. It is analagous to one pauper asking another poverty stricken person for a generous donation. Why don't you ask the most wealthy one of all - the Lord, directly, for His blessing?"
Judaism always feared the introduction of intermediaries between God and humans. One may certainly ask for a blessing from a holy person (or any other person for that matter) but that is a matter of good will and not one of certainty. Though, in the words of the Talmud, the righteous can command and Heaven fulfills that command, nevertheless it is only God's blessings that, so to speak, are reliable without doubt or exception.
Judaism demands that one come to terms, so to speak, with God and not to substitute humans for that necessary relationship. Rambam posits that this was the basic fundamental error of paganism and idolatry. The original star worshippers knew there was a God but thought that the way to worship that God was by worshipping what He had created. Judaism affords no room for any types of intermediaries.
Blessings administered by humans create a more serene atmosphere in human society. Harsh words and bitter statements poison our society. The rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud encouraged all to greet others, Jews and non-Jews alike, with a pleasant countenance and words of blessing. The universal and ubiquitous Jewish greeting of "shalom aleichem" - peace be unto you - is one of our most ancient forms of blessing. Thus giving or receiving words of blessing from one human being to anoither is itself a blessing to those involved and to society generally.
It matters little if the actual words of blessing are truly fulfilled and enacted in one’s life. It matters greatly that such words of blessing are uttered with true intent and conviction. We have an idiom that is common in the English language that reflects this truism. When we meet someone we inquire of that person "What is the good word?" The "good word" is always one of blessing, assurance and hope. So it is obvious that blessings and words of blessing are truly important in our personal and general lives. That is why the Jewish New Year is always ushered in with sincere words of blessing between one another. And so may it continue to be,
Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post