As Yaakov Avinu lies on his deathbed he calls Joseph and orders him to bring his sons so that he can bless them before he dies. Yaakov blesses his grandchildren with one of the most famous blessings in the entire Torah [Bereishit 48:16]: “May the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the lads, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Avraham and Yitzchak, and may they multiply abundantly like fish in the midst of the land”. My children, along with thousands of other Jewish children, repeat these words on their beds every night before they go to sleep. With these words children all over the world are blessed on the holiday of Simchat Torah. This year we’re going to try to understand what this blessing actually means.
It is odd that Yaakov asks not Hashem to bless his grandchildren, but, rather, an angel. This is not only odd, it is highly problematic. In fact, some might say that it borders on idolatry. In his Commentary to Mishna in Tractate Sanhedrin [10:1], the Rambam lists as his fifth principle the prohibition to pray to an angel, even as an intermediary. According to this principle, Yaakov cannot turn to an angel to ask him to petition Hashem. Hashem must be petitioned directly. What is Yaakov thinking? And who is this angel, anyway?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, points to the only angel that Yaakov ever met. After Yaakov genetically modifies Lavan’s flock, ensuring that only the best sheep become spotted, he decides to “take the money and run”. He wants to take his family and his flock and to finally return home to his mother and father. When he informs his wives of his plan, he tells them of a dream he had [Bereishit 31:11-13]: “An angel of Hashem said to me in a dream, ‘Yaakov!’ And I said, ‘Here I am’… I am the God of Bet El, where you anointed a monument, where you made to Me a vow. Now, arise, go forth from this land and return to the land of your birth’”. Let’s quickly review the vow that Yaakov made at Bet El [Bereishit 28:20-22]: “Yaakov uttered a vow, saying, ‘If Hashem will be with me, and He will guard me on this way upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; And I return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be my God; Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of Hashem, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.”
Yaakov’s vow is a classic example of an “if-then construct” regularly used by computer programmers. An if-then construct contains a condition followed by an action that is performed if and only if the condition is satisfied. Looking back at Yaakov’s vow, it is unclear where the “if” ends and where the “then” begins. Specifically, when Yaakov says “And [if] I return in peace to my father’s house”, is this phrase a condition or an action? Must Hashem first return him to his father’s house, or must Yaakov return to his father on his own volition? The words of the angel answer this question. The angel tells Yaakov to “return to the land of your birth”. This must mean that Yaakov’s returning “in peace to my father’s house” is a response and not a precondition. Go home like you promised! My friend R’ Nimrod Bieber offers a proof for this thesis by noting the angel’s opening words to Yaakov along with Yaakov’s response. The angel calls out “Yaakov” and Yaakov answers “Hineni (I am here)”. Logically, Yaakov cannot be both “here” and “there” simultaneously. By acknowledging that he is “here” in exile with Lavan in Haran, he is also acknowledging that he is not “there”, in the Land of Canaan with his parents. “So what, then, are you waiting for?” asks the angel. “Go forth from this land and return to the land of your birth!”
Let’s summarize what we have uncovered so far. The angel that Yaakov is asking to “bless the lads” is the same angel that almost thirty years earlier told Yaakov to leave his not-so-cushy life with Lavan and to return home. But we still don’t know why Yaakov funnels this blessing through an angel and not through Hashem.
In order to locate Hashem in Yaakov’s blessing, all we have to do is to look backwards by just one verse [Bereishit 48:15]: “Hashem, before Whom my fathers, Avraham and Yitzchak, walked, Hashem Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day.” This seems not a blessing, per se, but, rather, a prelude to the blessing given in the next verse. The problem is that the prelude does not seamlessly flow into the next verse, which suddenly brings an angel to the fore. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [118a] compares the two verses of Yaakov’s blessing and comes to a startling conclusion: “The earning of a man’s daily bread is beset with more difficulty than the redemption; for concerning the redemption it is written ‘The angel who redeemed me from all harm,’ while concerning a man’s daily bread it is written ‘Hashem Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day’ whence we see that for redemption it only required an angel, while for the sustenance of a man it required Hashem’s providence.” Not only does the Talmud compare Hashem an angel, it also compares the words “ro’eh” – to sustain – and “go’el” – to redeem.
What I find troublesome about the Talmud’s innovation is that the words “sustain” and “redeem” are seemingly unrelated. My Babylon translator translates “sustenance” as “nourishment, food; livelihood”, while “redemption” is translated as “act of delivering from sin or evil; act of fulfilling”. What is the connection between the two that allows them not only to be compared but also to be quantifiably ordered? I would like to propose a slightly radical translation of the word “sustenance” that addresses all of the questions that we have raised. The word “ro’eh”, translated above as “sustain”, actually has agrarian roots and means “to shepherd”. A shepherd tends to his flocks by leading them to pasture and by protecting them from predators. Hashem is the ultimate shepherd, as King David writes [Tehillim 23:1] “Hashem is my shepherd; I shall not want.” With this translation, the connection of sustenance with redemption comes into focus. Redemption cannot take place at the drop of a hat. Looking back at the Egyptian exodus, when Moshe first approaches Pharaoh and says “Let my people go”, Pharaoh laughs in his face. It takes him a year to release Am Yisrael. Ten plagues are required to convince Pharaoh and Am Yisrael that the time for their redemption had come. Pharaoh must internalize that his control isn’t absolute and Am Yisrael must internalize that they were redeemable. In order for the redemption to transpire, preparations have to be made and conditions have to be met, and all this time Am Yisrael have to survive the rigours of Egyptian slavery and anti-Semitism. I suggest that guiding the tectonic processes that enable redemption while ensuring that Am Yisrael remain protected during this period, a period that can last millennia, is called “sustenance”.
With this interpretation in hand, let’s work backwards through all the questions we have raised so far. When the Talmud contrasts sustenance and redemption, it is telling us that it is far more difficult to bring Am Yisrael to the point of redemption than to actually redeem them. And so when Yaakov blesses his grandchildren, it is Hashem who will “sustain” them, while the act of redemption can be performed by an angelic surrogate. Now this angel is not any angel, it is the angel who had previously redeemed Yaakov, or, better, had told Yaakov that Hashem had kept His part of the bargain by protecting Yaakov from Lavan. Now the time had come for Yaakov to redeem himself by getting out of Haran and back to the Land of Israel. This is the blessing that we are bestowing upon our children: May it be Hashem’s will that He do all that is necessary in order to facilitate your redemption. May He pull the right strings, may He influence the right people, and may He set the right forces into motion. But after He does all this, it is you who are going to have to see things to their completion. You are going to have to grab the bull by the horns.
Notice that Yaakov’s blessing ends with the words “may they multiply abundantly like fish in the midst of the land”. Is Yaakov referring to any land in particular? The answer lies in Hashem’s promise at Bet El [Bereishit 28:13] “The land upon which you are lying I will give to you and to your children”. Yaakov was lying in Bet El, smack in the middle of the Land of Israel. This is what we are promising our children. It’s there for the taking.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.
 Notice that we have placed the word “if” in brackets, as Yaakov does not explicitly use this word here.