The Father’s blessing: Barukh shep’tarani mei’onsho shel zeh
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 3rd September 2005

May I first add my welcome to Rabbi Saul Zneimer, Executive Director of the United Synagogue, and uncle of Ariel, whom we are delighted to have with us this morning.

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My dear Ariel,

Congratulations on attaining your Bar Mitzvah, and on the superb way you rendered your sidrah, maftir and haftarah this morning. They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and knowing the family from which you come, I wasn’t in the least surprised at your performance today. The tree I refer to is a most mature one, for your maternal grandparents, Sonia and Alec have been most respected members of our shul, coming up for 40 years, and grandpa led our Children’s services for 17 years, and also served on the Board of Management. They are also both active members of Belmont shul, and are on the Education Committee.

Your paternal grandpa, Peter, has also served on the Board of the Reading community, and is a liveryman of the City of London, and your late Grandma Peggy, who is much missed today, was a distinguished draughtswoman, and also a music critic for the Jewish Chronicle for many years. It is clear where your musical talents come from, Ariel.

Coming down the generations to your dear parents, Susan and Arthur. They are also immersed in kehillah life, and take their Judaism very seriously, and they are showing you and Nechama the finest example of Jewish living. Your parents met doing an act of chesed, as volunteers manning the phone for an organisation that offered help and advice to Jewish youth with problems. And mum is currently helping out with our Habimah magazine. Dad continues to offer his services to young people, and regularly leads the Children’s Services.

And now to you, Ariel. We referred to your musical ability, which resulted in your having won a music scholarship in yr 7. You have also been awarded ‘colours’ for music at your Q.E. Boys School, which enables you to wear a distinctive tie. You are a regular at our Stanmore Youth Service; you’ve been in all the Harry Potter plays, and have been selected for a lead part in the forthcoming production. You have a good mathematical mind; you are a good chess player, and are in your House debating Team. All in all, a real high flyer, Jewishly and secularly.

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Ariel, you are already a budding biblical Hebrew and Jewish Studies scholar, who will PG have sat for GCSEs in both subjects before your 14th birthday. Those of us who attended shul last Monday morning, when you reached your Barmitzvah age, and were called up and leyened for the first time in shul, were treated afterwards to a dvar torah of great depth. It is appropriate therefore that I give you a message that is slightly deeper than I would normally deliver to a Barmitzvah boy. I would be very surprised, therefore, if what I am going to say made the front page of the JC.

My starting point is the formula to be recited publicly by the father of a Barmitzvah immediately after his son has been called up to the Torah on attaining his Barmitzvah, and is found in our Singers Prayer Book on page 371. It reads, Barukh shep’tarani mei’onsho shel zeh, and your father read it aloud on Monday last.

The Singers translation renders it, ‘Blessed is He who has freed me from the responsibility for this child.’ Now, you will know full well, Ariel, that this is actually a paraphrase. First of all, there is no word for ‘child’ in the Hebrew formula, and secondly, the translation of onsho by ‘responsibility’ is also inaccurate, but, for the time being, we’ll retain that rendering.

The Hebrew actually has a very unflattering reference to the barmitzvah boy. Translated literally, Barukh shep’tarani, means ‘Blessed be He who has freed me - mei’onsho - from the responsibility - shel zeh - of this.’

But what sort of a way is this to refer to one’s son - as a zeh, a “this”? The Singers’ free translation tones this down by adding the words ‘from the responsibility of my son!’ But, as we have observed, the blessing makes no mention of ‘my son.’ So how do we explain that rather derogatory reference to the Barmitzvah boy as a zeh, a ‘this’?

Well, I would like to offer you an explanation, but first we have to quote a few examples to show that the demonstrative pronoun zeh, ‘this,’ is indeed used in the Torah in a derogatory sense.

