If you have celebrated a bar or bat mitzva recently, you may have greeted your son or daughter with a Hebrew sentence that translates as, “Blessed is the One who has exempted me from punishment on account of this one.”
It is widely taken to refer to a father’s obligation to educate his children and his subsequent responsibility for their negative behavior until they turn 13, when they become responsible for their own acts — thus exempting the father from further punishment. Nowadays, the obligation is usually generalized to girls as well as boys, mothers as well as fathers.
Many Jews omit the phrase because they reject the notion of bar or bat mitzva as a time to celebrate parental freedom from punishment on account of wayward children.
Tradition provides a second interpretation. According to 16th century rabbi Mordecai Jaffe, the phrase may be what a child should say to imply freedom from punishment that is inherited from parents. Jaffe draws his lesson from this week’s parsha, where God is described as visiting “the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children all the way to the third and fourth generation.” Does that mean we must live in constant fear that a sin three or four generations back will catch up to us? No, says Jaffe; any such punishment is delivered prior to the age of bar or bat mitzva, at which time a child can rightly celebrate exemption from chastisement on account of parental sin.
Those who find the first interpretation troublesome are likely to reject this one. In the one case, God disciplines parents for the sins of naive children; in the other, innocent children suffer for sins of their parents.
Discount the theology as just the rhetoric of medieval tradition, and we can see the blessing contains deep psychological significance.
Adolescence launches a son or daughter onto the journey toward independence. The bar/bat mitzva ceremony provides parents and children with the opportunity to anticipate the healthy separation that must inevitably occur between them. At the core of the blessing is the parent’s chance to dispatch their child into healthy adulthood, while simultaneously admitting that they can no longer worry exclusively about every detail of their child’s daily grind through life.
Our blessing announces both sides of the new parent/child contract. In the traditional interpretation, parents welcome their children into the adult world as their own moral agents. They say, in effect, “As you become an adult, we recognize that we cannot control every little step you take. But we have faith that you will make wise and moral choices on your own.”
The second interpretation proclaims one’s children’s independence from whatever negative baggage they may carry from their childhood. Our blessing says, in effect, “The adverse baggage with which you have been burdened need not last in perpetuity. As you grow into adulthood, you are free to become the person you want to be.”