Table set, food hot, and guests seated. Someone prays over the food. An “Amen” is murmured. Dinner begins. Everyone forgets what has happened. Time is a blur of sloshing drinks, chomping teeth, and darting conversation. With a speed envied by any NASCAR driver, it ends.
Then there is Shabbat, the meal of reflection and presence. Time is not the hare but the tortoise, and this, I discovered, is a good thing. I am accustomed to shallowness and the “hurry up!” attitude of American meals. We love “fast-food,” and as such, we hate waiting for things, even for good things. We are more concerned with getting to point B, the food and what comes after, than we are with point A, the prayer or as the Jews would call it, the blessing. The Jews understand the blessing to be the most important part of any day. In many American, Christian homes, we mumble a “Come Lord Jesus…” with the spirit of a firecracker.
As I dipped my bread in hummus and listened to the man of the house speak about the meal and its organization, I did not then quite understand what I was hearing. We had already prayed and my fellow travelers were digging into the food. Why this further talk about songs and blessings? Before I finished my thought, he began to sing in rich Hebrew. The room fell silent. We all listened as the man sang Proverbs 31 to his wife. His children soon joined in and eventually, the wife herself began to sing. The family repeated every verse twice and when they finished, the wife beamed.
For me, that moment was like thinking clearly in a foreign language for the first time. I could not eat. I was too stunned. There is a reason Proverbs 31 concludes Solomon’s teaching. After explaining for thirty chapters what wise living looks like, Solomon concludes with a description of a good woman. This woman is “more precious than rubies” and this is because she embodies the crux of what Solomon has been trying to teach men: she “fears the Lord.” The chapter as a whole is a beautiful testament to noble, desirable character, but to be present and hear it sung by a husband to his wife was breathtaking. Not only was the husband praising his wife, he was blessing her and acknowledging God’s blessing upon her.
After this, the father turned to me and the rest of the guests. “Now it is customary for the children of the house to be blessed according to Genesis 48:20.” Then he turned to his eldest son and held the boy tightly while murmuring a blessing. His wife did the same with the daughter and for a few minutes, both parents moved from child to child blessing each one. After all of this was done, the family began to eat.
What transpired between the first prayer and last was probably thirty to forty-five minutes. It was impossible to say, “This was a routine” or “a ritual.” No, I knew what the parents did for their children and each other was an act of visible love. To see father embracing son, mother embracing daughter, moved my heart to a question: “what are the true roles of a father and mother in the home?”
The mother said, “I have long thought being a mother is like being a lighthouse. You are the light, the example for your child. And your hope is that when your children travel down the path of life, they will always glance back and see your light directing the way.”
The father said, “Being a father is very much like being a planter. You plant the seed and as those plants grow, your duty transitions from planter to cultivator. But not every fertilizer affects all plants the same way. Your duty is then to cultivate your plants to the best of your ability, not knowing how, when you are long gone, your hard work will pay off. That is not your primary focus, however. Your focus is your immediate duty to your children: to teach them how to be righteous and to serve and love God.”
When I heard these answers, I felt God’s presence. God was teaching me something. He was showing me the primacy of blessing. For a child to know he is blessed by his mother and father, to hear those beautiful words of love, follows from Christ’s love for us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son….” A blessing from one to another; love in action with the power to turn a life towards unimaginable good.
Table set, food hot, and guests seated. There is no sound. All await the night’s blessing. And then, after prayer and song, everyone digs in. There is laughter and the sound of clinking glasses. The air is tinged with traces of warm bread and olives. Glasses are filled and then filled again. Smiles fill the room with an overflowing joy. Ten, fifteen, thirty, an hour passes by as the conversation drifts along into the night.
When I traveled to Israel, I did not expect to find God at a dinner table. Yet that was where I first encountered Him. There He was, in the voice of the father singing to his wife, in the hands laid upon little ones. God met me at the table and reminded me once again of His unfailing, endless love in the form of a blessing.