How many times a day do you say “I feel blessed” or “God bless you” after a sneeze, or “you are a blessing to me”? Some of these phrases have been part of our speech since we were children and some have been added in more recently. What are we really saying when we use the word “blessing” and what is the power that it holds?
According to Merriam-Webster.com, “blessing is defined as a) the act or words of one that blesses and b) approval, encouragement.” When we offer a blessing, we are essentially boosting up the person to whom we are speaking. When we bless our children on Erev Shabbat, we are asking that they find well-being, wholeness and peace in the week ahead and in their lives. When we tell someone they are a blessing in our lives, we are indicating our appreciation. At our Shabbat table, we take a moment to “say our thank you’s” or to count our blessings. The lists have changed over the years from gratitude for a soccer goal or a good grade in school to appreciation for shelter and friends to health and time spent in nature. Our blessings change as our lives change and adapt to our circumstances.
In Judaism, the Hebrew word for blessing, b’racha, fits within both elements of the definition above. We recite b’rachot, blessings, before we eat to sanctify the moment and acknowledge the role of the Divine in creation and in our lives. We recite b’rachot before performing rituals, such as reading from the Torah or lighting Shabbat candles, using words to elevate our actions. According to Babylonian Talmud Menachot 43b, “each person is obligated to recite 100 blessings each day” and thus feel connected to the Divine through these expressions of blessing and gratitude.
In Parashat Toldot, we encounter the power of a b’racha as the words which a parent says to a child – these words signify a thing that is promised and cannot be rescinded. From their time in the womb, Esau and Jacob are competing for land, position, status and ultimately for their father’s blessing and love. Esau and Jacob are definitely twins but they have different skills, talents and strengths. As their personalities develop, Isaac and Rebecca relate to each of their sons accordingly. Jacob is favored by Rebecca and Esau by Isaac, thus intensifying their rivalry.
It makes sense that as Isaac considers his approaching death that he would turn to Esau, his favorite son and the first born. Isaac’s instructions to Esau indicate that should Esau succeed in bringing his father a tasty meal, he will be rewarded with Isaac’s blessings. Of course Esau hurries to hunt and cook and return to his father. Esau has his eye on the ultimate prize–his father’s blessing – the acknowledgment that he, Esau, is more beloved than Jacob.
Yet Rebecca desires a different outcome and acts to ensure that Esau will succeed. So, Rebecca intervenes and instructs Jacob to fulfill Isaac’s request resulting in Jacob usurping Esau’s blessing. Following his mother’s instructions, Jacob passes himself off as Esau and receives Isaac’s blessing:
“See, my son’s scent is like the scent of the field blessed by Adonai.
God give you of heaven’s dew, of earth’s bounty; abundant grain and new wine.
Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you.
Be a ruler to your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed;
May those who bless you be blessed.” (Genesis 27:27-29)
When Esau approaches Isaac with the food he has prepared, he is rebuffed by Isaac, “Who then hunted game and brought it to me and I ate of it all before you came? I blessed him — and blessed he will remain!” (Genesis 27:33) Esau is distraught and pleads “Bless me! Me too, Father!” Jacob’s cheating actions led him to receive the blessing which was promised to his older brother; Esau’s future is determined to be without his father’s blessing. Despite losing his blessing to his brother, Esau continues to plead:he needs something from his father to encourage him and indicate that he is loved.
Isaac and Rebecca reinforced the differences between their sons and fostered the competition between them. Both Esau and Jacob crave their parents’ love and support and will do truly anything to get the cherished blessing. Cheating and deceiving seem to garner the reward of the blessing, but they create a narrative of pain and distrust. Everyone’s actions led to barriers between Jacob and Esau and disrupted the family unit. If Rebecca and Isaac had lived in a different time and if the father’s blessing had not be a guarantee of inheritance and future well-being, the story of Jacob and Esau might have ended differently.
Today, we understand that we do not have to limit our words of blessing and that we can and should celebrate the strengths and talents of all of our loved ones. Blessings have the power to sanctify and to enhance our daily activities. Blessings have the potential to give us a sense of holiness and awe. When we utter words of blessing for another or tell our loved ones they are blessings, we reinforce our feelings and our actions. We say “you matter,” “you are cherished,” or “you bring joy and love into my world.”
Be who you are –
and may you be blessed
in all that you are.
(Marcia Falk, Blessing for Children – Ritualwell)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).