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Blessing a Child Leaving for College

Friday we bring Boychik to college for the first time. My friends have taken to asking me how I’m doing in a way usually reserved for inquiring about a serious medical condition.

I say that we are happy and excited. Boychik is going to an amazing school that will undoubtedly help him grow intellectually, emotionally and even spiritually. It looks like it will be a great fit.

And he’ll be just over an hour away — far enough for him and close enough for us. There’s also texting and videochatting and all that stuff that makes me think that apron strings are a lot stretchier today than they were when I first left home.

But maybe my friends are right. I know that I’m going to miss Boychik. We all will. He’s a great big brother to his younger sisters, and an all-around good kid. We could not be more blessed. But I cried my way through Boychik’s high school graduation on what should have been a happy day. I cried mostly because my father, who had died two months earlier, was not there to enjoy it with us. Neither was my mom, who died when Boychik was just a skinny 7-year-old jumping around with near-boundless energy that I worried might never calm down. But he has learned to focus that energy in ways that make beautiful and productive use of his many gifts.

Then there is the grain of relief most parents probably feel (but don’t want to talk about) after the tension and work of a year of college applications and preparation with a sometimes-prickly adolescent. They’re ready. You’re ready. It feels like time.

My dear friend Sara, who I met when we were both pregnant with our first babies and taking childbirth education class nearly 18 years ago, says that it’s a moment that deserves a bracha. And she’s right. But what blessing will hold this moment for me, for us?

After all of the stress and worry and the emotional energy and work and hope and love that go into raising a child from pregnancy until now, there should be a special way to articulate the gratitude and deep hope that God continues to shine grace on this most precious child. But also a way to express the ambivalence that a mother feels as she guides her first baby bird out of the nest.

Sure, there’s the catch-all Schechiyanu. Always good, but no matter how heartfelt the recitation, it is a too little all-purpose for moments that feel as significant and specific as this.

Perhaps the Sheptarani blessing traditionally recited by a father at his son’s bar mitzvah to thank God for freeing him of the penalties that devolved to him from his son’s sins? I prefer a more modern iteration recited by both parents to thank God for “freeing us of some responsibilities and conferring new ones upon us.” I also like one of the blessings suggested in the Rabbinical Assembly’s rabbi’s life-cycle guide for parents to say at their son’s brit milah:

Help us raise a son, O God, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when afraid. Give him the ability to appreciate joy and the strength to weather life’s challenges. Teach him compassion for those in need. Grant him the insight to know himself and the wisdom to know You. Help us feel Your Presence as we begin this new journey through life.

The Kohen’s blessing also has to be part of it. After all, Boychik, as a Kohen and son of a Kohen, knows it well. And he’s also grown up listening to Bob Dylan, who included part of it in the incomparable “Forever Young,” and Leonard Cohen, who beautifully recited the blessing at the conclusion of his 2009 concert in Ramat Gan, Israel.

RitualWell has some good choices, including this two-part ritual to do with a child leaving for college.

I especially like this blessing, a “New Traveler’s Prayer,” by Mark Kram:

Holy One of Blessing, Master of All things, may this young man enter this new stage of his life with blessing, with strength, with joy, and with a thirst of knowledge. Even as we were freed from responsibility for his Jewish life at his bar mitzvah, today, he more fully takes charge.

May it be Your will, O God, and God of our ancestors, to direct his steps and guide his life with peace, and lead him to ever-fuller life. Deliver him from every enemy, pitfall, harm on his way, and from all misfortune and trouble that he may find on his own journey in life.

Send a blessing to empower the work of his hands. May he continue to attain kindness, a loving attitude, compassion, and tolerance for all with whom he comes in contact. You are the God who listens to prayer. Praised are You, God, who hears our prayers.
Praised are You, God, Master of the Universe, who makes the young responsible for their own lives. Amen.

Happily, bringing Boychik to college doesn’t mean the end of parenting. He’ll be home soon enough. And I’m already looking forward to it.


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