D’var Torah: Bless me also!

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

One of the challenges that is facing the Jewish community today is reaching out to the unaffiliated and the disaffiliated — the people within the Jewish community who are counted but cannot as yet be counted upon as resources or as beneficiaries of our  congregations and communal agencies. Even in relatively stable Jewish populations, the affiliation rate seems to be diminishing. Rabbis and communal leaders spend countless hours and resources in the attempt to lure those estranged from the organized Jewish community back into it.

How to do this — whether through clever programming, special pricing, direct advertising — remains the focus of much deliberation and debate. What seems to work in some communities fails miserably in others. What will bring back the young, old and those in between who are not now active is the huge question of the day.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

In parashah Toldot, we meet a set of twins that seem to provide the paradigms for affiliated and unaffiliated or disaffiliated Jews today. No set of twins could be more opposite than Jacob and Esau. Esau grows to become an outdoorsman, a hunter, who prefers the solitary life. Jacob, on the other hand, is a homebody, a family man, an intellectual, who prefers life in community rather than being alone. If there would have been synagogues, Jewish Federations and Jewish agencies back in those times, Jacob surely would have affiliated and contributed to the community in whatever capacity he could have. Esau would probably indicated that he was not interested in “organized” community—that he was just fine on his own.

There is a crucial scene, however, in this parashah, however, that demonstrates that Esau is not as self-sufficient and self-satisfied as one might have considered him to be. As Isaac is nearing the end of his life and so calls to Esau, his favorite son, and requests an exquisite meal as only Esau, the hunter, can provide, in order that Isaac may bestow a special blessing upon his firstborn, favorite son. Isaac’s wife and the twins’ mother, Rebecca, overhears this exchange and provides the means by which her favorite son, Jacob, will be able to appropriate this special blessing for himself. Rebecca’s plan works, and Jacob receives Isaac’s special blessing.

When Esau returns from the hunt to find that his brother, Jacob, has taken the blessing meant for him, he literally cries out in pain, “Barcheni gam ani Avi! — Bless me also, my Father!” (Many translations turn this into a question, “Have you no blessing also for me, my Father?”). Esau, who until this time has voluntarily distanced himself from spiritual and communal concerns, is now extremely pained that this blessing seems to have been denied. It is one of the most poignant and painful moments in the entire Torah.

Everyone comes to a time in life where he or she requires a blessing, affiliated or not. Can the organized Jewish community find means by which to bless those who are unaffiliated or disaffiliated? Can we, as did Isaac, not find an alternative blessing? That is the challenge, and it must be met as a community — synagogues, Federation and agencies working together to meet them where they are and to find a blessing for them that might bring them closer. Have we not a blessing also for them?