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B'resheet/Genesis 28:4 And may He give you the blessing of Avraham, to you and your descendants with you
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Chapter 28 of the book of B'resheet starts drawing to a close the two stories of Ya'akov's usurping his brother Esav. During this short parasha, the twins have been born; Ya'akov has bought Esav's birthright for a "mess of pottage"1 (25:29-34); and most lately, has stolen his father's blessing by impersonating his brother (27:18-29). Now, despite Yitz'khak's "uncontrollable trembling" and the weeping and sobbing when Esav returns to find the blessing already given to his younger brother, Yitz'khak chooses to bless Ya'akov, to instruct him about finding a wife from among the family, and - in addition to everything he has misappropriated - to designate Ya'akov as the one who will inherit the promise of Avraham: the land, becoming a great nation and the blessing to the nations. This hardly seems a fit reward for Ya'akov's dishonesty, or the sending away of a younger son in disgrace that we might have expected.
The earlier commentators choose to ignore much of the underlying contradictions at this point, focusing instead on the reason for Yitz'khak's confirmation of the blessings: "Rabbi Abbahu said: Ya'akov's hold on the blessings was in fact but weak; where was it strengthened? Here: 'And Yitz'khak called Ya'akov, etc.' (28:1). Rabbi Eleazar said: The validity of a document is established by its signatures. Thus, lest you should say, Had not Ya'akov deceived his father he would not have received the blessings, Scripture states, 'And Yitz'khak called Ya'akov and blessed him'. Rabbi Berekiah said: It may be likened to a king's son who was digging through to his father for a pound of gold. Said he to him: 'Why this secrecy? Come and take it openly!' Thus it says, 'And Yitz'khak called Ya'akov, etc.'" (B'resheet Rabbah 67:12). As Nahum Sarna comments, "By this act, Yitz'khak confirms Ya'akov's title to the birthright independently of the deception. Ya'akov is recognised to be the true heir to the Avrahamic covenant, which is why he must not marry outside the family."
Picking up on the phrase , "the blessing of Avraham",Rashi points out that this blessing is made up of HaShem's words: "And I will make of you a great nation" (12:2) and "they shall bless themselves by your offspring" (22:18). He then puts these extra words in Yitz'khak's mouth: "May those blessings have been stated for your sake; may that nation and that blessed offspring come forth from you." Rabbi Hirsch draws significance from Yitz'khak using the word , "with you" and not , "after you", suggesting that "the future kernel for a united nation will not develop only out of your later generations. None of your children will be estranged from you, all of them will inherit with you the blessing that had been promised to Avraham." While we might look at the later story and think that Hirsch was being rather optimistic in his second sentence, his first point remains: the blessing will not start only with the following generations, the blessing starts now as you receive it now. It is certainly true that here Yitz'khak is here passing on the promise and calling of Avraham, the mission of Avraham, a feature notably absent from the "firstborn" blessing given earlier.
Other commentators try to attach conditions to the inheritance of the blessing. TheSforno claims that the blessing Avraham "can only be by teaching the knowledge of G-d to the people, for in this manner G-d, the Blessed One, will be blessed"; in other words, that the blessing will only follow if Ya'akov and his sons teach the nations about G-d. Chizkuni suggests that the blessing is conditioned on Ya'akov not marrying a Canaanite woman. Drazin and Wagner, on the other hand, gloss over the deception that has occurred, writing that "Yitz'khak gives the blessings now to Ya'akov to indicate that he is confident that Ya'akov deserves them and so that no one should accuse him of deceptively absconding with Yitz'khak's blessings that he did not justly merit."
