When most people think of Times Square this time of year, they picture the tremendous New Year’s Eve party usually attended by more than a million people filled with banners, streamers and the ball that drops at midnight. Less well known, and with much poorer attendance, is an annual event in Times Square that takes place just a few days earlier. It even took place this year, albeit with social distancing and masks.
On Monday, a small group gathered to observe the annual “Good Riddance Day.” Each year, around New Year’s, visitors and residents of New York write down the problems and disappointments they experienced that year on a piece of paper, toss it in a dumpster, and watch it get shredded. They say good riddance to the aspects of the year they wished to leave behind.
Most years I would say that Good Riddance Day is yet another reminder of the stark contrast between the way the secular New Year is observed and the way we observe Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. But this year, I join the chorus of those eager to say good riddance to so much of 2020. Good riddance to Corona. Good riddance to quarantine. Good riddance to contentious and divisive politics. Good riddance to 2020.
And yet, with all we are eager to say good riddance to, it is simultaneously more important than ever to focus on what we hold on to. Indeed, we have a weekly practice of literally counting our blessings.
Since I have been a small child, each and every week I have looked forward to my father’s Friday night beracha. When I went off to my year in Israel, I would receive it on the phone and if we missed that, I knew that before my father would begin Kiddush, he would close his eyes, picture me and give the beracha telepathically. I always knew that geographic distance or different time zones could not stop the flow of that beracha each and every Friday night.
Even today, as a grown man, I look forward to feeling his hand on my head, his whisper in my ear and his kiss on my cheek. I may be a grandfather myself, but when he is in Boca and when it is safe to be close and touch, I still cherish when he gives me the same beracha I have been receiving weekly for over four decades.
Ever since I became a father, I have equally looked forward to giving each of my children their weekly beracha. Technology has improved and now, with the help of Facetime, I can put my hands on their heads, even if they are thousands of miles away, and utter those same words that were said to me.
Where did this custom come from? What is its source?
In our Parsha, when Yaakov anticipates his impending demise, he summons his children and grandchildren to not only arrange his material estate, but to communicate his ethical will, his vision and charge to each of them. He begins with his grandsons, Efraim and Menashe, and bestows upon them opening berachos.
Afterwards, he tells them:
וַיְבָ֨רֲכֵ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַהוּא֮ לֵאמוֹר֒ בְּךָ֗ יְבָרֵ֤ךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹקים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־אֶפְרַ֖יִם לִפְנֵ֥י מְנַשֶּֽׁה׃
So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘May God make you like Efraim and Menashe.’”
But why Efraim and Menashe, why not Avraham, Yitzchak or Yaakov? Why not Yosef, Dovid or Shlomo, or one of the other shevatim? Why mention anyone by name at all, why not a general blessing to be like our Avos HaKedoshim, our holy patriarchs?
Moreover, the Torah doesn’t tell us when to give this beracha, it just says when the Jewish people will bless children it will be through invoking these names. Indeed, the custom to use this beracha on Friday nights is relatively recent, only a few centuries old. Why do we give it Friday night?
Rav Chaim Dovid HaLevi in his Teshuvos Aseh Lecha Rav says he cannot find a source for giving this beracha on Friday night so he offers his own suggestion. The Magen Avraham (ריש ס׳ רעד)writes טוב לנשק ידי אמו בליל שבת, it is good to kiss your mother’s hand on Friday night. He suggests the minhag developed because when a father witnessed his children bestowing honor on their mother, he couldn’t help but want to give them a beracha. Witnessing the next generation see themselves as connected to the past and continuing to honor, revere and respect their parents is among the greatest blessings we can have and it elicits from us a desire to reciprocate blessing back.
That explains Friday night, but why specifically to be like these two? Many suggest that after several generations of sibling rivalry, conflict, competition and adversarial relationships, Efraim and Menashe are the first generation to not only get along and tolerate one another, but to embody loyalty, love, mutual admiration and respect. The foundational beracha for our children, even before we can invoke the chesed of Avraham, the gevurah of Yitzchak, the emes of Ya’akov, the piety of Yosef or the passion of Dovid, the wisdom of Shlomo or the virtue of any of our great leaders, is that our children—and by extension our families, our communities and our people—simply get along.
As we begin our Shabbos meal basking in the light of the Shabbos candles, the symbol of shalom bayis and peace, we offer a blessing of unity, harmony, cooperation, love, loyalty and family. As we sit down for the Friday night meal, rife with potential for heated exchanges and divisive debate about politics, religion or life, we offer a beracha that our table be like Efraim and Menashe and it be the fulfillment of מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד, how wonderful and pleasant when we sit together as unified siblings.
Others suggest that among Yaakov’s twelve sons and their families, Efraim and Menashe were the only ones raised outside of the Land of Israel, in a foreign culture and with powerful external influences. Despite the pull to assimilate into Egyptian culture, religion and practice, Efraim and Menashe clung tenaciously to the teachings and traditions of their father and were steadfast in their commitment to Torah.
Shabbos provides an oasis from the chaos of the week and from the images, ideas, and temptations we face all week. As we reflect on another week gone by and immerse ourselves in a new Shabbos to energize us for the week ahead, we offer a beracha that our children, our families and ourselves be protected from the forces and pressures we face daily to compromise who we are, the choices we make and the lives we lead.
Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Ta’av V’Daas 265) suggests another answer. He explains that when the Torah says we give a beracha to be like Efraim and Menashe it doesn’t mean like the two specific people themselves but we should emulate Yaakov to give our children berachos in which we identify their potential, who and what can come of them and guide them to achieve it.
The mandate is not to give a beracha to be like Efraim and Menashe per se, but to make the time to give a beracha, to interact, to share hopes, dreams and aspirations. The Sefer Nishmas Shabbos says this is why we give the beracha Friday night. Our children are not competing for attention with our work, our other obligations, or nowadays with our technology. The biggest beracha we can give our children, and for that matter all those around us that we care about, is ourselves, our full attention when we are engaging with them.
Reb Moishe Lieb Sassover suggests that the content of the beracha Yaakov gave Efraim and Menashe was to live in the moment, to be fully present in the present. ויברכם ביום ההוא, he gave them a beracha, “ביום ההוא”, to be in the moment.
On Shabbos we go off the grid, disconnect with no guilt, no second guessing, no FOMO or self-importance, but only the rich possibility of truly being present with those we are engaging. What a beracha for us and for those around us!
May we merit the fulfilment of the archetypal beracha to Efraim and Menashe - to see our children figuratively kiss our hands and embrace our values and instinctively respond by giving them blessings. May we experience only harmony, unity, love and loyalty within our families, at our Shabbos tables and in our lives. May we find the resolve and resiliency to overcome the influences and forces we confront and be uncompromising in our mission as Torah Jews. And may we be blessed to live ביום ההוא, fully present, living each moment to its fullest.
As we say good riddance to 2020, let’s not forget to count our berachos, on Friday night and throughout the week.