One of my favourite times of the week is Shabbat, just before dinner. At this time it is traditional to individually bless each child with the blessing of the Kohanim [Bemidbar 6:24-26]: “May Hashem bless you and keep you… May Hashem raise His face to you and grant you with peace.” These blessings are charged with emotion and I cherish bestowing them upon all my children who happen to be home that Shabbat.
The blessing of one’s children goes back to the forefathers. Before Yaakov dies, he gathers his sons and blesses each of them. Yaakov learnt this custom from his father, Yitzchak, who blessed Yaakov and Esav before he died. Something I never noticed until I saw it this week pointed out by Rav Zalman Szorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, is that Avraham never blessed his sons Yitzchak and Yishmael before he died. Rav Szorotzkin explains this anomaly by noting that Hashem had promised Avraham [Bereishit 12:2] “You shall be a blessing”, meaning that Avraham had the power to bless anyone he so desired. As Avraham handed this power over to Yitzchak, he did not need to give Yitzchak an explicit blessing before he died. Let’s try to build upon Rav Szorotzkin’s explanation.
The first question we must ask ourselves is “What is a blessing”? The answer to this question seems trivial. When I bless my children on Friday night, I ask Hashem that He grant them financial and physical security, satisfaction, and peace. When Yaakov blesses his children, he asks Hashem that He grant each one the means he requires in order to complete his particular mission on earth. For instance, Yaakov asks Hashem to grant Yehuda, the designated King, everlasting dominion. He asks Hashem to grant Zevulun, the entrepreneur, success in business. When Yitzchak blesses his children, he asks that Hashem give them [Bereishit 27:28] “from the dew of the heaven and from the fat of the land”. A blessing can be described as a kind of intercession in which Hashem is asked to grant someone spiritual or physical gifts. Using this interpretation, we can understand Rav Szorotzkin as saying that Avraham gave over to Yitzchak his special powers of intercession, such that Yitzchak required no additional blessing from his father. This explanation has a few soft points. First, precisely when did Avraham give over this power to Yitzchak, and how did the transfer of power take place? Second, if Avraham did not bless his children before he died, why did Yitzchak and Yaakov bless their children? Did they adopt this custom from someone else?
In order to proceed, we must widen our definition of the word “blessing”, using the explanation of Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also called the “Alter Rebbe”. The Alter Rebbe notes that the Hebrew word for blessing – “bracha” – shares its root (“B-R-Ch”) with the word “havracha”, or “layering”. Layering is an ancient technique for vegetative reproduction, and is discussed at length in the Mishnah. Layering is performed by forcing a branch to contact the ground. Prolonged contact with the earth produces “adventitious roots”. In typical root formation, roots are formed from a primary root. An adventitious root, on the other hand, is formed from a stem or a branch. To layer a plant, part of a branch is pushed underground while still attached to the parent plant. The end of the branch is left above ground where it becomes the stem of the new plant. After adventitious roots begin to grow, the new growth is separated from the parent plant, and it is called a “layer”. One important result of layering is that the new plant is a clone of its parent – it has identical DNA.
The Alter Rebbe took the layering motif in one direction: when we say “Baruch ata Hashem” – “Blessed are you, Hashem”, we are really thanking Hashem for “layering himself”, as it were, for pushing Himself down into this mundane world, so as to make Himself accessible to mortal man. In this shiur, we’re going to take this motif in a different direction. To do so, we must first show that Avraham did indeed bless Yitzchak. I suggest that this happened at the Akeidah, as we will soon see.
Yet another thing I noticed only this week is that Avraham speaks a total of one and a half verses to his beloved son Yitzchak in the entire Torah, and they are spoken at the Akeidah. As Avraham and Yitzchak, father and son, climb Mount Moriah, a climb that will be culminated by Avraham sacrificing Yitzchak, Yitzchak notices that there is something critical missing. Avraham has not taken an animal that will be sacrificed [Bereishit 22:7-8]: “Yitzchak spoke to Avraham his father and said, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ And he said, ‘Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Avraham said, ‘Hashem will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them walked together.” The extensive use of the terms “my father” and “my son” are reminiscent of the terms used when Yitzchak and Yaakov bless their children before their death. When Yitzchak blesses Esav we are told [Bereishit 27:1] “It came to pass when Yitzchak was old… that he called Esav his elder son and he said to him, ‘My son,’ and he said to him, ‘Here I am.’” I am your son and you are my father. Before Yaakov blesses his sons he tells them [Bereishit 49:2] “Gather and listen, sons of Yaakov, and listen to Yisrael, your father.” You are my sons and I am your father. We can conclude, then, that when Avraham tells Yitzchak “Here I am, my son”, he is preparing to bless Yitzchak before his death. But it is not Avraham who is about to die, it is Yitzchak.
Time is short and so Avraham blesses Yitzchak in one verse [Bereishit 22:8] “Hashem will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Hashem will always provide for Himself a sacrificial lamb. This is not merely a prediction, it is a message: Worshiping Hashem requires making sacrifices. Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in Yemei Zikaron, asserts that “[Hashem] does not always require a sacrifice commensurate with the Akeidah. Yet a Jew must learn to bring a sacrifice, to give something up, to surrender something he very much desires, or to participate in something he would rather not do.” Something as mundane as davening in an airport. I always search for some quiet corner to put on my tallit and tefillin and I’m sure that everyone is gawking at me. But I daven all the same, shamed and unashamed . Rav Soloveichik summarizes, noting that the ram that Avraham sacrificed at the Akeidah was caught by its wool in a thicket: “The ram was caught in the thicket of its historical destiny. The Jew similarly cannot escape the covenant at Sinai. Man of his own free will must be prepared to engage in the act of sacrifice.”
How can these words be considered a blessing? Who would want to wish a life of sacrifice on his children? It is here that we introduce the “blessing – layering” motif. Who was engaged in sacrifice at the Akeidah? Obviously Avraham was asked to sacrifice all that was dear to him, his past, his present, and his future. But Yitzchak is also asked to sacrifice. While his age at the Akeidah is subject to debate, it is clear that he realized that the fact that Avraham did not bring a sacrificial animal combined with the fact that Avraham left two witnesses at the bottom of the mountain were good indicators that he was to be the sacrifice. Indeed, Avraham’s answer that “We must be willing to sacrifice” made it completely unambiguous. And yet, the Torah tells us “the two of them walked together”. Yitzchak knows exactly what is about to happen and yet he walks willingly to his death. His father’s sacrifice has become his sacrifice. His father’s mission has become his mission. Avraham has layered himself in his son Yitzchak, and so Yitzchak and his descendants have not only the same physical DNA as Avraham, but the same spiritual DNA, as well.
Avraham blessed his son by transferring to him his life’s mission, and by transferring it to him, he transferred it to us. We bless out children by asking Hashem to give them the necessary tools to carry out that mission.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.