It is Gunther Plaut who is prepared to step up to the plate and ask the question that is in everyone's mind: "Was Yitz'khak really deceived?" Looking back over the parasha, he writes, "As we read the story with close attention to the personality of Yitz'khak, we are led to conclude that throughout the episode he is subconsciously aware of Ya'akov's identity. However, since he is unable to admit this knowledge, he pretends to be deceived." The Torah does not paint Yitz'khak as a strong character; he is the quiet "holding pattern" between the obedient stepping out of his father Avraham and the bold - if not brash and overconfident - actions of his son. They travel thousands of miles, while he stays a sojourner in the Land for his whole life; he is passive and acted upon, while they are active and impact the lives of others. With the trauma of the Akeidah - being bound on the altar and nearly sacrificed by his father - still in his mind, he will not confront or challenge. Critically, Plaut points out that "Yitz'khak is old, but not senile; his blessings are highly sophisticated." He has not lost his faculties, "but he wants to be misled; in his heart he has long known that Esav cannot carry the burden of Avraham and that, instead, his quiet and complicated younger son must be chosen." Esav, with all his love of hunting and the outdoors life, doesn't have the sharp insight, the survival instinct and the sheer determination to get there at all costs, that Ya'akov has consistently shown. Esav is slower - the Torah almost portrays him as clumsy and boorish - while Ya'akov has not only got what it takes to reach the top, but has shown that he is prepared to use it in the same way as his father and grandfather both passed off their wives as their sisters to safe their own skins. Constrained, as he will be, by G-d's hand, Ya'akov is the heir to the promise, even though G-d has not finished with him yet.
These disturbing ideas, both about the patriarchs and about G-d Himself - whom the narrative seems to mark as complicit with or at least using or taking advantage of Ya'akov's sin to accomplish His purposes - can yet be turned around. While leaving them wholly responsible for their own choices, words and actions, G-d uses the most unlikely people that He has placed or positioned within history to have dramatic effect upon the course of that same history. In the next book of the Torah, we will read about the Pharaoh who both hardened his heart and had his heart hardened, in order that G-d's power might be shown and the bankrupt economy of the pagan and idolatrous Egyptian religion might be exposed. Later on, the prophet Isaiah will speak of Cyrus, the king of the Persians and Medes, "He is My shepherd, and He shall fulfill all My purpose" (Isaiah 44:28, ESV), referring to him as "My anointed" (45:1) even though "you do not know Me" (v. 4). King Ahasuerus is later to help the Jewish people resist destruction at the hands of Haman. King Herod, whose wickedness in slaughtering the innocents in Bethlehem is record by Matthew's gospel (2:16) was the unwitting agent of prophecy being fulfilled surrounding the birth of Yeshua. Pilate, weak and according to Philo, "inflexible, with a furious temper", is the man who despite his own better judgement allows the Jewish leadership to have Yeshua crucified, nevertheless "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23, ESV).
Rav Sha'ul speaks of those who "preach Messiah from envy and rivalry" (Philippians 1:15, ESV), those who "proclaim Messiah out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment" (v. 17, ESV). Yet Sha'ul rejoices that Messiah is proclaimed, that the name of Yeshua is being heard by a wider and wider audience. In fact, Sha'ul writes, "G-d chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; G-d chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; G-d chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:27-28, ESV). He denigrates his own physical appearance and speaking abilities, pointing out that the Galatians heard the gospel from him while he was ill and receiving care and treatment from them (Galatians 4:13). Instead, he emphasises that he and his travelling companions are simply "jars of clay" (2 Corinthians 4:7), displaying G-d's glory.
Today, although weak - in that we sin, despite our freedom not to do so - G-d still wants to work with and through us. As believers in Messiah, we are invited to join Him in His mission to reach the world with His message of reconciliation. We are His agents to call out His blessing on successive generations both physical and spiritual: we nurture our own families, raising them to know the love and guidance of the L-rd; we nurture fellow believers in the family of Messiah, encouraging them to grow in the love and knowledge of G-d. We bless each other, speaking words of wisdom and care, challenge and appreciation, "until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of G-d, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13, ESV). We are called to help G-d brush aside the mud and display the masterpiece that He is building in each one of us but that we sometimes find hardest to see in ourselves.
1. - Not present in any English Bible translation, the phrase first appeared in a sermon in the 1450s and was part of the notes in the Great Bible (1539) and the Geneva Bible (1560).
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 2:6-7; Colossians 1:25-29; James 2:5
Application: Why not think of how you can encourage someone today and help them to grow towards the image of Messiah being formed in them.
Comment - 18:01 08Nov15 Tom Hiney: It seems that Isaac connived at Jacob's crime. Not only that but G-d connived also in his mysterious wisdom. He also must connive at our transgressions which is comforting.
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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