Reading this week’s Torah portion Toldot, this year, my heart goes out to Esau.
His father Isaac senses that death is near, so he sends Esau out hunting so he can prepare some game and receive his father’s innermost blessing. When he arrives at Isaac’s knee, he discovers that Isaac has given that blessing already to Jacob. “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” asks Esau.
And Isaac replies, “But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?”
Esau says to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too!” and weeps aloud. The commentator known as the Radak embellishes Esau’s words: “can you not even grant me a blessing concerning any aspect of life which you have not given him?”
Isaac blesses him to enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven above. “By your sword you will live, and you shall serve your brother,” Isaac continues, “but when you grow restive you shall break his yoke from your neck.”
Isaac is limited by his own zero-sum thinking and his preoccupation with the idea that one of his sons has to come out on top. Having blessed Jacob to rule over his brother, now he seems at a loss for what to say to Esau.
Jewish tradition invites us to identify with Jacob, who will eventually be renamed Yisrael, One Who Wrestles With God — the name that inheres in our peoplehood. But I invite us tonight to identify with Esau. Feel what it’s like to be the older brother who ought, by all rights, to inherit land, blessing, good fortune. The brother who did all the right things, and now learns that he faces servitude rather than promise. When we inhabit Esau’s place, rather than Jacob’s, how does Isaac’s blessing make us feel?
It’s easy to see Isaac’s blessing to his older son as a kind of back-handed slap. “You’ll live by the sword, and your brother will dominate you until you overthrow him.” But I think we can find more in it if we try.
The first part of Isaac’s blessing is the same for both of his sons. Isaac blesses both of his sons with the dew of heaven, which our tradition understands as a symbol of grace. Torah too is compared to dew. Dew is the sustaining abundance that arises even in the desert, and grace is everyone’s birthright even when we’re in tough spiritual places. We too can receive Isaac’s blessing of dew: sustenance and nourishment for our tender places, kindness and wisdom to balm our sorrows and uplift our hearts.
The next part of Isaac’s blessing has to do with living by the sword. The Radak says this is the part of the blessing that is most exclusively Esau’s. We can understand it as the blessing of strength and prowess, the ability to defend oneself. At times when we may feel anxious about those who seek power over us — whether in our families, or our workplaces, or the public sphere — we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing of skilled and ready self-defense.
And finally, Isaac’s blessing offers the certainty that the day will come when Esau will serve no longer. His future may contain servitude to his brother, but that servitude will not last forever. This may be the most important part of Isaac’s blessing, because it contains the seeds of hope. At times when we feel subjugated or mistreated, we can draw strength from Isaac’s blessing that things will get better. Isaac’s blessing reminds Esau (and us) that the tight places in life are temporary and will pass.
We all have times when we feel like Esau. Cheated and mistreated, in tight straits through no fault of our own. We all know what it’s like to be dealt a hand of cards that is not the one we had hoped for. To receive something that may not feel like a blessing: a bad diagnosis, or a door that closes, or a relationship that ends. In those moments we may feel like Esau, who came to his father seeking a sweet blessing and received a bitter one instead.
But even bitter blessings have the capacity to open us up to abundance. And developing the skill of learning to find the abundance concealed within the disappointment, the silver lining concealed within the raincloud, the gifts concealed within the blessing of the thing we didn’t ask for and didn’t want, can serve us well when times are hard — and even more so when times are sweet.
My prayer for each of us is this: When the rains don’t come, may there be dew, sustenance that nourishes even when our surroundings are spiritually dried-up. When we are in tight straits, may adversity help us hone our strength and our skills.
And when others act as though they have power over us, may we take comfort in the knowledge that our calling is to serve not those who claim dominance, but rather the Source of All. May we take comfort in knowing that we were not put on this earth to be diminished, but to be nourished and to grow until we can break the shackles of injustice. May we take comfort in knowing that even (or especially) when the night seems dark, we can have faith in the coming of the dawn.
May Isaac’s blessing for Esau this year impel us to awareness of our inner resources and our gifts. May our tradition nourish us like the dew. And may we release ourselves into the highest forms of service, and in so doing find faith in our own becoming.
These is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at the December 2 Kabbalat Shabbat service (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)