The Renewable Resource of Reciprocal Blessing


I often find myself reminded that we live in a world of scarcity.

First of all there’s the water. Our drought-ridden state that makes me worry continuously whether it’s okay to water the plants or flush the toilet. And the water worry leads me to food worry. How long can decreasing water feed a growing population? And the growing population leads me to turf worry, as I watch boatloads of people listing on the water to find a shtikl erd, some safe piece of earth.

But why limit my anxiety to today’s shortages? Look to tomorrow and there’s so much more scarcity to enjoy. Because the climate is changing and fossil fuel is running out and hard times are certainly coming and maybe it’s time to do more canning and pickling and shrink-wrapping for the post-apocalyptic future that is obviously right around the corner.

Everything is scarce. Everything is limited.

At least that’s how it feels.

And this habit of noticing scarcity brought me up short in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. In it we read our well-known story about Jacob appropriating the blessing that was intended for his ever so slightly older brother, Esau. Isaac, his father, falling for the ol' sheepskin-on-the-arm ruse, blesses Jacob with the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth and corn and wine and all sorts of dominion. Nations will bow down to Jacob. Jacob’s brothers will bow down to him.

So then when Esau shows up with his plate of dinner for Dad and Isaac’s folly is revealed, there is instant panic, because Jacob just walked away with the bank. Esau cries and begs for blessing too. And in one of the most pitiable, heartrending moments in Torah, he cries out: habrakhah achat hi-lekha avi? “Father, have you only one blessing to give?” [Gen 27:38].

“Have you only one blessing?” An astute question. Is blessing in fact a finite resource?

And so Isaac scrounges, to see what’s left in his blessing basket. And he comes up with a blessing for Esau, albeit a scrawny one. More dew of heaven and fat of the earth. But it seems the corn and wine got used up in the last blessing. And dominion? Plum out. The dominion ship has sailed and Jacob's at the helm. So instead, Isaac blesses Esau that despite long years living under his brother’s yoke, he would someday be able to shake it off.

A less-than-satisfying blessing. And this, combined with Jacob’s blessing, sets the stage for ages of strife.

In this story, and throughout Torah, blessings are portrayed somewhat as property (they can be stolen!) and somewhat as prophecy. But more than prophecy, blessings are magic. They conjure a future that we then have to live in. Isaac conjured a future for Jacob. Then he had to conjure one for Esau that conforms to what he already called into being.

This is all tricky stuff. Conjuring a future is a risky business.

We learn this lesson over and over in the folklore of the world. The Scheherazadian “be careful what you wish for” stories. You stumble on a magic lamp. You free a jinni and in gratitude it offers you three wishes. A limited supply of blessing. And we all know how the story goes. One wish to go terribly wrong, one wish to make it worse, and one wish that will, if we’re lucky, restore things to how they’d been at the beginning of our cautionary tale.

We have learned from these stories that the jinni – no, the story itself – is hostile to your interests. If you leave a loophole in your wish, no matter how small, it is down that loophole that you will soon find yourself plummeting.

This story in Torah resonates with that model. Blessings are limited in number. And the greater the desire for earthly acquisition in them, the greater trouble they will get you into, until you wonder if these blessings, like the wishes granted by the jinni, are really just curses in pretty garb.

So are blessings really a finite resource? I don’t think they have to be. After all, the best blessings don’t come from us, from our limited size and capacity. They are not how we imagine the jinni’s magic, making something from nothing. Instead, good blessings come through us. In moments of deep blessing we feel part of something much bigger than ourselves. A brachah that we know well can be tossed off in an unthinking way. Mumble mumble min ha’aretz. Or, with even a little attention, it can connect us to the flow of blessing present in the universe. A simple motzi can link us to sun and rain and position of earth, to the DNA of grain, and the devotion of thousands of generations of ancestors planting fields to feed their children so that they – and we – may live. That kind of motzi turns every bite into a moment of majesty.

With the best blessings we tap into something big. We draw divinity into us; we reshape it with our words and place it back into the world, recreating the world the way we would like it to be.

And so the only limitations on blessing, I think, are the limits of our imaginations. The limits we place on our own idea of what blessing can do. Isaac was, for a moment, limitless. He blessed both his sons with the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, both things that come through God’s favor. He was, in that moment, in a mochin d’gadlut – a state of expanded consciousness. Whereas domination of nations is a human idea and a human aspiration and a constant source of human suffering. It is punier, less worthy than the dew of heaven. As he says those words, you hear the gears of Isaac’s consciousness cranking shut. Offering blessings for mastery over others constricts him. And wanting such blessings does the same to both his sons. This patriarchal trio turn themselves into very narrow vessels for very narrow blessings.

