Toldot – Bless Me Too

When you are seen, heard, and responded to, it changes everything.  The religious concept which captures this feeling and its impact is: mevurach – blessed.  […]

When you are seen, heard, and responded to, it changes everything.  The religious concept which captures this feeling and its impact is: mevurach – blessed.  We yearn to be blessed.  We have the power to bless others.  We often don’t receive the blessing we desperately need and overlook the blessings we can give.

In his new book Morality, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the story of Dr. Ludwig Guttman, a Jew from a traditional Jewish family, who by 1933 was one of Germany’s leading neurosurgeons. Dr. Guttman teaches us the power of seeing where blessing can be given, hearing the spoken and unspoken cries to be blessed, and the wisdom to know how to bless.

Dr. Guttman escaped to England during the war.  In late 1943, recognizing the remarkable doctor it had in its midst, the British government asked Guttman to head the first ever medical facility dedicated for the treatment of paraplegics.  Many of the patients were soldiers wounded in the war – their lives forever changed in a moment.  The practice at that time was to keep them lying in bed and heavily sedated to ease their pain until they died, usually in three to six months.

Dr. Guttman observed the situation and thought there had to be a better way.  It was as if he heard the patients wordlessly speaking to him: “Don’t leave me here to die. Help me.  Bless me.”   He saw another way.  He cut back on their sedatives, reasoning it was the only way to help mobility.  He instructed the staff to help them sit up in their beds.  It hurt. Other doctors and nurses thought he was cruel. He began to throw balls at them, so they would develop the ability to catch it.  Eventually he moved them out of the ward in wheelchairs and into the hospital garden for fresh air.  Then he started getting them to play games.  The change was dramatic. Dr. Gutman saw excitement on their face and realized that sport was the way to give them back a passion for life.  He started to arrange games, at one point asking the other doctors to sit in wheelchairs and compete.  Of course, used to the wheelchairs, the paraplegics won. The Paralympics emerged from this work. The Paralympics has changed tens of thousands of lives, as well as the way society views those with physical disabilities.

The story asks us to see each person in terms of their potential.  We are challenged to see beyond our perception of their limitations and bless them by helping unlock their humanity and full potential.  Dr. Guttman heard their unspoken cries to be blessed and acted. In this week’s Torah portion, we hear the poignant cry of Esau – whose dreams have been stolen, begging his father Isaac: “Bless me, too.”

Go back to the famous scene in the Torah.  Thinking that the end of life is near, Isaac instructs his eldest son Esau to go hunt game, bring it back and prepare it and receive the bracha nafshi – innermost blessing/blessing of the soul.  You remember the story – as Esau is out hunting, Rebecca convinces Jacob to trick Isaac – posing as Esau with food she has prepared, in order to receive the blessing.  When Esau returns and discovers the blessing has been stolen, the text conveys anguish (Gen. 27: 34) Va’yitz’ak tz’aka g’dola, u’mara ad me’od – He burst into wild and bitter sobbing.  Esau pleads: “Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too!” We feel his pain.  We too have had moments where the future imagined for ourselves suddenly changes. And in more subtle ways, we too have wanted blessings that we have not received. Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too rings in our lives and the lives of those who surround us.

The next moments are tragic. Isaac thinks that the blessing has been given and there are no more left. Esau asks again, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (vs. 36). Isaac explains that a blessing cannot be revoked.  And a third time Esau implores Isaac, “Have you but one blessing father? Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too.”

And Isaac realizes he has more options than he thought he did.  Isaac who had been taught by his father Abraham that blessing is a zero-sum game – one child inherits; the other does not.  He received the blessing from his father Abraham, but his brother Ishmael did not. He digs deep and realizes there is more than one blessing.  He does what so many of us don’t – he changes course.  The “No” was what he had learned and had been his legacy. This change to a “Yes” rippled blessings.  There is more than one blessing.  His blessing reminds Esau that he can remove the yolk of his brother’s power if he chooses.  The blessing empowers Esau to see beyond the moment. While Esau initially could not get beyond his anger and vows revenge, the blessing allows him to stay connected to his father and his family. Ultimately, he and Jacob make their peace.

When we find blessing for others – when we feel blessed – life changes!  Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too!

Think of your own family – all the times you have wanted blessing – or should have given blessing – and have not. Think of the times our limitations, judgements, or narrowness (like Isaac’s perception that there was only one way to bless) caused us to overlook loved ones desperately needing our blessing.  Listen to the spoken and unspoken pleas Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too!

Think of all of the people in pain right now – suffering from illness, loss or loneliness.  We, like Dr. Guttman or Isaac, can find the words and actions to bring blessing.  Think of those suffering from hunger or economic uncertainty and know that sometimes the best blessing is a donation to an organization seeking to make a difference, or a kind word as you encounter someone.

Think of the LGBTQ community.  Today is the 20th anniversary of my giving a blessing to a gay couple before they got married.  As they shared with me their pain at feeling rejected and judged by their religion, I could hear the words: Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too.  This community stood together in finding and bestowing blessing.  That sacred moment brought healing and joy and helped transform this community to a place of blessing.

As we orient our hearts to those crying out Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too, we come to understand the power we possess to heal, and we reflect on the number of people in need of the healing balm of our blessing – the elderly, the isolated, the lonely, the overlooked.

Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too.

Let the list expand.  As we reflect, begin to see the need for blessing in so many places.  Let me share another type of example.  I receive a blog from an extraordinary woman, Dr. Elana Miller, who grew up in our community.  I had the honor to officiate at her wedding a couple years ago. She is a wonderful psychiatrist who has had several bouts of virulent cancer – and the cancer had returned again.  Her only hope was a stem cell transplant. However, she was adopted, and therefore there were no family matches. Elana is of mixed ethnicity, which lowered the potential match rate. She was on the donor list – waiting and waiting – getting weaker and weaker – sicker and sicker. But a woman in Germany heard the silent cries of people needing transplants, entered herself into the data base, and was a match. She blessed them by seeing the need for people to receive that which she had the power to give.

She blessed Elana not only with stem cells that were couriered overnight, but with words of kindness.  She wrote her a letter sending love and best wishes for recovery.  She enclosed lip balm, hand cream and a hat she knitted herself.  Blessings beget blessings.  Elana is continuing to save lives as a doctor.  Her brother Zach signed up for the registry, and he turned out to be a match and saved a 67-year-old man’s life.  Blessings ripple.  We all need blessings.

Look to people and places where you can bless.  I conclude with a card I received after the High Holidays from someone who saw that I needed blessing.  “Dear Rabbi, When I saw you on zoom tonight in front of the ark in an empty sanctuary, I thought about how difficult this all must be for you – a man who so cherishes connection and community.  Thinking of you.”

Bar’cheini Gam Ani – Bless me too! Her ability to see me and name the pain I was feeling was one of the most healing moments of these past months.

Let’s be blessings.  Let’s reach out to those who need blessing.  They are right in front of us. They are in places we are overlooking.  As we find ways to bless and receive blessing, doors and hearts open and we are forever changed.  Now is a time to bless.