Toledot - 5780
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, Americans will gather around our tables to give thanks for the blessings which surround and infuse our lives, but what exactly is a blessing?
According to the dictionary, there are four distinct types of blessing:
- A prayer asking for God’s favor and protection
- A grace said before or after a meal
- A beneficial thing for which one is grateful; something that brings well-being
- A person’s sanction or support
In Judaism, we have a fifth category: a prayer before performing an act which brings us closer to God or which focuses our gratitude in a particular way (such as the blessing before lighting Shabbat candles or upon seeing a rainbow).
We might think that with five different categories now defined, we would fully understand our “blessings.” However, how could we really know what a blessing is without first checking with the Torah? In this week’s parasha, Isaac is recognized by the Philistines as being blessed by God:
“We have clearly seen that the Lord is with you, and we thought – Let there be an oath between our two sides, between you and us, and let us seal a pact with you, that you will do no harm to us just as we have not touched you, and just as we have done towards you only good, sending you away in peace. You are now blessed of the Lord.” [Gen. 26:28-30]
Rabbi David Greenstein asks if Isaac’s status of being blessed is merely acknowledged here, or is it activated because of the conclusion of a peace treaty? In other words, does the blessing flow from heaven or from us?
The same ambiguity clings to the blessing which Isaac gives (or tries to give) to Esau. Rebecca overhears Isaac command Esau to hunt venison for him “so that my soul shall bless you before I die.” [Gen. 27:4] Isaac makes no mention of God to Esau, but when Rebecca tells Jacob (and plots with Jacob to steal the blessing) she adds God language to the description. Is the blessing from Isaac or is Isaac an instrument of God for the transmission of the blessing?
The answer to all these questions is yes. Blessings come from heaven and they come from us. We are surrounded every day by countless blessings, some from God and some from each other.
According to Jewish tradition, we recite a series of blessings each morning to offer thanks in recognition that each new day, no matter what happens in it, is actually a gift. We recognize that our bodies are incredibly complex and delicate, and we are given an opportunity to sense the wonder and amazement of our existence. We offer thanks for our minds and our souls, and for the miracles which surround us each day – all gifts from Heaven.
Similarly, the rabbis teach us to be mindful if the blessings we receive from each other.
“Ben Zoma … used to say: How many labors did Adam have to engage in before he obtained bread to eat! He plowed, he sowed, he reaped; he stacked the sheaves, threshed the grain winnowed the chaff, selected the good ears, ground [them], sifted [flour], kneaded the dough, and baked. And only then did he eat. Whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. How many labors did Adam have to engage in before he obtained a garment to wear! He sheared the sheep, washed [the wool], combed it, spun it, wove it, dyed the cloth, and sewed it. And only then did he have a garment to wear. Whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and when I rise in the morning I find all these things ready for me.” [Talmud Balvi, Berachot 58a]
Judaism does not distinguish different kinds of blessings in the same way as the dictionary, but our definition is encompassing and wide, and more than anything, we are taught that Thanksgiving does not come just once a year, but for us, is a daily celebration of the miracle of life.