21 Nov Parshat Toldot: Reaping the Blessing
The Jewish practice of liturgical blessings provides a wonderful tool for creating a life of mindfulness. There are blessings for eating food, smelling a wonderful scent, seeing and hearing good news or things that inspire our amazement. Some of these blessings are imbedded in the daily prayers and relate to the most private and mundane experiences of any given day. Others refer to monumental historical events important not only to the Jewish people but to all of humanity.There are, of course, many contemporary uses for the term “mindfulness” – anywhere from deep Buddhist religious practice to clinical psychology. For me, at least in part, it means taking the time to appreciate a moment, to savor a taste, a smell or any sensation and to give thanks. It is pondering a sight or a sound, taking in an emotion or a message being communicated by another and allowing that to influence who I am. It offers me an opportunity to make sense of the different pieces of my daily life and consider my place in the wider narrative of a communal or even global structure. It is providing myself with a chance to link together certain aspects of my existence while at the same time isolating others. It means paying attention, taking nothing for granted but also being willing to challenge that which lies before me. It means getting better at what Erich Fromm called the “art of being”:
…the most important step in the art of being is everything that leads to and enhances our capacity for heightened awareness and, as far as the mind is concerned, for critical, questioning thinking. (The Art of Being, 1992, p.43)
The Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 43b) gives instruction in how to practically do this. According to the rabbis, one is obliged to actually count one’s blessings:
Rabbi Meir says: One is required to recite one hundred (Hebrew: me’ah) blessings each day, as Scripture says, “And now Israel, what (Hebrew: mah) does the Lord your God ask of you?” (Deut.10:12)
Using a common a midrasnhic device, Rabbi Meir makes a play on words reading the biblical text as if to say: “And now Israel, the Lord your God asks of you one hundred”. Indeed making sure to recite at least one hundred blessings a day became a common Jewish practice and from time to time books like the one below were published to aid the individual in fulfilling this obligation.
This particular example was published in Amsterdam, Holland in 1687 by Albertus Magnus. It was printed in both Hebrew and Spanish, presumably for Jews who had arrived from the Iberian Peninsula. The title page, initialed by the artist, Benyamin Senior Godines, depicts five different situations, each one relating a particular sense, in which a blessing is to be recited:
- Hearing the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, t’kiat hashofar (upper left);
- Smelling the spices at the havdala ceremony at the end of each Shabbat (middle right);
- Touch (or in this case perhaps feeling!), at the ritual circumcision, brit milla (middle left);
- Seeing the new moon at the monthly kiddush levana ceremony (upper right);
- Tasting, the well-known grace after a meal, birkat hamazon (middle).
Having covered all five senses which are labeled in Old Spanish, the artist departs from the subject of liturgical practice and in the bottom panel illustrates a short episode that appears in this week’s Torah portion.
Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy; he acquired flocks and herds, and a large household … (Gen. 26:12-13)
The simple connection between this scene from Isaac’s life and the book at hand is that the crop yielded “a hundredfold”. This also seems to reflect the idea that those who are thankful and offer blessings will continue to be blessed in their lives, reminiscent of biblical passages like this:
A person who offers blessings enjoys prosperity, one who satisfies others will be sated. (Prov. 11:25)
Perhaps one might also speculate that the artist (or publisher who commissioned his work) wanted to convey another message, inspired by verses in Genesis that follow:
… the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” (Gen. 26:14-16)
Iberian Jewry – by this time many generations in Holland – once quite successful and prosperous, had been forced to emigrate from the land of their ancestors. One might imagine that they attributed the expulsion to their neighbors’ jealously, much in the same way that the Philistines treated Isaac.
Either way, despite the trauma Isaac endured in his childhood, nearly slaughtered on the altar by his father, and the heartbreak he will soon experience witnessing his two sons, Esau and Jacob, compete for his blessing, we are presented with an instant of appreciation in an otherwise troubled life, a moment of blessing for the one who has inherited God’s promise to his father, Abraham: “… and you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).