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There is No Right Way

01/05/2023 01:36:06 PM


When it comes to doing things I don’t really know how to do, I like to wait for some sort of “sign” to begin. Maybe that is to find the perfect snack, or most aesthetic room arrangement, or research the task itself over-thoroughly before considering starting. There is something in the mystery of doing things well which can paralyze me. Especially if I don’t really know how I did it well a previous time. I try to ritualize the components to get myself some kind of willpower boost or, equally likely, I don’t do it at all.

Hanging in my hallway is a sketch of two elephants that I made. I love it. I have no idea how I drew it; it was some sort of Bob Ross-inspired happy mistake. I was messing around with some cray-pas and not thinking much of it. I have not sketched since. “I am not an artist!” I tell myself in semi-apology.

There is a pressure in doing things the right way which can destroy our motivation for doing them at all. Maybe you want to start running but you couldn’t do a 5k right now and so you tell yourself: there is no point in jogging a circle around my street! Or you want to try leading services, but convince yourself you couldn’t possible rattle off each and every word of quickly murmured Hebrew for three hours!

So when Jacob sets out to bless each of his twelve sons (plus two grandchildren who become children), you might imagine he'd be stymied by the looming pressure of it. How can you bless one child perfectly, let alone twelve? And after all we learned from Isaac that blessing two sons is hard enough. And Jacob has a not insignificant history with mixing up paternal blessings.

Getting things right relies on a certain belief of the way things should be, who deserves what and how it should look. You only bless one and it’s a winner take all scheme. You can only make one sketch and it must be perfect. You can only run if you’re a ‘runner’. You can only daven if you grew up a rabbi.

So Jacob doesn’t try to do it “right”. Finally, after a lifetime of conflict and strife, siblings fighting siblings for a short supply of love and blessings, he lets go of the belief that blessing one person he loves means taking blessing from another. There is no perfect way to do this right other than to do it.

He switches Ephraim and Menasseh, putting the younger child before the firstborn by crossing his arms.  He seems confused. When he first sees Joseph’s two boys, whom he’s just said he would bless, he asks, “Who are they?” Joseph wonders if maybe his dad has just mixed them up. But he isn’t confused. Jacob says to Joseph, “יָדַ֤עְתִּֽי בְנִי֙ יָדַ֔עְתִּי”, “I know my son, I know”. He meant to change the formula. And because of it, we are all blessed by both sons, even to this day, as we say “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

May you have the blessing to do the things you don’t yet know how to do, or how to do perfectly, or really are pretty mediocre at doing. You don’t have one chance to do it perfectly, there is space enough for all the steps. Shabbat shalom!

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784