Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel: “Blissful Blessings”
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A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism, Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by archpriest Alexander A.Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem). Below the eleventh article:

Indeed, we sometimes need to address real or virtual enemies and just remove them in words and thoughts. There are special moments though: for instance when people die. An energizing flash of peaceful meditation and possible care may come up in such circumstances. Last wills can be intriguing.

When Jacob (Israel) was about to die, he called his son Joseph, meet with Menashe and Ephraim and, seemingly dim, blessed Ephraim (junior) instead of Menasseh (senior) with his right hand.

By accomplishing this peculiar gesture, he foresaw a greater and more fruitful descent. It was important that the grandfather confirmed the adoption of the two children in the Tribes. Thus, whatever link existed through Dinah, Joseph’s sons were not Jewish by their mother. Nonetheless, each Shabbat, a family father blesses his children in recalling their names. Israel asked Joseph to bury him in the Land of Canaan. Then he called each of his sons and blessed them with very relevant phrases and statements about their characters and envisioning specific future developments for each tribe. It should be noted how he blessed “Simon and Levi (who) are a pair (achim/אחים); their weapons are tools of lawlessness… let not my person be included in their council… cursed be their anger so fierce… I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7).

This sounds a bit rude. Jacob-Israel is quietly ending his life abroad. Still, his family is assembled and accompany him, paving the way to a prophetic future that shall be accomplished by his sons and the sons of his sons. The patriarch (third “av\אב = father, ancestor”) ended his days with decency, after a life of labor and cheat. He grew old as a mature man and had become mature in the face. Isaac would not have blessed Yaakov and Esau the way Israel blessed his sons. The twins were engaged in fierce competition controlled by their mother. They bogged down in lentil soup, birthright and blessing capture with a mom’s push.

Jacob departed in exile, envisioning his gathering with Abraham at the cave of Machpelah. Yaakov made a remarkable request to Joseph: “Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty (chesed ve’emet\חסד ואמת)” (Gen. 47:29). Both a paternal symbolism and a recall of his injury forever as Israel. Joseph will receive Simon and Levi’s portions, witnessing to the fragility of unexpected divine assistance.

Abraham’s children are called to bless all the peoples without exception. They are called to teach and show evidence that blessings are real acts that work as manifold sources to life-giving and good things. Blessings do not depend on any privilege or presupposed return or repayment? blessings? Blessings cannot be disguised or fake. Bilaam experienced this and his cursing turned into a blessing of Israel. His tongue twisted because of the intervening of his she-donkey. He was a pagan soothsayer. In the Jewish tradition, his words are pronounced every morning prayer after the putting on of the tefillin: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel\מה טבוו אהליך יעקב. משיכנתיך ישראל (Numbers 24:5). Even if they might be disguised in brilliant dressings or sketched out as foxy know-hows.

“Blessaðu” is still normal in Icelandic to say “Hello” in a polite way. “God bless” is Christian and interfaith Anglo. The word is related to “blood” (Old Germanic: “Blothisojan = to sprinkle blood on the altars”). The Anglo-Saxon word turned sweeter by a mistake when specialists thought the root was the same as  “to bliss” which is lovely. Indeed, “bless” corresponds to the meaning of sacrifices (korbanot\קורבנות), the blood of lambs at Pesach (and Christian Easter), as at “Aid al Adha” (Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice) in which so many sheep and lambs are slaughtered in a way that traces back to Abraham and Isaac’s binding to the Prophet: “like a sheep being led to slaughter, like an ewe dumb before those who shear her” (Isaiah 53:7; cf. Preparation of the Gifts in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition).

In Hebrew, the usual word is “brachah\ברכה(blessing) and “barech\ברך (to bless). It is basically connected with “beri – bara\ברי-ברא (to create) that initially consists “to perforate” – “think out a plan”. “When the Lord wanted to create man (adam\אדם), He first created (thought out) all the means of his support and then created Adam (Talmud Sanhedrin 38b – Gen. Rabba 8).

It should be noted that, indeed, Adam is a “bar\בר” (son) of the same root as “to create”. Thus, a blessing consists in “sorts of perforations”, holes, apertures allowing to instill strength, growth, refreshing, new (re-)shaping. God proposes to screw us up although we don’t feel hurt nor see any holes! To begin with, the words of blessing renew and achieve something of what we got since we exist and live in a defined environment.

