This week's parashah abounds with familiar verses. Visit a Jewish home on Friday night and there is a good chance that the parents are blessing their sons using the language of Yaakov's blessing for his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. Eavesdrop on the bedtime Shema or attend a Shalom Zachar celebration or Kol HaNe'arim aliyah on Simchat Torah, and you will hear the strains of Yaakov's blessing bestowed on Yosef, "May the Angel who has delivered me from all harm bless these youths"/ " Hamal'ach hago'el oti mi'kol rah ." It is the short, seemingly simple berachah given to Yosef in private before he is also blessed along with his siblings that I find so striking. Yaakov directs the berachah to Yosef, but includes Ephraim and Menashe in the blessing as well. He asks that God protect them and bless them with abundance. Yaakov chooses his words carefully. He exclaims that Yosef and his sons should proliferate and fill the midst of the land. The verb that the Torah uses is unusual, however. V'yidgu , which can be translated as "and they shall be abundant or multiply," relates etymologically to " dag ," or fish. So, literally, the blessing reads, "May you be like fish in the midst of the land." Rashi comments that the blessing Yaakov bestows on Yosef and his descendants provides eternal immunity from an evil eye. Just as fish swim anonymously under water, far from the penetrating gaze of jealous or ill-intentioned eyes, Yosef and his offspring will be blessed with modesty and humility that will not inspire others to look askance at and provoke evil for them. An alternate interpretation addresses the use of a fish-related verb in the berachah. Yaakov appears to be mixing his metaphors. He blesses Yosef by saying that he should grow and increase like fish in the midst of the land. Clearly Yaakov knew that fish do not live on the land. Is he praying that his son always feel like a fish out of water, the outsider forever? What exactly does Yaakov intend by this blessing? Perhaps Yaakov knew that from the point of his death onward his descendants would get caught in a revolving cycle of exile and redemption. They would be like fish out of water for generations, always yearning for the land in which they were meant to thrive. Despite the alienation and danger that exile presented to Bnei Yisrael, Yaakov prays that his children always be like fish, a prolific species that relies on water for survival. Throughout Biblical and Rabbinic literature water symbolizes Torah and Judaism. With his berachah, Yaakov reminds his descendants that even when they are out of their element, they always must rely on water-the Torah-for survival. And even when in the midst of the land, holding true to their beliefs and commitment to Torah would ensure that they would be blessed with abundance and glory.
Next month we enter into the season of celebrations at Akiba. The first grade will receive their first siddurim (prayer books) and the second grade will rejoice in receiving their first chumashim (bibles). As recipients of these first books, our students begin to take ownership over their own learning and become equipped with the life-sustaining, spirit-enriching books of Torah that will guide them, even in the midst of the land.