Home / Community / Torah PortionRSS Feed
Torah: Gifts or blessings?
November 30th, 2009
Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon
What is in a word? When we talk to our children and teach them the basic lessons of life, like saying “please” and “thank you,” it would seem that everything is.
There are excellent books dedicated to helping our little ones understand the import of saying these important words. Teaching our children to say these words is essential because it helps them to appreciate either what others have done for them, or what they are asking of another.
Their appreciation of the gifts of others is often a first step towards an appreciation of the gifts of God.
This month, we finish reading Jacob’s story and then continue with his life’s mission through his son Joseph. In Jacob’s life there are many moments of transformation where we watch him grow emotionally and spiritually.
One very important moment is when he and his brother reconcile. The Torah’s narrative of sibling rivalry and strife between Jacob and Essau is completed through the demonstration of the importance of one single word.
We can imagine that when Jacob and Essau are about to be reunited, each was trying to read the other for clues to explain the actions of the other. They might have been asking themselves, “Why is he doing this after so many years?”
When Jacob finally confronts his brother, we must remember he did not know what the outcome would be.
We have seen Jacob struggle and squirm with this issue. His anxiety as he approaches his brother is palpable. He goes back and forth from one side of the river to the other. He splits his family up this way and that, sending them ahead of himself in small groups.
Upon finally seeing the brother who ran off into the wilderness return with wealth and family, Essau runs up to his brother, they hug, they kiss and they weep. Essau looks all about and asks, ”Who are all of these people?”
He asks him: “Mi l’cha kol hamachaneh hazeh asher pigashti?”/“What do you mean by all of this camp that I have met?” From his perspective this is certainly a good, honest question.
Jacob, who is anxious and sleep deprived may be projecting onto Essau thoughts such as, “Whom else did Jacob steal from to get all of this?” Or perhaps he considered Essau’s a genuine inquiry. Jacob responds: “Vayimtzo hen b’einei Adoni”/“To find favor in the eyes of my Lord.”
What message is Jacob trying to send to his brother? “Look, I did not steal or connive to get them,” or “God showed favor upon me not because I am so good,” or “Look, God fulfilled the blessing.”
Jacob’s response may be purely pragmatic, modest and not brash. Given all that he has done and all of the history that exists between the brothers, Jacob risks offending Essau regardless of his words.
If he says, “I worked hard,” Essau might think it is the same old brash Jacob. If he tries modesty — “Look, God fulfilled the blessing” — he risks reminding Essau of what Jacob stole from him in the first place.
Essau asks Jacob another question, “What is the purpose of all this wealth you have paraded before me?” This time, Jacob’s answer reveals his intentions. After the obligatory “It’s for you” and “No, I could never accept such a gift” exchange, Jacob almost begs Essau, “Kach na et birchati asher huvat lach”
According to the JPS translation this reads as “please take my gift that has been brought to you.” Reading it in the Hebrew might give us a clue to Jacob’s feelings. The word that is translated as gifts is birchati, which also means, “my blessing.”
Perhaps Jacob is really saying to his brother, “I am returning the blessing that I took from you so long ago.” In this case, it would not matter how much wealth one or the other had, Jacob is attempting to return what is not his.
From a distance, we can see many opportunities for the brothers to rush to judgment, judging each as they knew the other as young men. In the end, their patience is rewarded in Jacob’s honest acknowledgement of what he has done. It is this honesty that allows the brothers to come together once again. It does not erase the past, but makes a future possible.