Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musing Before Shabbat
Vayekhi 5767- HaMalakh HaGoel

In more traditional Jewish communities, one will often hear an unfamiliar prayer taken from this week's parasha, Vayekhi. (Gen. 47:28-50:26.) They are found near the beginning of the parasha, as a dying Yaakov has Yosef bring his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe to him for his blessing. Once again, there is a reversal of order, with Yaakov crossing his arms so as to bless the younger child, Ephraim, with his right hand. And he places his left hand on Menashe's head.

The text then says that Yaakov proceeded to bless Yosef - another of those interesting scribal curiosities found in Torah - for the blessing was intended for Ephraim and Menashe, as Yaakov was basically accepting Yosef two assimilated Egyptian sons as part of the official lineage of the Jewish people. Perhaps Yaakov was thinking "feh on Yosef-he's already become too Egyptian to bother with blessing. But these two boys-now maybe there's a chance that G"d will enable them to know and embrace their lineage." Or maybe, being a dying and confused old man, he just messed up. The redactors and translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation) and the Vulgate (the Latin translation) editions simply change the text to "he blessed them" to eliminate the apparent confusion. Clearly, even the 70 translators who agreed of the translation for the Septuagint (thence its name) didn't get the point I make so often - that this seeming oddities are there purposefully. They couldn't get past that need to redact.

Yaakov's blessing begins with two references to G"d - as the G"d of his ancestors, and as the G"d who has been his shepherd. And then he utters these most interesting words, which have become an important part of Jewish ritual:

"HaMalakh HaGoel oti mikol ra, y'vareikh et han'arim vayikarei bahem Sh'mi v'sheim avotai Avraham v'Yitzkhak v'yidgu larov b'kerev ha'artez."

"The angel who redeemed me from all harm bless these lads in My name may they be recalled, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth." (JPS)

In traditional homes, this text is used every night at bedtime, right after the Sh'ma. It is also included at the beginning of the blessing of children on erev Shabbat. It is also customary, the night before a child's bris, for young children to come recite the Hamalakh HaGoel prayer while adults recite passages from Tehillim, and the child's father spend the night in study. (This tradition has origins in both the idea of prayer for the protection of the newborn from the dangers than can be involved in a circumcision, and from people gathering to protect families about to have a brit milah ceremony in times when local authorities either prohibited such activities, or targeted such Jewish ritual gatherings as opportunities to attack Jews.)

Well, if you've been able to keep the thread intact, you will understand my next question. Why an angel? Yaakov first calls upon G"d, twice, and then calls upon the "Angel who has redeemed me" to bless the boys. Is this the "ish" that later became the angel which whom Yaakov wrestled? Is this Yaakov telling us for certain, by using "hamalakh" as the third in a literary triad (G"d, G"d, the Angel) that he is now certain that it was indeed with some manifestation of G"d that he struggled? (And what does this do to all our "he wrestled with himself" theories and other theories about just who did Yaakov wrestle with?) Or is the Yaakov, the "if you do this and that for me, G"d, then you will be my G"d" skeptic, still not quite sure if monotheism is for him, and holding open that there may be others with G"d-like powers?

Interesting questions to ponder this Shabbat.

You know what else is interesting? That children (and adults) recite this prayer before going to bed. Notice that the prayer does not ask for a blessing upon the person praying. It is an unselfish prayer, that prays for all Jews, everywhere, and for the continuance of the Jewish people. None of this "as I lay me down to sleep I pray the L"rd my soul to keep" stuff. This is unselfish prayer at its best. The words don't trouble me, and I often wonder why it is so unknown in Reform and other liberal Jewish circles, what the philosophic objection was/is. I'm darned if I can find anything in these words that would be objectionable (if you can look past the gender issues. And girls do say this prayer!) I wouldn't even mind it if the Jewish people were truly teeming multitudes upon the earth. So what's the harm. Go ahead and try a little bedtime HaMalakh HaGoel.

Without knowing the answer to any of these questions I raised earlier about this text, I can embrace the tradition that has grown up around these words. It is a most beautiful tradition to recite this prayer. I wish it were more widely practice in non-traditional communities (and yes, a gender-neutral version has been created.) the words have been set to some truly stunning musical accompaniments. The one that is currently most popular in many circles was written by Abie Rotenberg of "Dveykus." Look for it online.

And as we have come to the end of sefer B'reishit: Khazak, Khazak, v'nitkhazeik.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester


Some other musings on the same parasha:

Vayechi 5766-Thresholds (Redux 5764 with Reflections
Vayechi 5761/5-Unethical Wills
Vayechi 5764-Thresholds
Vayechi 5763 - I Got it Good and That Ain't Bad (Redux 5760)
Vayechi 5759-Trading Places
Vayechi 5762-The Wrong Good

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