But blessing can be so much more! How do we use blessing to bring more peace to the world? How do we bless in ways that are more expansive and imaginative than Isaac was able to muster? How do we outwit the jinni?

Visionary activist Caroline Casey offers some ideas about this. She encourages us to bless lavishly. To be sure to bless both friends and enemies. To be specific and imaginative. And most important: to be reciprocal. That is, only to offer blessings that we would also be happy to receive ourselves.

So what does this look like? I sat in the car yesterday behind someone who was too timid to turn right on red, despite the light traffic, and despite my hurry, which for some mysterious reason they seemed not to know about. As I got aggravated, it occurred to me to offer them a blessing. One blessing came to mind:

May you be blessed to realize what a jerk you are.

I didn’t offer that one, because although it came up quickly and naturally, it added nothing good to the world, and it was not a blessing I would want to receive. So I breathed deeply, still sitting behind them at the damn light, and offered this one instead:

May you be blessed to feel safe to move in this world when the time is right; may flights of angels protect you from harm; may you reach wonderful destinations without pressure from the impatient.

Making that blessing shifted something in me. I was no longer angry at this stranger for something petty. I became protective of them and concerned about their safety. The blessing invited my compassion. It was a blessing I wouldn’t mind receiving. And in offering it, I did also receive it. Because I put this intention out into the world, and there I was, in the world in which this intention was now afloat. I was blessed by my own blessing. I was suddenly a calmer, more patient, safer driver. And that was just one instantaneous, real-world effect of my blessing process.

And when I was done with that blessing, if someone had come to me and said, “Wait, that was supposed to be my blessing. Don’t you have one for me?” I would not have had any trouble offering another.

Because blessing is a renewable resource. And it is such a clever way to engage creatively at any moment when we feel scarcity, when we feel ourselves being petty or grudging. Have to pull over for an ambulance? Turn the inconvenience into blessing:

May this person be blessed to be well cared for, may they live a life full of health and joy.

When we watch agonizing and discouraging presidential debates, turn the frustration into blessing:

May our leaders be blessed to inadvertently choose counselors of great vision and wisdom and imagination; may their counselors’ voices be sweet so that our leaders can hear them.

I struggled overnight to find a blessing to offer after yesterday’s attacks in Paris, when what I feel is so much anger and despair. Offering blessing to innocent Parisians is easy, and I suspect we all have been doing that all morning. But I wanted to engage the power of blessing even further. I didn’t want blessing to be limited to friends only. What is the blessing I can offer to enemies, so that the worldwide field of blessing can press toward peace? And here’s what I came up with, something modest, for starters:

May those who would be suicide bombers and suicide attackers be blessed to wake up every morning to see the expanse of sky outside their windows and to hear their loved ones puttering in the next room and may they realize suddenly that it really would be so much better, so much lovelier, to live.

Blessing is not what we do instead of doing. It is another kind of doing. A framework for our doing. With it we set the stage for the world we want to see. And with it we train our own compassionate reflexes and creative responses to a world bent on making us feel powerless and scared.

So let us all bless each other lavishly. Let us bless our loved ones and the people who annoy us and the people who frighten us. Let this be our practice and our habit. So that next time Isaac comes around, he can be a much more ample vessel of blessing, a source of abundance, not scarcity. So that next time he comes around, he can call both of his sons into the room, along with the daughters who, because of scarcity of imagination are left out of the story, and may he bless them all with the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, with patience and with vision. May Isaac bless them that if anyone bows to them, they help them right back up. May Isaac bless them that if they see anyone under a yoke of oppression, they help lift it off. May Isaac bless them that when their future nations come to blows, angels stay their hands. May Isaac bless them that they should learn from him – that we should learn from him – how to bless.

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I am grateful to Caroline Casey for getting me to think much more deeply about the power of metaphor and blessing to shape the world. I am grateful to my study partner Amy Pessah who said, “This story is about scarcity mentality,” and showed me a road. And I am grateful to my friend Samuel Abramovitz who decided that the scarcity of blessing was because these players were too contracted to hold more.