Tol'dot 5780: Unseen Blessings
It being Thanksgiving weekend, some reflections on gratitude are in order. Thanksgiving is that wonderful American holiday that we as Jews can and should celebrate without hesitation. Its themes of gratitude and family resonate strongly with Jewish religious sensibilities, even though the claim that the Pilgrims were inspired by the biblical Sukkot holiday is true only in the loosest sense . But much like Sukkot, Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity at the turn of a season to look back on what we have accomplished, to celebrate it and to offer gratitude to each other and to God for our bounty.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about another person expressing gratitude for agricultural bounty. This Torah portion includes the often-overlooked stories about Isaac as a man on his own terms, not in relation to his father or his sons. Chapter 26 of Genesis narrates several stories from the life of Isaac, many of which have strong resonances with parallel events in the life of his father Abraham. While sojourning in a place called Gerar, Isaac prospered. We read that, “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” (Genesis 26:12-15).
While Isaac was primarily a pastoral nomad, we see him here engage in agriculture and reap in a large bounty, allowing him to grow richer and richer. A midrash (Genesis Rabbah 64:6) emphasizes just how prosperous Isaac was. Reading the verse closely, with its emphasis that Isaac’s agriculture occurred specifically in that land and in that year, the midrash infers that Isaac faced especially difficult conditions for growing crops. Yet he nonetheless prospered. Under more favorable conditions, Isaac would have prospered even more. Such were the bountiful blessings that Isaac received.
The phrase I translated above as hundredfold increase, meah shearim, is familiar as the name of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. The neighborhood was called that because it was established during the week of this Torah portion in 1874. While the word meah does mean one hundred, the word shearim could have several possible meanings. That same midrash offers three possibilities, each one indicating a greater bounty.
The first is that shearim is the plural of the word sha’ar, meaning gate. This refers to the public marketplace of a city located at its gate, and the measurements prevalent there. So, one hundred shearim means 100 kor of grain, the kor being the largest measure of grain.
The second possibility is that shearim is related to the word shiur, meaning measure. So, meah shearim means one hundred in number. This means that every measure of seeds produced one hundred measures of gain.
The third possibility is that shearim is related to the verb sha’er, meaning “to estimate.” This means that Isaac estimated how much he would bring in, but then the actual amount was one hundred times the estimate. In other words, Isaac made an incredibly profitable investment.
Here is where things get interesting. The midrash then objects to this possibility by countering that blessing does not rest on that which is weighed, measured, or counted. This idea is explained in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 42a) with reference to someone praying for a good harvest at various points in the process of measuring agricultural yield. Before or during the process of measuring, a person may pray to God for blessing, which is to say, a good yield. But were someone to pray for a good yield after the yield is already measured, that would be a vain prayer, according to the Talmud. The outcome is already measured and known, so prayer at that point is useless. So, the Talmud concludes that blessing, which here seems to mean a Divine gift that exceeds expectations, can only be found in the unknown that is concealed from view, not in anything that is already measured and counted. In other words, you cannot retroactively ask for a blessing. What is done is done. Blessings can only be found in the future, in the yet-to-be.
Now, back to our midrash. The objection is that Isaac had estimated the yield he would bring in, which is close enough to measuring something. So, according to the idea we just sketched out, Isaac should not have received any blessing, any unexpected benefit. He already had a specific, evidence-based expectation, which should have closed the possibility of being surprised by the result. He should only have brought in what he expected, not one hundred times that!
The midrash explains that Isaac had estimated his yield in the first place so that he would be able to set aside tithes from it. Tithes were one tenth of ancient farmer’s produce that he would set aside either to support the central Temple in Jerusalem or to give to the poor. Isaac was so eager to tithe his produce that he tithed based on his estimated yield, which is something the rabbis warn against. Nonetheless, Isaac was rewarded for his giving tithes with such a bountiful harvest. His tithing is what created an exception to the idea that blessing does not rest upon something that is already measured. By eagerly giving away a portion of what he expected to earn, Isaac both helped others and also earned blessing for himself. Perhaps the satisfaction of helping others was itself a blessing.
This Thanksgiving, I’m taken by the idea that blessings can only rest on something that has yet to come. Thanksgiving, or Sukkot for that matter, often feels like counting our blessings in a backward-facing way. We look back at the year past and feel gratitude for things we have already received, things that we know about. But this midrash reminds us that this may not be the only way to think about our blessings. Things that we know about, that we expect, that we measure, that we have a fair degree of certainty about: we can be grateful for those things, but they are not really blessings.
No. Real blessings come from the unexpected, from the things that are hidden from the eye, from things that may or may not happen in the future. Real blessings have to be sought out and sought after. Real blessings are things that happened anyway, even though there was a significant likelihood that they would not. Looking for this kind of blessing is about hope for the future, not satisfaction with the past.
As we look back this Thanksgiving, we may find many reasons for gratitude. But we may also find as we look back the ways in which we were not so blessed. Even so, we can cultivate gratitude by looking toward the future, toward the not-yet, toward the blessings that for now are hidden from the eye. We can maintain hope and pray for a better future, a future of abundant blessings, no matter what has happened so far.
And, like Isaac, no matter what blessings may or may not be coming our way, we can give whatever we are in a position to give. No matter how good or bad our own situation may seem, there is always somebody else who is worse off. As we think about our past and future blessings, we can recommit to spreading those blessings around.
May the blessings we have already received pale in comparison to the blessings we receive in the future. Shabbat Shalom.