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Handing on the Divine Blessing given to Abraham – a difficult process

Author: Esther Ehrman, Heshvan 5772/November 2011

Toldot, with Ramban

In the Genesis narrative of the patriarchs, we learn that G-d blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Was there one blessing, handed on from father to son? Were there separate blessings for each of the patriarchs? Was the process of receiving blessings a matter of merit? Were the blessings part of the Covenant that the Almighty decreed? All these questions are raised by the text in the Section of the Book of Genesis referred to as 'Toldot', Generations, (Ch.25,19 – Ch.28,9) because the opening statement is 'And these are the generations (toldot) of Isaac, the son of Abraham'. The answers are, in part, a matter of interpretation. The Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th century) offers a number of comments.

When G-d tells Abraham to leave the homeland and the family of his origins (Gen.Ch.12,1 ff), the Almighty says:

'Leave your country, your kindred and your father's house for a land that I will show you.

And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

And I will bless those that bless you and curse whoever curses you; and in you will all the families of the earth be blessed'.

This important blessing, which will be handed on to the two other patriarchs, is generally seen as universal. The Ramban takes it to refer to a rather more local situation, writing that it is an assurance given to Abraham that he will no longer be persecuted on account of his belief in G-d, as he had been in Ur of the Chaldees. (Such persecution is not in the text; its source is a Midrash).

When the initial blessing was given, there was no mention of the land (Canaan), As the narrative proceeds, we learn that G-d made a covenant, twice reported: inCh 15,18: (In the same day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: Unto your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates) and Ch 17, 2ff ('I am El Shaddai...and I will make a covenant between me and you....and I will give to you and to your seed after you, the land wherein you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their G-d.).

Ramban comments on the use of the name El Shaddai. While this name implies power, the Almighty, it refers, he tells us, to that aspect of the Divine that enables 'hidden' miracles which he understands to be 'natural' miracles, such that they occur according to the laws of nature and are not obvious as miracles to all. Thus, the conquest of Canaan allows the Israelites to take possession of the land. It is a miracle, but not a miracle like the Ten Plagues. Ramban further refers to a later dialogue (Ex.6,3) where the Almighty tells Moses that He had revealed Himself to the Patriarchs only by the name, El Shaddai and not by the tetragrammaton Name.

A final component is added to the gifts accorded to Abraham by G-d, as a reward for the faith that Abraham demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac Ch.22,16, namely, ultimate victory over the enemy ('..because you have done this thing...that in blessing I will bless you and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars in the heaven and as the sand that is on the sea shore; and you seed shall possess the gate of its enemies. And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed'). This is an assurance, Ramban explains, that no future sin will cancel the blessing and that the people will ultimately rise again after defeat by an enemy, an assurance, he says, of the redemption.

If we now turn to the section of Toldot, we find that Isaac, son of Abraham, receives all but the last component of these blessings. He receives them directly, from G-d. As in the days of Abraham, a famine in the land makes the patriarch leave, evidently planning to go to Egypt. G-d stops Isaac when he gets as far as Gerar and says (Ch 26.2 ff) 'Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I will tell you of. Sojourn in the land and I will bless you, for to you and your seed I will give all these lands and I will fulfil the oath that I sware to Abraham your father. And I will make your seed to multiply as the stars of heaven and I will give to your seed all these lands. And in your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed'. The merit that calls forth this multiple blessing is due to Abraham, 'Because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statues and my laws (ve yishmor mishmaroti, mittzvotai, chukotai ve toratai) (ibid v.5).

The promise of the land here is again associated with a covenant. Ramban comments that the phrase, 'I will fulfil the oath that I sware to Abraham your father' is itself an oath. It is the only occasion that G-d swore to give the land to Isaac's descendants and it underlies the phrase, 'the land that I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac and unto Jacob' (Deut.Ch.34,4).

G-d, Ramban explains, made the oath to each one of the patriarchs 'to let it be known that each one was worthy of the covenant being made with him alone'. Indeed, the Almighty will bless the third Patriarch, again directly. When Jacob is on his way to the house of his uncle, Laban, he has a dream of a ladder going up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending Gen. 28, 12 ff). At this point G-d speaks to Jacob in the dream and says:...the land on which you are lying, to you I will give it and to your seed; and your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad, to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed'. Three components of the Abrahamic blessing are mentioned, to multiply his seed, to give the land to them and to bless the nations through them; there is no mention of victory over enemies. Given that this blessing was given,directly and separately to each of the Patriarchs, what is the significance of the blessings that Isaac gives to each of his two sons, Esau and Jacob in the section Toldot?

