My Bar Mitzvah Blessing to my Son – Hamalach Hagoel Oti – the Blessings of a Favorite Camp Song
As my son, Zach, will speak about at his Bar Mitzvah tomorrow, this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, contains the timeless blessing that Jewish parents bestow upon their children. It is a ritual that we do in our family. We even have a version for our dog, Rufus.
Jacob’s blessing is, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Jacob states that that this is how parents will bless their children through the ages.
Despite the fact that we do this blessing weekly and it has generational meaning to our family, I have always struggled with this blessing. What exactly did Ephraim and Menashe do to merit having us bless our children by asking God to make them more like them? The rabbis offer up many explanations, including that they are meritorious because they were observant Jews despite being raised in idolatrous Egypt.
Another issue for me is that the blessing only invokes males. Our rabbis tried to rectify this by having a separate blessing for daughters that states, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” However, this strikes me as odd. The matriarchs clearly earned this right. Each of them was critical to the creation and passing on of early Judaism. Frankly, I don’t think Ephraim and Menashe are in their league.
To understand this blessing it is important to realize that it is actually the end of a longer blessing and it contains one of Ramah’s favorite Seudah Shlishit (Saturday night) songs, Hamalach Hagoel Oti.
This is what Jacob says:
The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day –
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm—
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.
Then, after a brief interruption, Jacob says that “by you (the boys) Israel shall invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manashe.”
In actuality, Jacob’s blessing to them is that they receive both earned and unearned favor. He is saying that his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked with God and did God’s will. They earned their spot in the pantheon of Jewish lore and they earned God’s blessing. Jacob then says that God shepherded him. To me, this means that God guided him to do the right things and provided direction but didn’t just giving him everything. Jacob then goes on to acknowledge that sometimes that wasn’t enough. In fact, he sometimes needed divine intervention through redemption by God’s angel even if he didn’t actually deserve it.
Then, Jacob ties this to the boys. He says that he, Isaac and Abraham should be recalled through them. I don’t think he wants this so he remains famous; he wants this because he wants them to act like his fathers did and walk with God. So, by saying Israel will bless their children using Ephraim and Menashe’s names, he is connecting future generations to their embodiment of Jewish tradition. For Jews can only recall the great deeds of our ancestors if the current generation takes up their call. The last line asks that they are so successful that their (the Jewish People’s) numbers increase in the land.
In studying and thinking about this as Zach prepared for his Bar Mitzvah and in thinking about what blessings I would like to give him, it occurs to me that I really want him to have both earned and unearned blessings.
In some ways Ephraim and Menashe’s blessing is unearned. They were blessed by just being born to Joseph, who was the second most powerful man in Egypt. We are asking for God’s grace. Most of us here, and certainly my family, have often received this type of blessing. We were born to loving families with privilege and means in a time and in a place that have been overwhelmingly good for us. We hope to continue to have good health and avoid setbacks that we have no control over. We want our children to continue to receive this type of blessing, whether they earn it or not.
At the same time, we want our children to earn their blessings like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah did (as did Abraham and Isaac). We invoke them because of what they did and what they accomplished and not because they were born to someone special. They weren’t perfect. I don’t like Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar and her insistence that Ishmael be sent away. I don’t like Rebecca’s deception of her husband to obtain Jacob’s birthright at the expense of Esau. I don’t like Rachel’s and Leah’s sibling rivalry. Yet, their role in establishing Judaism and the Jewish family is profound. There is a saying that God helps those who help themselves. Maybe if we work hard to be a blessing to others we can be blessed to have positive impact on our families, communities and the world and in turn live fulfilling and meaningful lives.
So, it seems to me we need both types of blessings – earned and unearned. And then we have to do our best to make the most of these blessings. I think that we should actually give both versions of the blessing to our sons and daughters. Why shouldn’t they receive the blessings of Ephraim, Menashe, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah?
My parents sign off on birthday and new year’s cards by saying, “May you continue to enjoy life’s finest blessings.” May that be true for all of us. Shabbat Shalom.