It is some sort of spiritual, legal piercing! The “Laying of the hands” is thus important in the Jewish tradition in a kind of “sacrificial offering” that changes the life of the blessed: the hands were exerting a pressure upon the head (semichah\סמיכה; samech\סמך = stamp, perforate). “Samech”, the name of the fifteenth letter /s/ means “punch” as the thin knife used by the shochet\שוחט (kosher slaughterer) to speedily kill the animal that ought to die quickly and without awareness.

In return, blessings imply a change from death to life.

Then, “barekh\ברך means “to cave out, select, choose, point out”: “HaQadosh Baruch Hu\הקדוש ברוך הוא” (The Holy One, Blessed He be) – as mentioned in Talmud Pessahim 118a, Who, in turn, praises and blesses His creation. It is deifintely contrary to any kind of cursing. “hivrikh\הבריך develops the action:  “to form a knee, to graft a plant, wine” as “two good shoots (proselytes) have been engrafted to Ruth” (Talmud Bava Kamma 38b; cf. Epistle to the Romans 11:13 about the Gentiles grafted to share the roots of the olive tree without boasting).

Moreover, a blessing implies the growth of “birkai\ברכי (shoots, branches) that will be satisfied by being irrigated with much waters.

In a paradox that is common in the Semitic languages, positive and negative aspects can alternate according to the context: “barekh\ברך can also mean “to blaspheme”: “…Until he blasphemes the Lord by His name” (Talmud Sanhedrin 56a). This is a very profound and sensitive experience that blessing and cursing are closely connected, just as love and hatred, praising and scorning, lauding and mocking.

This is a very specific call to bless people and be a sign of blessings. In the case of Israel, it is a “congregational, community, international” service of God. This is the core meaning of its destiny because blessing intrudes that we take over the suffering and the joys of the nations. This call cannot be superseded or seized by mental or physical “raping actions of capture”. On the other hand, the monotheistic believers have a part in the same call to blessing, as shown by Bilaam’s prophecy.

Blessings comply with the order of the words as in the verse: “Bo’u\באו (come), nishtachaweh\נשתחוה (bow down til earth), venikhra’ah\ונכרעה (kneel down) venivrachah\ונברכה (bend the kneels to be blessed) lifney HaShem ossenu\לפני ה’ עשענו (in the face of God Who makes us)” (Psalm 95:6, said before reading the Psalms in the Jewish and some Christian traditions). This move is special because it induces “yeridah\ירידה (falling, getting to nil) and then “olah, aliyah\עולה-עליה” (raising) with the blessing. In the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai refused to kneel and bow down before Haman (Esther 3:2-5). This movement is reversed compared to the psalm.

The three Wise Men who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem acted according to the correct order of the verse, i.e. giving thanks to God for the new born child (Matthew 2:11). The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Churches will celebrate the Nativity of Jesus on January 6-7 in Bethlehem, the city of David.

There still can be a lot of confusion in our appraisals of times and delays. Still, as we can share this year on this site, we are normally called to apprehend the birth of the Child, Son of Man, in Bethlehem of Judea.  God allows the humans to get to some discernment, i.e. to make a distinction “beyn leveyn\בין לבין – between and between”. The root is linked to the same meaning as to bless”.  Indeed, “Bun\בון – pierce”, which implies that piercing goes right through what is not clear to make it real and substantial. Targum Job 32:8 has more: reflection induces teaching and education, thus wisdom and “yevaynun dina\ויבינו דינא = to exercise a correct and full explanation of the Law”. This is at the very core of the Jewish soul and Christian faith.

The Jews clutch to the Oral and Written Law, but the verbal aspect of the Covenant is essential. Subsequently, this allows the Christians to act with goodness and wit by the power and the energetics of the Holy Spirit. “Nithbonan\נתבונן underscores that understanding obliges reflecting upon things and persons carefully (Bava Kamma 27b).

Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel: “Blissful Blessings”
Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel: “Blissful Blessings”

Paul of Tarsus wrote: “… that, rooted and grounded in love (= God, God’s Attributes), may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones (inhabitants of Jerusalem) what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” (Ephesians 3:8). Indeed, “Understanding – binah\בינה” leads to comprehensiveness.

The root is also linked to “to build”, i.e. to make a project nice, beautiful, meaningful.

May we enter the new times of the international Anno Domini 2019 with these blessings and share the gifts of the Child of Bethlehem Who is resurrected in Jerusalem for the best of those whom we encounter. Best wishes to all!

Dear readers,

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About the Author

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev, maître de conférence en Droit canon et Histoire des Églises locales à l’Institut de théologie orthodoxe Saint Serge à Paris, recteur de la paroisse Notre Dame Souveraine, à Chaville en banlieue parisienne.

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