What is a Blessing?

A Heideggerian Meditation on an Ancient Practice

The Torah records many instances of people blessing others. Malchizedek blesses Abraham. Isaac blesses his sons. Jacob blesses his sons. Yitro blesses Moses. Aaron blesses the people.

God also blesses people.

Yet most Jewish ritualized Jewish blessings involves the formulation, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God...” An average day in Jewish life involves blessing God, but not blessing others. In the Amidah prayer, Jews ask God to bless them (barcheinu avinu), but to my knowledge, there is no regular practice of asking strangers, friends, or acquaintances to bless us.

The Talmud (Brachot 7a) records that God seeks out human blessing and that one should learn from this that a blessing is a wonderful thing no matter its source. Typically, gift giving is complicated by difference in status. Ancient texts reflect an anxiety around gift giving between people of different social status; since giving can be a kind of “flex” or “power move,” giving to someone of high status can risk being offensive or presumptuous. That God receives and encourages our blessing suggests that a blessing is not a typical gift; or else, that when it comes to the dynamics of blessing, power dynamics do not follow a typical hierarchical pattern. Blessings are the great equalizer, signs of our fundamental need for the other no matter how seemingly powerful or self-sufficient.

BLESSINGS ARE AMBIGUOUS

A blessing conveys a wish for something to become true that is not yet the case, as in “May you be blessed...” But a blessing can also be a performative sentence or spell. When Isaac blesses his children, one could argue, he seals their fate. His words bring forth a new reality. Blessings can also be predictive, disclosing a fate that will be no matter what, but drawing our attention to it in the present. All blessings unconceal something, to use Heidegger’s term, but depending on one’s view, a blessing either unconceals the future as determined or as open. Blessings seem to be about the speaker’s relationship to the future, which is to say, to the sense of present possibility.

Some of the ambiguity in how we relate to blessings is the result of an ambiguity in how we relate to the relationship between present and future. Do we see the future as emerging organically from the present, like a tree from an acorn (Aristotle’s metaphor)? Or do we think of the future as a radical break which we must effect through some heroic act of will (the Nietzschean paradigm)? Is blessing someone like watering a plant or shining a light in a dark garden or is it like nuclear fusion?

One humanistic way of thinking about blessing is offered by positive psychology, whereby the force of the blessing is simply in the positive reinforcement it offers the listener. When we hear a blessing we are hearing a truth that, through receiving, we come to own as “ours.” Striking, in this sense, that God, too, needs a blessing. Could it be that, for rabbinic theology, God needs humanity to bolster God’s self-confidence, as if the nature of being a subject, even a subject as great as God, is to be vulnerable to self-doubt and self-criticism?


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