Parashat Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9
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A blessed life is not a charmed life.
In German one would say Gesundheit. In Yiddish it would be the same or zay gesund. The Hebrew response is la-briyut. Aramaic aficionados would answer asuta. These words translate as "to (your) health" and are the standard responses to a sneeze in these and many other languages. English, however, is different, since there an "ah-choo" is met by "bless you."
No one really knows why we say "bless you," although there are numerous theories. Among them is the belief that by sneezing one temporarily expells the soul, making it vulnerable to evil spirits. Conversely, there is also the belief that by sneezing one expells the evil spirit. (Quite an allergic reaction!) Then there is the explanation that the term was introduced by Pope Gregory I during an outbreak of the Bubonic plague. Sneezing was thought to be an early symptom of this disease. "God bless you" was instituted as a public health measure along with a slew of other prayers he ordered in a futile effort to stop the plague from reaching Rome.
There are records that show that the phrase predates Pope Gregory I. Among the sources cited is the Robert Graves translation* of Apuleius' The Golden Ass: " 'Bless you, my dear!' he said, and 'bless you, bless you!' at the second and third sneeze." The original work was written in about 150 CE in Latin. (Since it’s all Greek to me, I would appreciate it if a Latin scholar would let me know if this is indeed what it says in the original, or if Graves is being idiomatic.)
People have read all sorts of things into sneezes. There is a ditty that begins:
Sneeze on Monday for health,
Sneeze on Tuesday for wealth…Daniel Lindsey Thomas & Lucy Blayney Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions, #1035
Now, we don't know how much sneezing was going on in Isaac's household, nor on what day he bestowed blessings on his sons, but we do know the content of these blessings. In parashat Toldot, Jacob, described somewhat snidely as a mild man, aided by his mother Rebecca and guided by God, gains the blessing of the birthright:
"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 to you;
Be master over your brothers,
And let your mother's sons bow to you.
Cursed be they who curse you,
Blessed they who bless you."Genesis 27: 28-29
The older brother, Esau, who sneezed away his birthright, now sniffles at its loss. Kidding aside, Esau's reaction is downright heartbreaking:
"Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud. And his father Isaac answered, saying to him,
"See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth
And the dew of heaven above.
Yet by your sword you shall live,
And you shall serve your brother;
But when you grow restive,
You shall break his yoke from your neck."Genesis 27:38-40
Gee, maybe it would have been better if Isaac had just said "bless you," or even "gesundheit." What sort of a blessing is this?
Both sons are blessed, albeit not equally. There are similarities in the blessings: Both sons are to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven. They are blessed with material possessions and, as we shall see next week, these blessings are fulfilled. But the blessings never promise a smooth path through life; a blessed life is not a charmed life. There are issues that each much face, no matter what blessing he receives. This is something we need to keep in mind as well. A blessing may pose many challenges and can even appear to be a curse. Blessings impose unasked for obligations on the individual and occasion negative reactions from others. They can lead to the same question asked by Rebecca at the beginning of parashat Toldot: "If so, why do I exist?" (Genesis 25:22; in other words: "Why me?"). Both Esau and Jacob must be thinking that question, the former in a rage against the cruelty done to him and the latter in fear as his entire life falls apart.
Jacob receives one more blessing from his father, when he is sent to his uncle's land to find a wife: "May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham." (Genesis 28:3-4) Here's where it gets interesting: When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him off to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, charging him, as he blessed him, "You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women," …Esau realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac. So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth. (Genesis 28:6-9) No blessing for Esau here, no rage at having one less blessing than his brother, just a realization and a response.
Most commentators view Esau's response as having an ulterior motive. Writing in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Hara E. Person state that he was still seeking his father's approval. According to Rashbam, not only did Esau hope to reclaim his father's favour with this marriage, he also sought to regain the blessing of the land. I prefer to read this passage as being consist with Esau's behaviour as a caring son, simply trying to fulfill his father's wishes despite everything that has occurred.
The blessing is only the potential; both brothers need to grow into their blessed futures. At the end of Toldot, one hunter and the other hunted, they are a long way from reaching that point. Decades later, when the brothers reunite, both have been blessed with family and material wealth. This culmination of their respective journeys reveals a vital new trait in these twins. Jacob the trickster and Esau the angry young man can finally relate to one another. It is only after long years of separation that the brothers truly approach each other, not as pawns or rivals, but as human beings. Though not a part of either's blessing, this new-found ability may be the greatest blessing of all, and certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Rabbi Michal Shekel
* It is listed as book thirteen in Graves but other versions only have eleven books. Any clarification on this would be greatly appreciated as well.