In the sidrah Toldot, we have two such examples. The first occurs when Rivka, totally depressed and frightened by the mighty struggling and thrashing around that she experiences within her womb, as her twin foetuses wrestled with each other, exclaims, Im kein, lamah zeh anochi. This is a difficult phrase to translate. The Hertz Chumash renders it freely as, ‘if so, why do I live.’ I would prefer to render the phrase, Im kein, ‘If it is so’ – if they truly are at war with each other – then lamah zeh anokhi, What sort of a zeh – a worthless person - am I, to have deserved such offspring?’

The second example of zeh in this derogatory sense, occurs when Esau returns exhausted from the field, and asks Jacob to give him the mess of pottage. Esau gladly exchanges his birthright for the food, saying to Jacob, ‘I am about to die – v’lamah zeh liy bekhorah – so what do I need this birthrite,’ this worthless privilege.

A third example occurs in the sidrah Va-yeitzei, when Jacob tries to defend his action in fleeing away from his father-in-law Laban’s home, with his wives and his children. He lists for Laban all the hardships he endured during the 20 years he served in his household, and which he could no longer endure. He tells Laban, Zeh liy esrim shanah b’veitekha – literally, ‘this is what I suffered (zeh liy) in your house for twenty years.’ So again, we encounter zeh in the derogatory sense.

A fourth example is when the people panicked as Moses, who had been away on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah for 40 days and nights, did not return at the expected time. Their anger at Moses was at boiling point, to the extent that they were prepared to make a Golden Calf - as much an attempt to punish Moses as to reject God. They cried out to Aaron, Make us a God...kiy zeh Mosheh ha’ish, lo yada’nu meh hayah lanu...’ because this fellow Moses, we don’t know what has become of him.’ We can here all their fear and frustration being poured into that phrase zeh Mosheh ha’ish, ‘this fellow Moses,’ ‘This no-good!’

It is very significant that Moses picks up on that zeh insult, and, a little later, he utilises the opportunity to hurl it back in the direction from which it came. When God threatens to destroy the people, Moses pleads for mercy for his people, though he does not minimise the terrible thing they had done. He says Anna chata ha’am ha-zeh chata’ah gedolah, ‘Indeed, this worthless people has sinned grievously.’

A sixth, and most telling example of that derogatory sense of zeh occurs when the parents of a delinquent bring their child before the courts: There they declaim the formula, Bneinu zeh sorer umoreh – ‘Our son is a zeh - a worthless fellow - stubborn and rebellious.’

And the last example I will offer is from the book of Esther, when Esther discloses to the king the cause of her fear and unhappiness in the face of the enemy attempting to destroy her and her people. King Ahashverosh rises up in fury and demands to know Miy hu zeh – ‘Who is that scoundrel? - v’eizehu - ‘and what sort of rogue is he? - asher m’lao libbo la’asot ken - whose heart would prompt him to do perpetrate such an act?’

And now, my dear Ariel, we may return to our original problem, namely the strange formula uttered by the father of the Barmitzvah, Barukh shep’tarani mei-onsho shel zeh. Singers has again toned down the meaning of the word, onsho. The noun onesh does not mean ‘responsibility.’ It means ‘punishment’ or ‘suffering.’ And, with all this in mind, we can now understand exactly what the father is saying, and why he refers to his son as a zeh.

The formula may now be seen as a thanksgiving by the proud and grateful father, having witnessed his son kissing the Torah, blessing and reading from it, and signifying thereby his acceptance of all the mitzvoth and his enthusiastic entry into the ranks of the adult Jewish community, the father offers the public thanksgiving, Barukh shep’tarani, ‘Blessed be God who has relieved me’ – mei’onsho, ‘of the punishment’ – shel zeh, of a child that is a zeh, a worthless and contemptible character. My child, he implies, is the very opposite of a zeh. He is a fine, loyal, proud, learned and deeply committed young man.

Your father, Ariel, rightly uttered that formula with conviction and joy, for he and your dear mum, Susan, and your dear grandparents, know that you are possessed of all those fine qualities, and are destined to be a leader of our community and a credit to it. May you live up to all your family’s and your community’s expectations and to the great spiritual and intellectual potential that you possess, and may you be granted good health, happiness and success throughout your life.