The Blessing of an Angel or the Blessing of G-d?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff

The life of Our Father Jacob is full of מלאכים, angels. As he leaves Eretz Yisrael in Parashat VaYetze he witnesses the famous ladder with angels rising and descending. Later in the same parasha he tells his wives that an angel told him to return to his home (בר’ ל”א, י”א). And upon his return at the end of the parasha he again meets angels. And in preparation for his reunion with his brother Esav, Jacob wrestles with a man who we later presume to be an angel of G-d although we never refer to him as a מלאך. So it should come as no surprise to us that angels are on his mind again in this week’s parsha in his blessing to his son Joseph and his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe.

Still, Jacob’s reference to angels here is surprising. He begins by calling on G-d: האל’ אשר התהלכו אבותי לפניו, the G-d who my fathers walked before, הא-להים הרעה אותי מעודי עד היום הזה the G-d who has shepherded me my whole life until this day. And then he changes tone: המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע יברך את הנערים, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil shall bless the children.

What’s happened here? It appears that after calling on G-d, Jacob has shifted his prayer to request that his “private” angel (Ibn Ezra and others associate it with Michael) bless his grandchildren. Has Jacob forgotten who sent the angel? Has he forgotten who gives the angels power to act in the world; who was at the top of that ladder?

Our sages insist that he has not. The ספורנו writes, “Let the angel who redeemed me bless the children אם אינם ראויים לברכתך בלתי אמצעי, if they are not worthy to have your blessing without intermediary.” And the מדרש שכל טוב (Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo, Rome, 12th century) writes אבקש אני מלפני הקב”ה שיתן לו רשות ויברך את בני אפרים ומנשה, I ask that Holy One give him (meaning Michael) permission to bless my sons Ephraim and Menashe. In other words, Jacob prays to G-d  for the blessing of G-d’s angel. But even this is troubling, why doesn’t Jacob ask for the simple blessing of G-d unadulterated and unmoderated as he received it from his father?

I propose an answer that is precisely the opposite of these two interpretations. I propose that Jacob has come to be so familiar with G-d’s presence in the form of angels, he doesn’t see the angels at all any more, just the presence of G-d. When Jacob describes his dream to his wives in Vayetze he relates that the angel identifies themselves to him as, “I am the G-d of Beth El” in the same way that the angel at the burning bush (שמ’ ג’, ב) calls out to Moses, “I am the G-d of your father.” Jacob doesn’t see the angel as having any independent identity, he simply sees them as the presence of G-d.

This blessing of Jacob is one that we use frequently at brises and smachot bat. We say it as part of קריאת שמע של המטה, the bedtime Shema. And why? Well partially because it is so clearly a blessing of children, and these are times to pray for our children. But more than that, this ברכה is an attempt to be aware of G-d past the messengers that G-d sends, past the miracles (and what greater miracle can we witness than the birth and growth of our own children), past the intermediaries to G-d G-d’s self. In our world, G-d masks G-d’s self from our inner eye. We pray that we can witness G0d through G-d’s messengers, be aware of G-d’s presence in the deepest way as the true source of blessing without being distracted by intermediaries.

Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (SBM ’04) is a Rebbe and Director of Community Learning for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He lives with his wife and daughter in Riverdale, New York.

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