With a singular blessing, he is chosen to lead


At the end of every command-course in the Israeli army, a questionnaire known as a Sociometric test is given to each cadet. It’s a pretty simple form: each soldier is asked to list five fellow cadets, in order of preference, whom they would choose to lead their unit, and five fellow cadets, also in order of preference, whom they would not want leading their unit. No one is permitted to leave the form blank; it’s a pre-requisite for graduating the course.

There was actually a cadet who had been with me in commanders’ course who was not accepted to officer’s course, even though he had one of the highest scores, was extremely intelligent, and was clearly cool under pressure, simply because his name came up negatively (so the rumor went) on this Sociometrist questionnaire. 

Most challenging for me was that we had to name the number one choice for leading us (we were not allowed to enter our own names). I often wondered why we couldn’t just pick the top five.

• • •

This week’s parsha of Toldos relates one of the most challenging parenting moments in Jewish history: Yitzchak’s decision to bless his first born son Esau. Why did he have to choose one son — why couldn’t both Yaakov as well as Esau be blessed? Noach blesses all three of his sons (Bereishit 9:24-27) and Yaakov, on his death bed, gives a bracha to each of his 12 sons (Bereishit in Parshat Va’yechi, chapter 49).

In truth, there are two types of blessings. But in order to understand this, we first need to define blessings: What is a bracha?

At the end of his life, the Torah tells us: “And Avraham was old, well on in years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything.” (Bereishit 24:1)

Most people think that when we make a blessing we are thanking G-d, but that is not actually correct. “Bracha” does not mean thank you. We have a word for that — Todah — and we often use it both when we pray as well as after we eat, So obviously “bracha” has to mean something different.

In fact, Rav Soleveitchick suggests, the word bracha means to increase; hence we are told that Hashem has blessed Avraham, which means Hashem has increased Avraham’s wealth or progeny (at the end of his life, Avraham remarries Ketura and has many more children).

And this makes a lot of sense. After all, what is it I am trying to do when I say a blessing? I am trying to increase Hashem’s presence in my life. I can choose just to eat a piece of bread, or I can choose to use that bread as a vehicle for deepening my relationship with G-d.

• • •

Most people don’t think twice about a piece of fresh bread they’ve just eaten, other than to relish its taste. But it takes a lot of work to make bread: A field must be ploughed and then sowed, then the crops are reaped and threshed and winnowed and eventually the wheat is crushed into kernels and then the dough is kneaded until finally it is baked and we have bread. And all of this is dependent on rain and sunshine.

By seeing myself as a partner with G-d in producing this bread I increase Hashem’s presence in my life and thus in the world. As such, our verse which describes Hashem’s blessing Avraham with everything, is as much about how Avraham chooses to see the world Hashem has given us, as it is about what Hashem actually bestows upon Avraham.

At the end of his life, Yaakov wants each of his 12 sons to know that they are all blessed, and that they have the ability, each through their own special gifts and talents, to see Hashem’s presence in everything they do, and everything they experience. In this instance (as in Noach’s blessings of his three sons) the process of blessing is inclusive; everyone is blessed, because we are all special and created by Hashem to be vehicles for a better world.

Sometimes, although all of our children are special, we need to choose one, to the exclusion of all others. Some things cannot be run by committee; a ship needs one captain and an army unit needs one commander. And in that instance, the blessings are exclusive — someone needs to lead.

Hashem tells Avraham only one of his sons will carry on the Jewish message, and through him the world will all be blessed. Of course, this leaves us with the question of why Yitzchak chooses Esau despite the fact that Rivka already knows that Yaakov will lead (in Bereishit 25:22-23, Rivka receives a prophecy to that effect).

• • • 

Perhaps this entire story unfolds in this manner so that Yaakov learns to fight for what is his.

There is a very strange ruling in the Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia 2a) regarding a case brought before a court by two litigants, each claiming ownership of a boat at sea. Neither has evidence to support their case; they have no witnesses, no contract and no presumption of ownership (chazaka), so the court, with no basis upon which to rule, pronounces: Kol de’alim gevar — whoever is strongest, let him win! In other words, go outside and fight it out and last man standing gets the boat!

What sort of a ruling is that? How can a court make such a statement? There are many different opinions among the commentaries, but one that speaks to me is the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher) who suggests that we learn from this case that if something is really yours, you have to be willing to fight for it.

Perhaps Yaakov, as a harbinger of millennium of Jewish history to come, is meant to learn that sometimes one cannot stay in the tent of study, sometimes achievement must come with struggle.

Indeed, this idea is exactly what the Jewish people finally understood in 1948, after the horrors of the Holocaust. If we wanted to call Israel our Home, we would have to be willing to fight for it. In life, every human being deserves to find something so meaningful and so beautiful that they are willing to struggle, and perhaps even give up life itself, for its achievement.

The message of the Jewish people and the gift Jews are is meant to share with the world, is one such ideal — as Yitzchak and Rivka and later Yaakov understood, 4,000 years ago.

Rabbi Binny Freedman is Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta in Jerusalem. A version of this column was previously published.