For most of my life, the closest I came to giving or receiving a blessing was “Good luck!” When I converted to Judaism, I learned how to bless God as a way to express my appreciation for food and other good things in life. But the idea blessing another person never occurred to me.
Yes, I had read about Isaac blessing his sons in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”). I gathered that giving a blessing means both stating the good outcomes you want for another person, and calling on (or praying to) God to make your words come true. But I did not believe that the actual words mattered, or that a formal blessing would be any more effective than “Good luck!” I felt sorry for Isaac and his family for taking the blessing business so seriously. I was 48 before I discovered Jewish Renewal and the potential power of blessing.
What makes a blessing a living force instead of a formality?
The blessings in the book of Genesis/Bereishit use formal poetic language. Even when they are personal blessings, they focus material prosperity, fertility, and/or victory over enemies, and use customary phrases. For example, Rebecca’s mother and brother bless her as she leaves home to get married, saying: Our sister, may you become a thousand multitudes, and may your descendants take possession of their enemies’ gate. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:60)
Another kind of blessing in Genesis is “the blessing of Abraham”, a phrase the Torah uses to refer both to God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will possess the land of Canaan, and to the first blessing God gives Abraham:
I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse. And all the clans of the earth will find blessing through you. (Genesis 12:2-3)
In this week’s Torah portion, Isaac decides to give a blessing to Esau, the firstborn of his twin sons. The Torah does not say whether Isaac is planning to give Esau his personal blessing, or the blessing of Abraham, but it does say what part of himself Isaac hopes will deliver the blessing.
He said: I have grown old, and I do not know the day of my death. So now, please pick up your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me. Then make me tasty tidbits, the kind that I love, and bring them to me, and I will eat, so that my nefesh may bless you before I die. (Genesis/Bereishit 27:2-4)
nefesh = animating soul; seat of appetite, desire, yearning, instinct; person
Isaac wants the blessing to come from his nefesh, his instinctual self, without any interference from his conscious mind. Isaac loves Esau more than his other son, Jacob. But he wants his blessing to express the will of God as it moves through him, not his own conscious will.
When Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, overhears him, she assumes he intends to give Esau the blessing of Abraham. She panics, not only because she loves Jacob more, but also because she knows that Jacob is the one who will carry on the worship of the God of Abraham.
Apparently Rebecca and Isaac are having communication problems, because she does not march into Isaac’s tent and straighten him out. Instead, she says to Jacob:
Hey, I heard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying: Bring game to me and make me tasty tidbits, and I will eat them, and I will bless you lifnei God, before my death. (Genesis 27:6-7)
lifnei = in the presence of, before
Rebecca interprets Isaac’s reference to blessing with his nefesh as blessing “in the presence of God”, and she associates this with God’s blessing of Abraham.
She quickly cooks some tasty tidbits from goat meat, and orders Jacob to bring them to his father. Jacob protests that he is not a hairy man, like his brother, so his blind father will know he is not Esau as soon as he touches him. So Rebecca disguises Jacob by dressing him in Esau’s spare clothes and fastening the skins of goat kids around his hands and neck.
Of course as soon as Jacob comes in and says, My father, Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice, and asks:
Who are you, my son? Then Jacob said to his father: I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you spoke to me. Get up, please, sit, and eat some of my game, so that your nefesh may bless me. (Genesis 27:18)
Jacob thinks like his father. He hears Rebecca’s “in the presence of God”, and interprets it in terms of Isaac’s nefesh!
Isaac tests his son several times, unable to believe that this man with Jacob’s voice is really Esau, no matter how hairy his hands feel. Then he decides to bless the son in front of him anyway. Now it is even more important that the blessing come from God, so he repeats:
I will eat some of the game of my son, so that my nefesh may bless you. (Genesis 27:25)
After Isaac has eaten and received a kiss from his son, he delivers the blessing:
May God give to you from the dew of the heavens, and from the fat of the land, and abundant grain and wine. May peoples serve you, and may nations bow down to you. Be a leader to your kinsmen, and may the descendants of your mother bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and may those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:28-29)
The blessing begins with the standard themes of material abundance and victory over other nations. Then Isaac adds part of God’s blessing of Abraham: Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you. He does not say the other part of the blessing of Abraham—that he will have many descendants, and they will possess the whole land of Canaan—until later in the Torah portion, when he gives a blessing to Jacob as Jacob.
I think that Isaac gives Jacob-in-disguise part of the blessing of Abraham because he is indeed speaking from his instinctual self, channeling divine inspiration without thinking it through. His words naturally mirror the words of the blessing of Abraham.
When his other son shows up a moment later with his own tasty tidbits, Isaac recognizes Esau’s voice, and comes out of his trance and back to earth. He trembles, partly because he knows he cannot repeat the same blessing to Esau, and partly because he realizes that the blessing he just gave Jacob is indeed an expression of God’s will.
Then Isaac trembled, full of fear, and said: Who is it, then, who hunted game and brought it to me and I ate everything before you came and I blessed him? He must be truly blessed! (Genesis 27:33)
Is it possible to channel a blessing from God, as Isaac apparently channels his first blessing? I do not know. But when I was 48 and I wandered into a Jewish Renewal service, I saw the rabbi of P’nai Or of Portland, Aryeh Hirschfield zt”l, blessing people. I could tell he was connecting with some inner source of energy, and the people he blessed were taking in that energy.
Is that kind of blessing from the instinctual self, the nefesh, confirmed by God and therefore bound to come true? Again, I do not know. What I do know is that a blessing given with what seems to be divine energy makes a big impression on both giver and receiver. No doubt the words of the blessing are absorbed deep into the subconscious mind of the one blessed, where they affect one’s outlook and behavior for years to come. That alone might make a blessing come true.
May everyone who needs a blessing be truly blessed. And may everyone who sees the need for a blessing be inspired to give a true blessing.