Immediately prior to the Divine communication to Isaac at Gerar, the Biblical narrative had related the birth of his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, and the Divine prophecy given to their mother, Rebecca, that 'two nations are in your womb...and one nation will be stronger than the other nation and the older shall serve the younger' (Ch.25,23). This prophecy would seem to add a new component to the Abrahamic gifts, namely power; not power over an external enemy, but power over a sibling and his descendants, rather like the superior status that Joseph will be granted over his siblings.

Ramban here comments that Rebecca did not inform Isaac of the prophecy, perhaps because she believed him to be a great prophet who would know about it, or perhaps because she was embarrassed to say that she had gone to 'seek ( Ramban says, to pray) the Lord' without discussing it with her husband.

What blessings did Jacob and Esau receive from their father?

To Jacob, believing him to be Esau, Isaac says (Gen.Ch.27, 27 ff): '..see the smell of my son is as the smell of the field that the Lord has blessed. Therefore, G-d give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and an abundance of corn and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Cursed be everyone that curses you and blessed be he that blesses you.'

To Esau, Isaac says (Ch.27,39 ff) 'Behold, your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above. And by your sword you shall live and you will serve your brother. And it shall come to pass that when you have dominion (ka asher tarid – when you make moan, according to Ramban), you will break his yoke from your neck'.

To Jacob, telling him to go to Laban to find a wife, Isaac says (Ch.28,3 ff): 'And G-d Almighty (El Shaddai) bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of peoples, and give you the blessing of Abraham (birkat Avraham) to you and to your seed after you, that you may inherit the land wherein you are a stranger (mi gureicha) that G-d gave to Abraham'.

The last of these is, as Isaac says, 'the blessing of Abraham'. It has the element of multiplying and the gift of the land. It does not mention the element of being a blessing to the nations, but Isaac had already included this in his first blessing to Jacob. However, he had included it then, believing he was speaking to Esau, in other words, wanting to pass this part of the blessing to his first born son. If being a blessing to the nations is the major Abrahamic blessing, then Jacob has perhaps a dubious entitlement. The fact that the Almighty will grant this blessing to Jacob directly avoids any ambiguity.

So, what about the two blessings that Isaac gives to his two sons? They seem to be very much alike.

To both, Isaac says that they will be blessed with dew from heaven and with the fatness of the land.

Ramban comments that Isaac was able to give these blessings to both of them because there is an abundance of dew and good land. Ramban links the extra 'abundance of corn and wine' in the blessing Jacob receives, to the later blessing that Isaac knowingly gives to Jacob, 'meaning that he should have the plentifulness of corn and wine in the land of Canaan, which was Abraham's gift, while Esau would have the dew and the fat places of the earth in other lands'. 'But in the matter of lordship, that will be his and you shall serve him', Ramban interprets.

Ramban interprets the phrase in the blessing to Esau 'and by the sword you shall live' (Ch.27,40): 'the purport of the blessing is that he survive his battles and be victorious and not fall by the sword of the enemy'. However, Ramban continues: 'It is for this reason that, immediately following this Isaac says "and you shall serve your brother", meaning, you will not prevail over him. Instead, he will prevail over you'.

Actually, what seem to be the basic elements, the dew and the fatness of the land, sibling relationship, do not figure in the Abrahamic blessing. And two specifics of that Abrahamic blessing do not figure here, neither the land nor the multiplying of descendants. As already said, Isaac does bless Jacob with being a blessing to those who bless him and cursing those that curse him. (Ramban notes that the order is inverted at this point and comments that blessing had already been mentioned and it here ends the sentence, so that cursing comes in the middle. According to the exegetical rule,, 'general, detail, general' (klal u prat u klal), the general dominates, which here means that the blessing entails a plural, all those who bless, while the curse in the middle applies only to a single, isolated person).

Why is Isaac concerned with personal life – dew and fatness of the land – and with the sibling rivalry? And why the need for Esau to 'live by the sword' and to have nations serve him and bow down to him? It would seem that Isaac's blessing are, first and foremost, personal blessings. He has himself experienced the problem of a rejected sibling, Ishmael and, perhaps, wishes it to be clear that only the 'bechor' the first-born, has the entitlement. As elsewhere in the Book of Genesis, the biological first-born has to give way before the merit of a younger sibling (Cain and Abel, Reuben and Judah or Josef). Isaac's 'blindness' is perhaps not just physical.

As to Isaac's concern for the military prowess of Esau and his descendants, it is again possible that Isaac's experience comes into play. His father Abraham had military success while what we are told of Isaac's life was the episode of the 'sacrifice' and dealings with his sons. So, beyond the prosperity he would like to wish his sons, he wishes Esau power – over his brother and over nations. Isaac, however, does not have the real say in the matter. The prophecy given to Rebecca cannot be gainsaid. The Almighty, who had given the blessings to Abraham, to him and to his rightful descendants, ensures that these blessings, the land, a people that multiplies and is, above all, a blessing to the nations of the earth, is inherited, not automatically, but appropriately, by those who deserve it.