Toldot: Two Blessings

Shalom to one and all- we’re “going rogue” with this week’s drasha, which for a Torah commentary means we’re going to look at a passage from the Shabbat liturgy that may be unfamiliar to even very regular synagogue participants. Before we do that, however, let’s review what’s in the Torah portion Toldot, which begins with Yitzhak and Rivka conceiving twins, Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov persuades Esav to sell the birthright of the firstborn, and then deceives their father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, too. This makes Esav none too happy, and Yaakov has to scram back east to Rivka’s hometown.

Yaakov fooled his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. When Esav found out, he wept bitter tears and then plotted vengeance -which is why Yaakov had to skedaddle. Just before he left, however, Yaakov received one more blessing from his father, this time consciously.

These two blessings- the one that Yitzhak was deceived into giving, and the one that he gave willingly as Yaakov had to take flight- are stuck together and form part of a longer passage which is traditionally recited on Saturday night, as Shabbat itself takes its leave and we return to the work-week. In the Conservative Sim Shalom prayerbook, the two blessings form one paragraph, but I’ve separated them so it’s clear how the verses come from different passages in the Torah:

“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. . . .

May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.  May He grant the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Avraham.” (Bereshit 27:28-29, 30:3-4)

There are other verses from the Torah and the rest of the Tanach [Hebrew Scriptures] which are part of the Saturday night liturgy; the basic idea is that we hope the coming week will be one of prosperity, peace and blessing, and the verses above, along with the others, speak to that sense of hope and possibility from one Shabbat to the next.

Yet it’s striking to note the Biblical context of these verses of blessing- one was stolen and the other was given right before Yitzhak’s family was split apart for decades. The other irony, of course, is that the blessing of being “master over your brothers” was given to a man about to be a fugitive, and years later Yaakov reversed the stolen blessing to bow down in humility before Esav. (Cf. the portion Vayishlach, in two weeks.)

The blessings that Yitzhak gave to Yaakov remind us that life can be messy, complicated, and painful; things aren’t always what they seem, and sometimes the best intentions go awry. Yaakov is blessed right before he has to leave, and perhaps that’s why we recite this blessing and take it to heart- because all of us are on journeys of growth, which will take us to unpredictable places from one Shabbat to the next. We are all, in a sense, like Yaakov- falling short of the blessings we receive and yet fully capable of growing into them, on a journey towards new things and yet always with the promise of someday inheriting the “blessing of Avraham,” which connects us to our people and our faith.

Shabbat Shalom,


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