Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the Trail of Blessings: Having It All

[This is the first installment of a series on the development of the Berachos in Sefer Bereishis. I encourage you to follow it through to the end - it is one extended בנין.]

Hashem loves the Avos and He blesses them, promising them the world. Avraham is the first recipient of these extraordinary divine gifts, but it is obviously the nature of blessings of nationhood and legacy that they are to be inherited by succeeding generations. Indeed, although the language does evolve and new elements are added, we can easily trace the Berachos as they pass from Avraham to Yitzchok and then from Yitzchok to Yaakov. But when Yitzchok grabbed the horns of destiny and attempted to bless Eisav, things get complicated. Are the blessings a package deal? Or can they divide in two when they hit a fork in the road? Let's pick up the trail from the beginning.

In Parshas Lech Lecha, Avraham receives two very different Berachos. In the beginning of the Parsha, Hashem promises him this:
ואעשך לגוי גדול ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה: ואברכה מברכיך ומקללך אאר ונברכו בך כל משפחת האדמה. יב:ב
In other words, Hashem blessed Avraham with power, wealth, fame and influence. Later in the Parsha, by the Bris bein HaBesarim, Hashem is even more explicit: טו:יד) ואחרי כן יצאו ברכוש גדול). "Great wealth" is promised to Avraham's progeny.

The part about becoming a nation obviously cannot happen during Avraham's lifetime, but wealth, power and success certainly can, and does:
ויהי לו צאן ובקר וחמורים ועבדים ושפחת ואתנת וגמלים... ואברם כבד מאד במקנה בכסף ובזהב. יב:טז, יג:ב
נשיא אלהים אתה בתוכנו. כג:ו
וה' ברך את אברהם בכל. כד:א
באורך ימים ועושר וכבוד ובנים, וזו כל חמדת האדם - אבן עזרא
Avraham has it "all;" a long life, wealth, honor and children. As the Ibn Ezra says, it's everything a man could ever want. But is it, really? Compare this Beracha from the end of the Parshas Lech Lecha:
ויהי אברם בן תשעים שנה ותשע שנים וירא יקוק אל אברם ויאמר אליו אני אל שדי התהלך לפני והיה תמים: ואתנה בריתי ביני ובינך וארבה אותך במאד מאד: ויפל אברם על פניו וידבר אתו אלהים לאמר: אני הנה בריתי אתך והיית לאב המון גוים: ולא יקרא עוד את שמך אברם והיה שמך אברהם כי אב המון גוים נתתיך: והפרתי אתך במאד מאד ונתתיך לגוים ומלכים ממך יצאו: והקמתי את בריתי ביני ובינך ובין זרעך אחריך לדרתם לברית עולם להיות לך לאלהים ולזרעך אחריך: ונתתי לך ולזרעך אחריך את ארץ מגריך את כל ארץ כנען לאחזת עולם והייתי להם לאלהים: יז:א-ח
Here Hashem introduces Himself with a new name, "אל שדי" and changes Avram's name to "Avraham." He then promises Avraham that he will be fruitful and multiply "וארבה אותך... והפרתי אתך", ultimately leading to a monarchy "מלכים ממך יצאו" blessed with both an eternal relationship with Hashem "ברית עולם" and the Land of Israel "אחוזת עולם". This blessing speaks of Avraham's descendants' destiny as God's chosen nation in the Holy Land. No mention here of money or fame. It seems there is more to life than having it "all."

The beracha to be fruitful and multiply stands out for two reasons. First, it happens to be the very first thing God said to Adam (Bereishis 1:28). Second, does it really belong in the context of spiritual blessings? The answer is self-evident. These two points resolve each other: Hashem is telling Avraham that he is the new Adam: Be fruitful and multiply, for we are starting over with you. You, Avraham, are the father of a new species of man: "homo religiosus." Maybe this is why, along with Avram's new name, Hashem Himself gets a new name: אל שדי - A God Who says, "Enough!" Adam failed his test, as did Noach. But now we have Avraham. דיינו!

The Birchas HaAvos thus consist of two very different elements. At the beginning of Lech Lecha, Hashem blesses Avraham's material future, promising him wealth, success and fame. And at the end of the Parsha, Hashem gifts him with a rich spiritual destiny - he is to be the father of the Nation of God. This explains why the mitzva of ברית מילה arrives packaged together with this second Beracha at the end of the Parsha (cf. 17:9-14). More powerfully than any other mitzva, circumcision demands transcendence of our physicality (the act speaks for itself, but we can also point to the symbolism of the number eight). The vision of a spiritual Chosen Nation described in the second set of blessings is thus anchored in the private mitzva of מילה, in contradistinction to the public act of לך לך which defined the physical dimension of the nation found at the beginning of the Parsha.

