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Toledot 5769-2008

“The Blessings of a Tzaddik”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read of Isaac’s desire to bless Esau, and Rebecca’s scheme to divert the blessing to Jacob.

Rebecca overhears Isaac calling to Esau, their oldest son, saying to him (Genesis 27:2): “He’nay nah zah’kan’tee, lo yah’dah’tee yom moh’tee,” See now I am old, and I know not the day of my death. Isaac instructs Esau to take his hunting gear, his sword and his bow, and to go out and hunt game for him in the field. Isaac also asks Esau to prepare the delicacies from the hunt for him and to bring them back so that he will eat. The purpose of this act, explains Isaac, is (Genesis 27:4): “Bah’ah’voor t’va’reh’ch’cha naf’shee, b’terem ah’moot,” So that my soul may bless you [Esau] before I die.

Rebecca, who will have none of this, has Jacob masquerade as Esau, and personally prepares delicacies for her husband. Isaac, despite his suspicions about the lad who is before him, eats and blesses Jacob.

When he learns that his brother, Jacob, has stolen his blessings, Esau gives out with an exceedingly loud and bitter cry, saying to his father (Genesis 27:34): “Bar’chay’nee gahm ah’nee, ah’vee,” Bless me too, my father! Isaac explains to the distraught Esau that he has already given the blessing of dominion and wealth to Jacob, but Esau persists, saying (Genesis 27:38): “Ha’v’rah’chah ah’chaht hee l’chah ah’vee? Bar’chay’nee gahm ah’nee, ah’vee,” Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father. Esau then raises his voice and weeps.

Many commentators have struggled with the deception of Isaac by his so-called “innocent son,” Jacob (Genesis 25:27), (see analysis of this issue at parashat Toledot 5762-2001). Another, perhaps even more fundamental, issue that needs to be clarified is the question of the blessings of a tzaddik, a righteous person. Does a tzaddik indeed have Divine power to bestow blessings on others?

The Ralbag wrestles with the question of Isaac’s ability to bless. He wonders whether Isaac, who is presumed to be a prophet, can predict and define the future of others. After all, no human has the power to transfer a blessing from the one to whom it is intended, and if a tzaddik is indeed the “foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25) who can actually bestow blessings on others, then Esau is correct in asking his father, “Have you only one blessing?”

The Ralbag concludes that a tzaddik really has no power to give blessings to others, since all blessings are determined in heaven. However, the tzaddik does have the power to amplify heavenly blessings and increase their abundance. When the petitioner gives a gift to a tzaddik, the tzaddik may turn his full focus upon him, amplify his blessings, and even know what is in store for him from heaven.

The Abarbanel rejects this explanation, claiming that it is entirely irrational to think that a tzaddik would be at all concerned with material blessings. Rather, the issue here with Isaac and his sons is the future of the Abrahamic blessing that Isaac received from his father that encompasses the right to inherit the land of Canaan and the responsibility to promote the idea of monotheism to humankind.

Isaac must have an heir to whom he will bequeath this essential blessing. Naturally, he chooses his firstborn son, Esau, but because he sees that something is not quite right with Esau, he attempts to make Esau worthy of receiving the blessing by giving him the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of honoring father and mother. That is why Isaac instructs Esau to go out to the field and hunt for him.

The Akeidat Yitzchak points out that the reason why Rebecca instructs Jacob to listen to her voice and do everything that she told him (Genesis 27:13) was so that Jacob too would be worthy of receiving his father’s blessing.

There are those, particularly Chassidim, who feel that a tzaddik or a rebbe, do indeed have a direct connection to G-d, and therefore possess the power to bestow blessings upon those who have faith in their efficacy. These righteous individuals, the Chassidim argue, are so close with G-d, that they have the power to coax, cajole and persuade G-d to shower His blessings on designated individuals, communities or causes. By showing respect to one whom G-d perceives as being so special (the rebbe), the petitioner becomes worthy of receiving the blessing.

There are, however, Mitnagdim (opponents), who emphatically reject all claims that a human being can be a conduit to G-d. Rather, they argue that each and every one of G-d’s children has the power to connect to G-d, as much as a rebbe or a tzaddik. It is, therefore, incumbent upon each person to exercise his/her own personal persuasive powers, and bring G-d’s blessings down upon humankind.

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried incorporates both these polar positions. Regarding the custom of going to the cemetery before Rosh Hashanah, he writes:

We have a custom to visit the cemetery on this day after the morning prayers and to prostrate ourselves upon the graves of the tzaddikim (righteous). We give charity there to the poor. We say many prayers to arouse the holy tzaddikim, who are in the earth, to intercede on our behalf on the day of judgment.

Also, since this is the burial place of tzaddikim, the place is holy and pure, and prayers said there are received more favorably because they are said on holy ground. The Holy One, Blessed be He, will deal graciously with us in the merit of the tzaddikim. We, however, should not direct our prayers to the dead who are buried there, since doing so is close to the law forbidding “inquiring of the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:11). Instead, one should ask G-d, Blessed be His Name, to have mercy on him in the merit of the tzaddikim who lie in the dust.

Ganzfried, therefore, underscores that although we go to the graves of the tzaddikim our prayers and requests must be directed only to G-d alone.

There is another school of thought that was brought to my attention by Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, the Associate Director of the National Jewish Outreach Program. These scholars maintain that a true tzaddik listens to the petitioner’s requests with such intensity that the requests actually become the tzaddik’s own personal requests. Having an especially close relationship with G-d, the tzaddik’s requests receive priority treatment, and consequently have a much greater chance of being responded to affirmatively than the prayers and requests of a common petitioner. This, of course, works only with a living tzaddik.

Did Isaac really have the power to bestow a heavenly blessing on his children, or was he trying to make them worthy of being blessed? The answer to that question depends on whether you are a Chassid or a Mitnagid (anti-Chassidic).

May you be blessed.