Parashat Toldot 5781

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, November 18 2020

L’ma’an te’varech’cha nafshi
‘So that I can give you my innermost blessing’ (Genesis 27:25)

Parashat Tol’dot tells the story of Isaac and Rebekah’s family, the birth of their twin sons, Esau and Jacob and the two-fold deception by Jacob, who trades a bowl of lentils for Esau’s birth right, and disguises himself as his brother Esau in order to trick his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the elder son. What was the nature of this blessing that Rebekah wanted Jacob to receive instead of Esau in Genesis 27:10?

When Isaac calls Esau to his bedside, he says that he will give him his ‘innermost blessing’ – t’varech’cha nafshi – literally ‘so that my life-breath may bless you’ (Robert Alter, comment on 27:4). The Hebrew word for ‘bless’ or ‘blessed’, comes from a Hebrew root bet, resh chaf – which in its most familiar form spells baruch – the word that begins or ends our liturgical blessings: Baruch attah Adonai – ‘Blessed are You, Eternal One…’ In our Siddur, the word baruch is translated ‘We praise You’, a not incorrect translation as the word can convey the simpler idea of paying tribute or expressing devotion to God’s greatness and power. But the translation ‘blessed’, a more common way of translating baruch, conveys something different.

The primary meaning of the root beit, resh, kaf is ‘to kneel’ and the noun – berech – is a ‘knee.’ The position of prayer in biblical times may well have been kneeling. Solomon knelt to recite his prayer before the congregation of Israel, while the Psalmist encouraged his listeners to kneel before God (2 Chronicles 6:13 and Psalm 95:6).

So, how do we get from ‘kneeling’, an act of homage, gratitude and humility and an act today we associate with Christian and Muslim practice, to the concept of ‘blessing’ or ‘blessed’?

In order to answer this question, we must look at the word for blessing, b’rachah a little more carefully. Here we discover that there is a related noun, same letters, but different vowels – b’reichah – which means a ‘pool’ of water or ‘pond.’ In Kohelet, the author describes how he lays out gardens and groves, in which he planted ‘every kind of fruit tree. [He] constructed pools of water…’ (2:6). Such descriptions are an assertion of his wealth, which brings us a little closer to understanding the meaning of this word ‘blessing’ as a source of material prosperity; it represents the abundance of the natural resources of the earth, fertility and growth.

So Isaac’s blessing is a statement that his son will be blessed with prosperity, as he says: ‘May God give you of heaven’s dew, of earth’s bounty; abundant grain and new wine.’ I want you to be materially comfortable, he says, I don’t want you to be wanting for any of the basic necessities or life.

But there is a second part to this blessing: Isaac wants to leave something of himself to this son; something of his own experience of life, of the heritage bestowed on him by his father Abraham. Now Isaac, fulfilling the prophecy given to Rebekah during her pregnancy that the younger will serve the older, utters a blessing that is going to divide the brothers and cause disharmony, not only in the next generation, but for many to come: ‘Let peoples serve you, nations bow down to you. Be a ruler to your brothers, and let your mother’s son bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed; may those who bless you be blessed’ (Genesis 27:29).

This is certainly not a blessing in the sense that we understand it – an invocation to God for good things. It is not exactly a curse, but it is a retrospective counter-blessing that accounts for generations of conflict and rivalry between tribes, between the descendants of Jacob and Esau.

Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet taught that the purpose of a blessing was a means of transference. What he meant was that a blessing was an acknowledgement of God as Creator, Koneh ha-kol – as we say in the Amidah, ‘possessing all’, ‘Owner of all.’ In order to partake of God’s ‘blessings’ – whether it is eating, wearing new clothes, simply enjoying the wonders of the world – we recite a blessing and in this way, we are blessed with all that is good. The blessing is our key to the goodness of the earth, to God’s goodness and by acknowledging Divine Ownership, we are given permission, as it were, to enjoy these blessings of life.

Isaac’s mistake was to believe that his son belonged to him; it was to repeat the mistakes made by his own father in giving one son preferential treatment over the other, just as Jacob himself will give Joseph preferential treatment over his other children and one grandson precedence over the other. We know that it is wrong, but when we see ourselves in one child and not another, it is too easy to impose our own longings and ambitions on to that child.

A true blessing has to be impartial and altruistic. We can bequeath to our children all that we hold dear, all that we may desire for that child, but we cannot manipulate and decide what he or she will do with our blessing. Isaac’s two blessings over his children may be an expression of patriarchal authority and an instrument of parental power, but it is also an expression of ‘ceremonious affection’, to borrow a phrase from King Lear (Act 1, Scene IV).

This ‘ceremonious affection’ is no less powerful and loving than the more demonstrative expressions of love and affection that a parent offers a child today and vice versa, which is why Esau is utterly devastated when he realises that Jacob has deceived their father and stolen the blessing (for which read ‘expression of love’) for Esau. Through the ritual of blessing what is conveyed is the bond of love, of intimacy and profound affection. It is a sacred expression not only of our affection and love for each other, but also an expression of the longing we all have that God will bestow on us and our loved ones – a divine expression of ‘ceremonial affection’ and love.

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