While both blessings refer to a great nation in Avraham's future, one wonders if God is actually talking about the same nation. Are these blessings supposed to be merged into one people? Or maybe there are two nations here, making Avraham a true אב המון גוים? This seemingly bizarre line of questioning turns out to be the key to understanding Parshas Toldos.

In Parshas Toldos, Yaakov purchases the birthright from his brother Eisav for a bowl of soup. What exactly did he buy? According to Rashi, the birthright is the privilege of performing the service in the Temple; according to the Chizkuni, the birthright is the right to the Land of Israel (both views are found in the Midrash). Either way, the birthright has nothing in common with the material blessings found the beginning of Lech Lecha. (This explains why Eisav was happy to sell it for soup, cf. Ibn Ezra.) It is the blessing of spiritual riches found at the end of Lech Lecha that is the privilege of the firstborn. And this is the blessing that Yaakov wants.

At the end of Parshas Toldos, Yitzchok attempts to give a Beracha to Eisav, but Yaakov, following his mother's orders, "steals" it. In contrast to his readiness to sell the religious responsibilities of the birthright, Eisav is devastated when he realizes that he has lost his father's blessing. What exactly did he lose? Here's the text:
ויתן לך האלהים מטל השמים ומשמני הארץ ורב דגן ותירש: יעבדוך עמים וישתחו לך לאמים הוה גביר לאחיך וישתחוו לך בני אמך ארריך ארור ומברכיך ברוך: כז:כח-כט
Wealth and power, but no mention of ברית or Israel. This blessing is clearly an elaboration of the blessing given to Avraham at the beginning of Lech Lecha, as evidenced by the reappearance of the promise to "bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you." Yitzchok only intended to give this blessing to Eisav; he was saving the spiritual blessings for Yaakov (Seforno to 27:29; see however Ramban to 27:4). Indeed, when Yitzchok sends Yaakov away at the end of the Parsha, he grants him this blessing:
ויקרא יצחק אל יעקב ויברך אתו ויצוהו ויאמר לו לא תקח אשה מבנות כנען: קום לך פדנה ארם ביתה בתואל אבי אמך וקח לך משם אשה מבנות לבן אחי אמך: ואל שדי יברך אתך ויפרך וירבך והיית לקהל עמים: ויתן לך את ברכת אברהם לך ולזרעך אתך לרשתך את ארץ מגריך אשר נתן אלהים לאברהם: כח:א-ד
This is exactly the same Beracha that Hashem gave Avraham at the end of Lech Lecha! The same אל שדי, the same ויפרך וירבך, the same ארץ מגריך. This is the spiritual ברכת אברהם. And, if we are correct, this is what Yaakov purchased from Eisav for a bowl of soup. There's no money in it, just an eternal covenant with God.

The Abrahamic legacy consisted of two blessings. Eisav knew this, but Eisav also knew that his father wasn't planning on giving him everything.
Eisav himself had never expected that Yitzchak would confer upon him the whole blessing. He immediately askes his father: הלא אצלת לי ברכה, "Have you not reserved a blessing for me?" (v. 36). That is to say, had you given me the blessing, you surely would have reserved a blessing for Yaakov; that blessing - give to me!
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch
Eisav knows good and well that his father has another blessing in his pocket - "!?הברכה אחת היא לך אבי" - but even when he begs his father for a blessing, any blessing, Yitzchok refuses to put the Holy Land into the hands of Eisav. This infuriates Eisav even more than his brother's treachery: וישטם עשו את יעקב על הברכה אשר ברכו אביו, "Eisav hated Yaakov for the Beracha that his father blessed him" (27:41) - Eisav's hatred for Yaakov has its source not in Yaakov's theft per se, but in Yitzchok's refusal to give him Israel! All Eisav got was a vague, watered-down blessing that places Yaakov as a yoke around his neck.
This much is clear: Yitzchok wanted to divide up the Berachos between his sons. This is not a violation of the family legacy; on the contrary, the Berachos in their original form do seem to speak of two different nations. Yitzchok naturally assumed that Hashem's two blessings referred to the two nations of Yaakov and Eisav.

Yitzchok knew his sons and he envisioned a bi-national partnership; a joint venture where Yaakov, the יושב אהלים, could dwell in the tents, devoting himself entirely to divine service, while Eisav, the איש שדה, went out into the world to claim the blessings of wealth -לך לך- in order to support his brother's holy work (cf. Malbim; however, see Teshuvos HaRashba 1:134).
Such was Yitzchok's vision, but it is not to be. Yaakov takes all.
[Continue the trail with part-two here.]

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