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May You Be You: Loving Our Children For Who They Are

Rabbi Sarah Marion
January 10, 2020
Parshat Vayechi
“May You Be You: Loving Our Children For Who They Are”

I just finished reading the most extraordinary book.

It is a novel that I think should be on the required reading list for anyone who is raising children, for anyone who is “grand-parenting” children, for anyone who works with children, and, really, for anyone who loves and cares about children.

The book is called, “This is How is Always Is” by Laurie Frankel. It is a story about a young child, Named Claude – Who knows, deep down inside – That he is really a girl. It is a story about Claude’s struggle to live as the person that she knows herself to be.

And it is a story about a family’s journey of raising, nurturing and supporting their transgender daughter and sister, in a world that is often intolerant of difference and unaccepting of anyone or anything that deviates from what is considered to be “normal.”

And, more broadly, it is a story that challenges all of us to re-think and re-consider what is “normal” in the first place, and why…why can’t a boy wear dresses…why is it anyone’s business what is in someone else’s pants…and, regardless of where we fall on the gender spectrum, aren’t we all manifestations, in some way or another, of a multitude of layers and identities and behaviors?

So many questions – all presented through the story of one small child, just trying to simply be a child. 

As parents, grandparents, relatives, teachers and friends – as soon as we learn of the mere existence of a human-life to be – we imagine and dream up all kinds of ideas and possibilities about who that child is and who that child will come to be.

It often begins with one, well-meaning question – the question that all expectant parents are asked – over and over again – the question that enables our structure-driven minds to organize and categorize and classify human life. The question that goes something like, are you having a boy, or a girl?

These days, with the help of the miracle of modern technology, parents can learn the gender of their unborn child as early as 11 weeks, with a simple blood test.

And so for those who choose to learn this information – whether it’s at 11 weeks, or later, at 20 weeks – the deluge of pink or blue begins. Gifts of pink onesies with ribbons and bows and flowers and bunnies…or blue onesies with cars and trucks and airplanes and spaceships.

Seth and I have always considered ourselves to be feminist, equalitarian, forward- thinking parents and individuals. We declined to learn the sexes of our children before they were born, and we dressed them in gender-neutral clothing for the first few weeks of their lives.

But, soon enough, they started falling down their respective gender rabbit holes. These days, as I watch them grow and play and make decisions for themselves, I often wonder: is my little 20 month-old Levi playing with cars and building towers and crashing them down because he intrinsically wants to, or, because that is what he has learned he is supposed to do? And should we cut his hair, or not, and does it really matter?

And then there is 4 year-old Michaela – completely obsessed with princesses and ponies and unicorns, adorning herself with dresses and jewelry and purses, and, when I am not looking – her mommy’s makeup. and I wonder if we’ve been negligent parents, letting her watch those Disney princess movies – The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty – stories in which young women literally lose their voices and become incapacitated until a man comes along to rescue them.

Every day, I cringe at some of the messages that my kids’ little minds are absorbing from the world around them, and, every day, I pray they will ultimately discover the courage to make decisions not based on what they think others expect of them; but, rather, what they want and expect of themselves.

And – I think that maybe our tradition can help.

Every Friday night, Since as long as we can remember – Jewish families have gathered around their Shabbat dinner tables, huddled together around the glow of the Sabbath lights – After lighting the candles and blessing the wine, It has been a tradition to bless our sons with the words,

Yisemcha elohim k’Ephriam v’Menasseh – May you live to be like Ephraim and Menasseh.

And, eventually, a blessing for daughters was added: Yisamech elohim k’sarah, rivka, Rachel v’leah May you live to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

But let’s go back to the son’s blessing, for a moment – May you live to be like Ephriam and Menasseh. Of all the sons and patriarchs in our Torah – who are Ephraim and Menasseh – and why would we want our sons to be like them?

We meet Ephraim and Menasseh for the first time in this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Vayechi. Here, Jacob is nearing the end of his life, and so he summons his 12 sons, as well as his 2 grandsons – Ephraim and Menasseh – for one, final blessing.

When his sons and grandsons arrive at his deathbed, Jacob’s breathing is shallow, and the color has drained from his face. The children come near and kneel beside him, placing their hands lightly on the thin sheet that is covering his frail body.

Jacob begins with his 2 grandchildren – Ephraim and Menasseh. And although Ephraim is the younger of the two, Jacob blesses Ephraim first – once again, falling into an age-old family trope of allowing the younger brother to be blessed before the older. Jacob then places his hands upon both Ephriam and Manasseh and proclaims, “By you shall the people of Israel give their blessing, saying, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.”

And so, quite simply – we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menasseh – because Jacob told us so.

But, of course – this explanation wasn’t sufficient for the rabbis – who still wanted to know why – why do we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menasseh, as opposed to Abraham or Isaac or Jacob?

Some say that it is because Ephraim and Menasseh are the first brothers in the bible who do not fight. Even when one is favored over the other, they still remain peaceful, loving brothers. Others say that despite their Egyptian upbringing, they still held fast to their Jewish faith, a defiant act of courage and bravery. Indeed, these are traits that our sons would do well to embody.

And then there are the wonderful women in our tradition – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – the women that we invoke when we bless our daughters.

But regardless of where our children fall on spectrum of gender expression,  all of these biblical figures, I think, are worthy role models: Ephraim and Menasseh for their legacy of peace and faith; Sarah for her strength and perseverance; Rebecca for her external and internal beauty; Rachel and Leah for their maternal devotion to their children and for their ability to nurture their young.    

And so perhaps the best blessing of all that we can give to our children – is the blessing that it’s ok to be both. In fact, it’s more than ok. You don’t have to choose one or the other, and nor should you.

You can be like Ephraim and you can be like Sarah.

You can be like Menasseh and you can be like Rebecca.

You can be beautiful and you can be brave.

You can be faithful and you can be nurturing;

You can be strong and you can be sensitive;

You can like cars and you can like princesses.

And whatever, or however, you choose to be, we will love you no matter what.

There is so much destructive male vs. female messaging in this world that it is impossible to combat it all, but, every now and again, I like to insert my own, subversive acts of resistance. Whenever I read a princess story to Michaela, for example, and I come across the line, “and she was beautiful” – I am always sure to add, “and strong and smart and brave.” And, I try, as much as possible – to give books as baby gifts – and, even better – feminist baby books – like “A is for Activist” and, it’s sequel, “C is for Consent” and many other favorites. In fact, I have a whole list of feminist baby books – and I’d be happy to share it.

Ultimately, our most important job as parents, grandparents, teachers and friends – is to help create a world and an environment in which our children feel loved for who they are; an environment in which they feel valued regardless of their gender expression, regardless of what is or isn’t in their pants. Our job is to love them simply because they are our children, simply because they are alive.[1]

And so I want to propose an adjustment to the age-old Jewish blessings that we say to our children on Friday nights. I want to propose, that when we bless our children and our grandchildren–from our very youngest to our young adults – I propose that we take them all of them, together, into one embrace, and say, to them all at once:   

May you be like Ephraim and Menasseh, and may you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. May you be beautiful and may you be brave. May you be faithful and may you be nurturing. May you be smart and may you be kind.

But, most important of all – may you be you.

May grow into the best version of Michaela,

May you grow into the best version of Levi.

May you be who you are – and may you be blessed in all that you are.[2]

Kein y’hi ratzon – may this be God’s will.

[1] With thanks to Rabbi Laura Geller for this teaching in her essay on Parshat Vayechi in the Women’s Torah Commentary

[2] From Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival