A Litany of "Bless You's" - Dvar Torah for Vayechi

The following remarks were delivered at Rodef Shalom's (Denver) Hazak Shabbat Service on December 30, 2023.

A reader writes to Alison Green, founder of the “Ask a Manager” blog:

What are your thoughts about saying “bless you” at work? I work in a high-walled cubicle (we can’t see each other, but the walls are very thin) and say “bless you” to my coworker when she sneezes. She is sick quite often (at least once a month) or has allergies or something, so I’ve said “bless you” enough to notice that she never responds. It’s making me wonder if saying “bless you” isn’t appropriate to say in the workplace because of its religious origins. What else should I say? Or should I just not say anything? (Seems rude to me.)

When someone sneezes in the United States, more often than not someone else says “Bless you!” The phrase first originated as “God bless you.” [This may happen in other English-speaking countries too, but perhaps not as often as in the US!]Here are just a few of the multiple possibilities for its origins and no one is exactly sure of the right answer:

  • ORIGIN 1. People used to believe a sneeze caused someone to expel their soul out of their body, and so “God bless you” or “Bless you” was used as a protection against the devil snatching your soul.
  • ORIGIN 2. During the Middle Ages in 14th century Europe, the bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) was widespread. Because it was usually a fatal disease, and people were often very religious, the phrase “God Bless You” offered a benediction to someone who might no longer be living soon.

Nowadays, it is generally just meant to be the polite thing to say, which is probably the main reason why this practice persists. 

I find this all to be very relevant to our Torah reading today, as Genesis / Bereshit, of all the Biblical installments, is truly a Book of Blessings. Hence it is fitting that the closing music of Sefer Bereshit involves an arsenal of blessings, to send us off into the next set of adventures.Jacob, on his deathbed, places his hands on his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. And he says: The angel who rescued me from all harm -- bless these boys! May they carry on my name and thus name of my ancestors, Abraham and Isaac. May they spread far and wide upon the earth.

Rabbi Rachel Berenblat, aka The Velveteen Rabbi, comments that Jacob seems to be referring to a specific angel here. The only angel we know of, in his story, is the angel with whom he wrestled on the eve of reuniting with his brother. He wrestled with that angel until dawn and then said "I will not let you go until you bless me!" In return, the angel gave him a new name, Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God. That's who he's asking to bless his descendants: not a "guardian angel" as pop culture defines the term, but the angel who redeemed him with an all-night struggle.

As the children of Israel, we inherited his wrestle. We're Godwrestlers. We give ourselves to the holy work of wrestling with God, wrestling with Torah, wrestling with the world's imperfections. And that wrestling is itself a kind of redemption. It lifts us out of a state of passive receptivity. When we wrestle with God and with Torah and with injustice in the world, we are transformed.

Jacob's request for blessing has become part of the traditional liturgy for the Bedtime Shema.1 There's also another piece of that liturgy which mentions angels: a song where we ask four angels, Wonder, Strength, Light, and Comfort -- or using their Hebrew names, Michael (Who is Like God), Gavriel (God's Strength), Uriel (God's Light), and Raphael (God's Healing) -- to bless us as we sleep. I sing this to our son every night at bedtime.

Some of you may be thinking: wait a second. It's one thing to say that Jacob encountered an angel. But us? In modern life today? Asking angels for blessings? Bear in mind that "angels," in our tradition, doesn't mean winged cherubs with haloes. In Jewish tradition, an angel is a messenger from God, doing God's work in the world. The people we meet may serve as angels for us. 

Maybe when we offer praise and encouragement to each other, we embody those angels. In the Angel Song I referenced earlier, qualities like Wonder and Strength are called angels. Maybe when we cultivate our own wonder, we connect up with the Angel of Wonder.

Returning to Jacob's prayer, "May the angel who rescued me from all harm bless these boys" traditional Jews recite it every night, and I think we can learn something from its placement in the bedtime ritual. Here's how that ritual goes:

1) The first step in getting ready for sleep is forgiveness. The liturgy for Kriat Shema al-ha-Mitah begins "I forgive anyone who has hurt me, through deeds or actions, in this lifetime or any other." This way, if I die in my sleep tonight, I won't be carrying the karmic baggage of grudges. (Forgiveness is another important sub-theme in this Parsha, as featured in the closing exchange between Joseph and his brothers in the wake of their father’s death and burial)

2) Then there's a prayer blessing God Who brings us to sleep. We ask God to let our sleep be peaceful until we wake in the morning to gratitude again. We ask God to shelter us beneath a shelter of peace all night. Once we've cultivated forgiveness, we're ready to be peaceful.

3) Then we recite the words from this Torah portion, asking the angel who blessed Jacob to bless us.

4) The traditional liturgy ends with Adon Olam, which closes with the verse "Into Your hands I place my spirit, when I sleep and when I rise; and with my spirit, my body too; God is mine, I will not fear!"

When we've offered forgiveness, and acknowledged the Oneness at the heart of all things, then we become ready to ask our very struggles to bless us as we surrender to the night. And when we can experience our struggles as angels bearing blessings, then we can know ourselves to be in God's loving hands when we sleep and when we wake.

In reflection, blessing might be understood in this context as a sacred progression, neither exclusive to the higher-ups in organized religion, nor to be recited casually.  Rather, they are intentional, thoughtful statements meant to separate the sacred from the ordinary.  Hence they are a fitting way to conclude a Book that is an intentional journey away from tohu v’vohu - a primordial word that was formless and void as noted at the very beginning.

Lest you were wondering, here was Alison Green’s response to the correspondent who asked  if it is wrong to say “bless you” when a coworker sneezes:

You have to be really picky to be offended by someone saying “bless you” after a sneeze. It’s a polite social convention — not you literally bestowing them with a blessing from God. For most people, it’s a reflex and one based on good intent. However, it’s possible that her frequent sneezing is embarrassing or annoying for her, and she’s trying to make it as unobtrusive as possible, for both her and others … which could lead to her silence after your “bless you” and could also mean she’d be appreciative if you stopped acknowledging it each time too.

Personally, if I was wondering about it, I’d just ask her: “Hey, is it annoying that I’m always saying ‘bless you’ when you sneeze?” Problem solved.