Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
What is a blessing? This week’s parasha begs the question, as Jacob blesses his sons and grandsons from his deathbed in a most peculiar way.
When we Jews usually offer a blessing, our blessings fall into one of two categories. Whenever we say “thank you” to God, we are making a blessing – and this is the first category. See a rainbow? Offer a blessing. Enjoy a meal? Offer a blessing. Go to the bathroom and everything works? Offer a blessing (my personal favorite as I get older). Create holy time by lighting candles? Offer a blessing. In fact, cultivating a gratitude practice is, in and of itself, definitely a blessing!
The second kind of blessing is one we offer over people. With this kind of blessing we invoke God’s protective presence, and can insert our hopes and dreams for those we bless – for God to be with them, for their lives to be meaningful, for their health, well-being, happiness and success.
Neither of these categories exist in the book of Genesis, which this parasha concludes. The blessing which Jacob stole from Esau at the hands of their blind father was not about hopes and dreams. It was the formal mechanism that changed Jacob’s status, making him the new leader of the family. However, the blessings Jacob offers from his deathbed seem even more counterintuitive. Here are just a few examples:
“Reuven, my firstborn are you –
Seems a little harsh, right?
How on earth does Torah call these blessings?
Now, to be fair, some of Jacob’s blessings for his children and grandchildren were more positive – depending on the recipient. Plus, patriarchs were expected to offer blessings to their children as death approached.
The Sages teach that, in the moment, God gave Jacob the gift of prophecy so that he could see the future and convey what awaited each of his sons. However, this still doesn’t resolve the question of how a blessing could use the language of curses.
Regardless of whether Jacob could see the future, he certainly knew the past. He knew his sons, the choices they made – both good and bad, the lives they led. He knew them truly, and he judged them as his end drew near. We live our lives with blinders on. We tell ourselves little lies about what we do and how we live. We create narratives to explain away our poor choices or to overemphasize our lucky wins. Jacob blesses his sons by cutting through all of that and speaking the naked truth, teaching his sons that our past and current actions influence our future, and forcing them to acknowledge and take responsibility for the bad and the good that they have each respectively done.
Although there is nothing easy about this moment, it is in fact a gift. Reading his words today, thousands of years later, we can receive the same gift – with the luxury of not being directly in Jacob’s crosshairs! Poised between our ancestral and covenantal establishment in Genesis, and a future of both slavery and redemption in Exodus, we can ask ourselves: what is the truth of our actions? Where will they lead us if we continue on the paths we are on? Where do truly want to be? This is the blessing Jacobs gives us all.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras