Counting Blessings*

by Eliezer Segal

Genesis 24

1 And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age: and the Lord had blessed Abraham in everything.

The sages of the Midrash, with their characteristic attention to scriptural detail, observed that the Hebrew word kol --"all" or "everything"--is applied to each one of the three ancestors of the Hebrew nation-- to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Regarding Abraham, it states in Genesis 24:1:

"And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age: and the Lord had blessed Abraham in everything".

Later, in Genesis 27:33, when Isaac discovers that he has been deceived into accepting Jacob's gift of meat and conferring on him the blessing he had intended for Esau, the Bible relates:

"Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, 'Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate from everything before you came, and I have blessed him?'"

And lastly, in Genesis 33:11 when Jacob meets up with Esau after years of separation, he appeals to his estranged sibling as follows:

"Accept, I pray you, my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything."

Beyond the verbal similarity, it is hard to discern any meaningful conceptual pattern that would unite these three diverse occurrences of the word "everything." Anomalies of that sort posed a special challenge to the traditional Jewish commentators.

Taking his cue from the first instance, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understood that the three Hebrew patriarchs exemplified different stages in the recognition of the divine blessings in their lives. Each of these figures cultivated a different types of perfection of completeness, which corresponded to the different courses that their lives took. Central to Rabbi Hirsch's interpretation is the premise that, while the presence of God's goodness may be a constant and fundamental feature of reality, human beings vary in the degree to which they acknowledge those blessings in their lives.

Abraham represents the most basic type of awareness. In connection with him, the word kol is preceded by the preposition ba, meaning "Through everything." This indicates that his life exemplified the quality of appreciating that he was in fact blessed. After all, Abraham's life had been one of success and increasing public esteem. Therefore, it was relatively easy for him to be conscious of God's blessings, since (notwithstanding his earlier trials and struggles) he achieved a state of prosperity and prestige. Under these circumstances, we might not consider it a sign of remarkable piety when Abraham acknowledged the Almighty's generosity in bestowing the blessings upon him; nevertheless, his virtue can be appreciated to some extent when contrast Abraham's attitude with those of lesser individuals, in our own times as well as in that spiritually primitive era, who are never satisfied even when they are enjoying material comforts and success.

Isaac, according to Rabbi Hirsch, embodied a more advanced stage in the acknowledging divine blessings. In his case, the Torah uses the expression "from everything." This suggests that Isaac cultivated the quality of actively transforming adversity into goodness. When Isaac was confronted by setbacks or afflictions, he knew how to transform them into positive opportunities to serve God and obey his will.

Jacob exemplified the ultimate stage in this religious evolution. He declares simply "I have everything" without any qualifying prepositions.

The highest blessing, and at the same time one that can be obtained in every station of life, is Jacob's yesh li kol, he has everything because he wants nothing more than what he has. Because altogether what he wants is "to do," not "to have." Thus, even in the most depressing times that Jacob lived through, he is content and finds happy satisfaction with life.

According to this interpretation, Jacob's was a life of complete equanimity. He reached a state of spiritual perspective in which there was no significant difference between the triumphs and the tragedies of life: from such an exalted vantage, everything is recognized as a divine blessing. Jacob does not complain about life. Though he, unlike his grandfather Abraham, was confronted with continual suffering and troubles, he never complained about his lot in life.

Rabbi Hirsch judged Jacob's attitude to be a much higher, more sublime blessing than those of his predecessors. However, on my initial reading of the commentary, I was quite upset at his approach. The kind of passive acceptance of situations that he praises is not necessarily a virtue; it can often lead an insensitivity to suffering or injustice.

Clearly, Jacob's life cannot be understood so simplistically. The Torah's account of his life does not depict him as a person who accepted everything without protesting or taking action. He confronted Laban, and chastised his sons over their massacre of Shechem and their treatment of each other. At the end of his days, when he summarizes his life to Pharaoh, he was obviously aware that it has not been a consistently happy one.

On further reflection, I realize that this might be precisely the point that Hirsch was trying to make. To recognize God's blessings through adversity should not require us to deceive ourselves or to view the world through rose-coloured glasses. The highest level of spiritual awareness is when we are able to maintain a realistic awareness of life's difficulties, injustices and trials--but not let that fact cause us to lose sight of the blessings that permeate our lives, whether in reality or in potential.


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, November 18, 2006 .