Posted on December 19, 2010 by Tamara Frankel
Last week I was reading through the parsha and was struck by very familiar words, namely those of Jacob when he blesses Joseph’s sons, Efraim and Menashe. Sensing his death is near, Jacob beckons his grandsons to receive his blessing.
יד וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל-רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם, וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר, וְאֶת-שְׂמֹאלוֹ, עַל-רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה: שִׂכֵּל, אֶת-יָדָיו, כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה, הַבְּכוֹר.
14 And Israel [Jacob] stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Menashe’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Menashe was the first-born.
טו וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיֹּאמַר: הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו, אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק–הָאֱלֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי, מֵעוֹדִי עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
15 And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long unto this day,
טז הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.
16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’
Before we attempt to uncover the meaning(s) of this blessing, there is something else that intrigues me. There is a Jewish practice to say the Sh’ma prayer and make other personal requests right before bed. [For clarity’s sake, let’s call all of that ‘the Recitation of Sh’ma before Bed’.] Often, this last verse (16) is included in these prayers before one goes to sleep.
So I wonder: how is “המלאך הגואל אותי” connected to the Recitation of Sh’ma before Bed?
My mother always said that her grandfather, Samuel Lieberman z”l, taught her this prayer and he would say (or sing?) it to her before she went to sleep. My great-grandfather wasn’t a particularly devout religious man, but somehow Jacob’s words seemed to resonate with him.
I’m not sure that we can uncover what my Zaidy Lieberman thought or felt. But let’s try to unpack the meaning of the blessing in light of this context, i.e. saying this prayer before bed, and see if that yields greater understanding of Jacob’s words.
Jacob has spent much of his life in search of God, struggling with God, in search of family and struggling with family. (Hence his second name, Yisrael, because he struggled with man and with God.) Within his lifetime, he experiences many extremes: fear and reassurance, prosperity and hardship, joy and grief. Although Jacob does experiences love — marrying his beloved Rachel and building a deep connection with Joseph — more often than not, Jacob calls out to God for aid, comfort and guidance. Jacob asks God to help him bolster his commitment to the legacy of his forefathers. Abraham and Isaac demonstrated their mission to spread ethical monotheism, to bring justice and righteousness to the world, to make a name for God, to sustain a strong connection to the Land of Israel. And now, faced with difficult personal obstacles, Jacob needs God’s support in achieving the mission of his father, Isaac and his grandfather, Abraham.
Hence Jacob invokes his father and grandfather’s names in the blessing, wishing that Joseph’s sons will be able to be the torchbearers of their forefathers’ legacy, that they “be called in my [Jacob] name and the name of my fathers [Abraham and Isaac]”.
But what about the second half of the blessing?
Why does Jacob bless Efraim and Menashe that they will multiply greatly on earth?
Maybe the Torah wants to hint to us, just as Jacob wants to encourage his grandsons, that it is not enough to embody the positive traits of our ancestors in ourselves. We must spread those values and attitudes to the next generations and beyond our immediate family. In some ways, I think Jacob touches on the great paradox (and beauty) of Judaism — that in some ways Judaism is a series of ‘family traditions’ and need not go beyond the walls of our home. And yet, we see the entire earth as “within our midst” and are obligated to transmit and translate these family traditions into positive change in the world.
Rachel Oppenheimer writes (in Hebrew, http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/tfila/tfila7.htm) that the Recitation of Sh’ma before Bed is an unusual prayer because it is very personal. Much of the language of these prayers is singular, whereas most of the Siddur consists of requests and praise in the plural. What accounts for this shift to the singular in the Recitation of Sh’ma before Bed?
Well, think about how we feel when we finally lay down in bed at the end of the day. [I don’t know about you, but I usually let out a big sigh!] We try to relax and get some rest so we can tackle the world again tomorrow. Worries about what we need to do, what we didn’t get to finish, difficult relationships and upsetting conversations begin to flood our minds. How can we go to bed now?!
In many ways, the Recitation of Sh’ma before Bed recognizes this human behaviour (described above) and attempts to give us a tool to address it. First, we must own our worries and challenges. Then, we must recognize that in this moment, as we lay in bed at the end of a long day, we cannot resolve them; and to some degree, we do not necessarily possess all the tools and strategies to deal with these challenges. Therefore, the Recitation of Sh’ma before Bed calls on us to: a) admit our distress, b) recognize our limitations in liberating ourselves of them, and c) turn to God for help and guidance in these matters – whatever they might be.
I will never know why my Zaidy Lieberman was especially drawn to the words of Jacob in our parsha. However, I suspect it had something to do with what the blessing evokes in us. Jacob’s blessing calls on us to take a moment (before bed) and take inventory of our lives, and particularly the struggles we face, and own them. Not just that, we’re called upon to own our helplessness in finding adequate resolutions.
So, in the spirit of Jacob’s blessing to his Efraim and Menashe, I invite all of us to take a moment before bed, as those unnerving distressing thoughts flood our minds, to try the following*:
Step 1. Admit my worries.
Step 2. Recognize my limits in resolving them.
Step 3. Turn to God for guidance.
May our slumber and our lives both be peaceful, as a result.
* It’s strongly encouraged (as I learned from my teacher at Pardes, Tovah-Leah) to do this exercise ALOUD, in a SAFE and PRIVATE SPACE.