Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, November 16, 2009


            In Jewish tradition there are many connotations to the word blessings.  We can refer to the good wishes that one has for another, especially when parents bless children.  On the other hand, we could be referring to the recitation made before benefiting from the bounty of this world, like a blessing on an apple.  Finally, we could be describing the format of many of our prayers, which often begin with the regular blessing phrase, Blessed art thou, O Lord.  Since the blessings usurped by Ya'akov are the central issue in this week's Torah reading, it's worth analyzing blessings, and trying to put them into the context of this week's complex narrative. 

            First of all, I think it's important to clarify that every blessing in Judaism has an element of prayer in it.  You don't have to say 'God bless you' to include the concept of talking to our Creator in the blessing format.  This is obvious when we're clearly addressing God in the blessing over a food or the blessings which appear in the prayer book as part of our traditional service.  However, it's equally true in our good wishes to each other.  The English word itself originally derived from the Middle English word for consecrate (this sanctification was done with blood) to God.  The Hebrew word, bracha, probably comes from the word for knee and represents our bowing to God.  So, even when we are addressing a loved one, the blessing is delivered by the Divine postal service.

            Let's therefore assume that if a blessing works or is fulfilled, it's because God did it, even though the individual may work hard to help it along.  Now this brings us to the blessings in this week's Torah reading.  There are a lot of things going on surrounding these blessings.  Yitzchak wants these blessings to go to the oldest brother, Esav.  Rivka disagrees.  She is adamant that the great bounty represented by these wishes must go to Ya'akov.  I'd rather not go into their argument in this article, but suffice it to say that Yitzchak thought that Esav was the correct addressee for the power and wealth described in these blessings.  There could be many motivations for this attitude.  Rabbinic tradition suggests that Yitzchak was fooled by Esav's mock piety.  Perhaps, he had residual guilt over the treatment of Yishmael, his older brother.  Rivka, on the other hand, experienced what life could be like under the control of an unscrupulous older brother, like her brother, Lavan.

            However, I'm more concerned with the issue of what makes a blessing effective.  Yitzchak seems to assume that Esav could be worthy of the brachot, if Esav would feed him his favorite food. Yitzchak actually says feed me this venison so that my soul can bless you.  The transmission or efficacy of blessings seems to require a connection to the essence of the blessing, and, as well, to the person conveying the blessing. The blessing under discussion was:  And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine (Genesis 27:28).  This blessing is about receiving wealth through agricultural plenty.  Who deserves wealth?  Well, it would seem that Yitzchak believes that this wealth should go to the one who will share and provide from the agricultural bounty to others.  We get a peak into Yitzchak's take on this blessing business.  The blessing flows naturally to one who shows himself to be the proper receptacle and follows the path provided by the one administering the blessing.  The potency of a blessing I give to my children is based on my merit and their worthiness.

            Rivkah seems to see things differently.  Again, we're putting aside their feelings about the sons.  When Rivkah instructs Ya'akov to get two goats for the deception of Yitzchak she says that the blessings are before God (verse 7).  The blessings are the largesse of God.  God's approval is all that counts.  Whether we think a blessing is appropriate to the recipient or whether we aim that blessing in that direction is unimportant when compared to God's plan.  Not every blessing works, but the decision is out of our hands.  When a Cohen scatters a blessing across a community, where it takes hold is based upon factors only known to those on a much higher pay scale than any of us.  So, Rivkah is totally messing up all of Yitzchak's carefully laid plans to make sure that these valuable blessing will attach themselves to Ya'akov.  Tune in next week to find out the exciting conclusion of this story, when Ya'akov actually does become very wealthy.  Really, you just have to read on until verse 33 to get the end of the tale.

Yitzchak answers the question of whether or not the deception succeeded in re-routing the blessing.  When Esav shows up after Ya'akov's hasty departure, the verse declares:  And Isaac shuddered a great shudder, and he said, "Who then is the one who hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate of everything while you had not yet come, and I blessed him? He, indeed, shall be blessed."  It worked!  But why?  One could posit that these blessings worked automatically because Yitzchak is so holy and inherited the power of Avraham to direct God's blessings (12:3).  However, I think that the blessings were effective, because they fit.  Yitzchak never realized it, but Ya'akov was ripe to become wealthy and powerful.  That was what Yitzchak realized when he shuddered.  His carefully laid plans to endow Esav were doomed to failure, and Esav would follow Yishmael to another destiny, outside the Chosen People.

But what can we learn from this tale?  First of all don't try to control the flow of blessings.  They will flow to where they will.  Most importantly, though, we must consider carefully the blessings which we pray for our children.  Think hard about what each of our different progeny requires to fulfill their unique future.  I hope we give as much thought to blessing our children as to dressing them.  Make sure they fit and are the right style.