The Power of Blessing
Parashat Toldot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
by Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, Simsbury, CT
We tend to think of people who lived long before us as primitive and less intelligent. Yet, contemporary Americans have made the alternative medicine industry a multi-billion-dollar throwback to the ancient craft of herbal treatment. Studies have shown that the age-old practice of therapeutic massage has amazing healing results. And despite the obvious benefits of e-mail, blogs, and social media, there truly is no substitute for the human voice and especially face-to-face contact. It would appear then that sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way. It behooves us then to try to understand why both Jacob and Esau seemed to place such a high value on their father’s blessing.
Jacob so values the father’s blessing that he not only engages in a “trade” for the birthright, but develops an elaborate plot along with his mother to secure the blessing that went with it. On the other hand, Esau shows a lack of concern and disrespect for the birthright and the future it portends – “Esau ate drank, rose up, left, and spurned the birthright” (Gen 25:34). But we can still feel badly for Esau, for life without a blessing is but an imitation of life.
Though we often associate blessings with health, wealth, opportunity, and power, true blessing might better be described as a sense of wellness in the soul. The Jewish mystical tradition pictures the soul as the umbilical cord that connects our physical person with the spirit of Hashem and with all of the souls of collective humanity. I once spoke to a concert pianist who told me that he developed his soul by playing Mozart, and when he did so he thought of all of the renditions that he had heard, and imagined himself connected to the pain, triumph, and jubilation of each of these other musicians. When the soul is ,properly nurtured it enables us to fully experience life, but when it is damaged or underdeveloped, the person is cut off from other people, and from God, the true source of life.
Obviously then it is important to not inadvertently speak curses. How often do parents communicate scores of negative messages to children, messages that suggest they are not bright enough or adequate enough? Impatience can be damaging to the fragile soul. But the far greater problem is that so many people grow up without a sense of being blessed, having been ignored by parents, teachers, and peers who are just too busy or too self-involved to take the time to reach out. Or worse still, many children grow up having had human contact withheld as a subtle form of manipulation. Silence to a child communicates confusion and isolation, the absence of blessing, and the ultimate absence of God.
So it is important that we take the time to bless and be blessed, and though I believe it is in our DNA to be a blessing, it involves a skill set that we must practice and consciously cultivate. This week’s parasha offers us a very interesting model. In Genesis 27 Jacob comes before Isaac to be blessed, disguising himself as Esau, and in verses 26–29 he bestows the blessing. There are three major components to this blessing in Genesis 27 and a fourth that I believe is worth adding (see The Blessing by Gary Smalley and John Trent).
1. Meaningful Touch – “Come near and kiss me, my son” (v. 26). When words are inadequate or hard to come by, a hug is worth a thousand.
2. Attaching High Value to the one being blessed – “Ah the smell of my son is like the fields that the Lord has blessed” (vv. 27–29). There is no substitute for letting someone know that you think they are wonderful.
3. Picturing a Special Future for the one being blessed – “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you; be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s son bow to you” (vv. 28–29).
4. Active Commitment to fulfill the blessing – God has given us no greater blessing than to be participants with him in the restoration of creation. There is no better place to start than in the lives of those he has put in your path.
Blessing a friend is a bilateral gift. There is no greater blessing than bestowing blessing upon others. My friends’ words of kindness and blessing go deep into my soul. Twice a year I used to receive a phone call from a colleague in another part of the country. Professionally we have only limited interaction, and the busyness of life and geography keep us from being overly involved in each other’s lives. But a couple of times a year he would call me and let me know that he was thinking of me and praying for me. We would catch up, and at the end of the call he always blessed me. This went on for several years and I often wonder how he knew when I needed a blessing the most. I suppose any time someone wishes to bless me I can use it, and I am now convinced that he was as blessed as I was by the interaction. My friend has since retired and I do not often hear from him. But last week I ran into him at a conference, and he let me know that he has continued to pray for me! I was blessed!
Each week at congregation Shuvah Yisrael we experience the blessing of the cohanim twice. First they bless the children before they are off to Shabbat school, and then at the end of the service they bless the entire congregation. But we also bless God many times throughout the service. Does Hashem really need our blessing? Well, does a parent ever grow weary of being blessed by his or her children? When our children return our blessings it makes every dirty diaper worth it. Even as we are elevated in our soul by blessing from our children, so we understand our Father in Heaven to be overjoyed with our blessing. As we are elevated in our children’s sight by their blessing, so our blessing of our King seats him securely on the throne of our heart as we anticipate the time when the entire world will be blessed by the greater reality of his presence. So it is that we can declare Baruch haba b’shem Adonai, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.