Parasha Ki Tetze

The Power of Words

It is a beautiful Jewish tradition for parents to place their hands on the heads of their children and bless them on Friday nights. For sons we say, “May G-d give you the blessings of Ephraim and Manasseh”. For daughters we recite, “May G-d give you the blessings of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” At the synagogue it is our custom to give blessings to those who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. We give blessings to bar and bat mitzvahs when they have their first aliyah, and we give a special blessing to their parents on the occasion as well. We bless those who are in need of healing. In fact, blessings are so important that we might even KILL for them! Surprised? Shocked? Bewildered?  That is exactly what happens in our Torah portion this week! Isaac is old and is about to bless his son, Esau. He asks Esau to hunt and prepare some game for him, and he will then give him a blessing. Jacob, on his mother Rivkah’s advice, disguises himself as Esau while Esau is out hunting. He steals into his father’s tent disguised as Esau and tricks his father into giving him the much desired blessing instead. When Esau returns to find out that his blessing has been given to his brother, he is distraught. This tough guy, this seasoned hunter, this rough and tumble rogue bursts out into wild and bitter sobbing!  “Bless me too, Father”, he cries out.  “But,” says Isaac, “Your brother came here with guile, and took your blessing!”  “You only have one blessing, Father?” asked Esau, still bitterly weeping. “Bless me too, Father,” he begs for a second time.  Isaac blesses Esau as well. But, the Torah tells us, Esau harbored a grudge against his brother Jacob, and planned to kill him after Isaac, his father, passed away. Reading this story, we have to feel sorry for Esau. We also have to wonder – what harm did he suffer that he should plan to kill his brother? Is a blessing so important that you would kill someone for stealing it? Could not Isaac simply give Esau the same blessing he gave Jacob? Is it not G-d who blesses us? Who are we to be giving blessings anyway? When we consider that up until the time of Abraham is was only G-d who gave blessings, we begin to glimpse the power of giving blessings. In the Book of Genesis, G-d blesses the seventh day and makes it holy. G-d blesses Abraham as well. After that, the power of blessing others is taken up by humankind. G-d can bless, and so can human beings. In other words, we share the power to bless with G-d.  Make no mistake about it, our words are very powerful. Our words can create, and our words can destroy. Two hundred and fifty years ago, the words of Thomas Jefferson inspired our nation to greatness. Hitler was one of the great orators of the 20th century, yet his power to mesmerize millions with his speech led our world to catastrophe. A careless word between friends or family members can lead to strife that is difficult to overcome. Yet the words “I’m sorry” can lead to reconciliation and peace. It is said that the words of the righteous have a special power, and that G-d sees to it that they are fulfilled.  The point is illustrated in this story:  Long ago there lived a great pious Jew named Rav Huna.  He was so poor that he worked in the fields all day long for a few coins and then learned Torah all night long.  One night when Rav Huna entered the house of study his teacher noticed his pants were held up with an old rope.  “Rav Huna, what has happened to your belt?”  His teacher asked.  “Why are you wearing that rope around your waist instead?”  Rav Huna replied quietly “Last Shabbas I didn’t have enough money to buy wine for kiddish.  I know I could have made kiddish from challah but in order to fulfill the mitzvah of kiddishim the most beautiful way I decided to sell my belt and buy some wine.”  Rav Huna’s teacher was so impressed with his student’s devotion to a mitzvah that he exclaimed “Now you dress yourself in rope.  May it be the Almighty’s will that one day you will be so rich and prosperous that you will be covered with the finest silk.”  And sure enough Rav Huna became an exceedingly wealthy man.  He no longer worked in the fields or lacked food or clothing.  On the day of his son’s wedding Rav Huna laid down to rest for a while in a dark room.  His daughters and daughters-in-law did not notice Rav Huna on the bed and used it as a place to put their fine silk coats.  And so it was that when Rav Huna awoke he found himself covered with silk from head to toe.  His teacher’s blessing had come true.  Perhaps now we can understand why Esau was so upset. He knew that his father, Isaac, was a righteous person, and he believed that his words had great power to influence and even to determine his future.  In Esau’s estimation, Jacob has done nothing less than to steal the future that Esau had envisioned for himself.  Can the blessing of a parent, or a rabbi, influence ones future?  I believe it can. Several weeks ago, I was back in Massachusetts having a coffee with one of my former congregants. She was recalling a time almost a decade ago when she had turned sixty years old. Her father had died when he was sixty two, and she was anxious about her aging and her mortality. She recalled that when she was called for an aliyah she received a blessing from me on the occasion of her 60th birthday. For her, that blessing made all the difference in the world, she recalled.  From that time on she faced her future without fear and with a new-found confidence.  “I knew everything was going to be all right,” she said. Now I would like us each to take a few moments to think quietly about what blessing we would like to receive tonight. Then, I want you to turn to your neighbor and tell him or her what blessing you would like.  It could be for health, or for patience, or for finding a job, or doing well at a project coming up at work, or for any other challenge you may face. Then your neighbor will bless you, with the words, “May the G-d who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah bless you with/in your/ to …..”  Then repeat that process being the recipient of your neighbor’s blessing. The formula for the blessing is found in the back page of your handout for this evening. Shabbat Shalom