18 Dec How Does a Tzaddik’s Bracha Work?
The blessing of a righteous person has a place of pride in
Jewish tradition, even if it is currently taken to extremes in certain
circles. Shimon Peres has famously credited his long life to the blessing
he received when he was four from R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, the saintly
Chafetz Chaim. The Talmud (Bava Basra 116a) says that someone
with a sick family member should ask a Torah scholar to pray for the ill person’s
recovery. Torah scholars and righteous people have long blessed others. I’d like to
examine the metaphysics of a blessing, the heavenly process by which it works. How was
the Chafetz Chaim able to cause such a lasting impact on Shimon Peres? The place to
start is Yitzchak’s blessing of Ya’akov and Esav. The Torah tells the story of how
Ya’akov tricked Yitzchak into giving him the blessing intended for Esav
(Gen. 27). This is a rich tale with many layers of interpretation which we will
not discuss here. But it leaves open one important question: Why was
Yitzchak’s blessing so valuable that it was worth all this fuss?
I. PROPHECY OR PRAYER Ibn Ezra (Gen. 27:40) offers two
possibilities: 1) Yitzchak’s blessing was a prophecy of the future, 2) It
was a prayer for the success of the blessing’s recipient. Each possibility
suffers from narrative difficulties. If it was a prophecy, why should Rachel
and Ya’akov go through a subterfuge to obtain the blessing? The prophecy
will not change based on Yitzchak’s preference among his children. And if
it was a prayer, how can his prayer for Esav–whom he thought was with him–
apply mistakenly to Ya’akov? Ibn Ezra sides with the latter
approach, that it was a prayer, and suggests that Yitzchak was uncertain
which son was with him (as can be seen from Gen. 27:21-22). He prayed
from whichever son was standing before him.
Ralbag (ad loc.) adopts a hybrid approach to answer the questions. The
blessing is primarily a prophecy but with an additional, personal prayer to
add to the prophecy. Rivkah knew the prophecy about Ya’akov would come.
However, she also wanted to make sure that Ya’akov received Yitzchak’s
prayer. Ran (Derashos Ha-Ran, ch. 2 at the end, pp. 32-34 in Feldman edition)
takes a similar approach as Ralbag, arguing that Yitzchak’s blessing was
a prophecy. If so, why did it matter who was standing before him? Ran
suggests that prophecies at that time were less durable and certain that in
later eras. Rivkah knew from an earlier prophecy (Gen. 25:23) that Ya’akov
was destined to prevail. However, she was concerned that Yitzchak’s
blessing would include a prayer for Esav that would overturn the
prophecy. Therefore, she ensured that Ya’akov would receive the blessing,
preventing Yitzchak from praying for Esav. (See also Derashos Ha-Ran, ch.
5, pp. 74-75.) I believe that Rashi and Ramban disagree on this point. The Torah
emphasizes that Yitzchak wanted to give the blessing “before God” (Gen.
27:7). What does this phrase signify? Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Yitzchak
wanted God’s permission and therefore agreement to the blessing. In other words, Yitzchak would pray
in front of God for the blessing to come true and, with God’s permission, it was guaranteed. Ramban (ad loc.)
explains the phrase to mean that the blessing would be given under divine
inspiration, meaning as a form of prophecy.
II. INHERITANCE AND
R. Yitzchak Arama (Akedas Yitzchak, no. 24) rejects the premise
of the entire discussion. This blessing was not a new promise; it was the
blessing that Avraham and Yitzchak received. As the current “owner” of
the blessing, Yitzchak had the right to choose who would
receive it from him. The blessing was the enaction of a succession plan, a
transaction that was entirely in Yitzchak’s hands. This approach seems to me to
work best with the earlier story about Ya’akov buying the birthright from Esav. The entire narrative
revolves around who would be Yitzchak’s heir. R. Yitzchak Abarbanel (ad loc.) finds a different middle
position, one that is directly relevant to the question with which we began. Abarbanel
says that Yitzchak’s blessing, and the blessing of any righteous person, is intended
to prepare the recipient for divine overflow. In other words, the blessing is part prayer and
part inspiration, making the recipient more worthy of the divine reward in the prayer. When Yitzchak gave
Ya’akov the blessing, or when any tzadik blesses someone else, the entire situation is one of inspiration and
religious growth. The tzadik offers a prayer for a certain outcome and uplifts the recipient, changing him in
a religiously positive way. I see this blessing as an analogue to prayer itself. Philosophers grapple with the heavenly mechanics of
prayer. If a person is worthy of a particular reward, then God should give it to him without the need for prayer. What does prayer add? Many answers have been offered to this philosophical problem. R. Yosef Albo
(Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:16-18) explains that prayer is intended to inspire us. It is a religiously transformative act that makes us more worthy of divine
reward. Similarly, a tzadik‘s blessing is intended to transform us, making us more worthy of the reward for which
the tzadik prays. If Shimon Peres still remembers receiving a blessing from the Chafetz Chaim, he was surely impacted
positively by the meeting. He was inspired, even if his life did not take the path of full mitzvah observance.
That religious inspiration made him more worthy of divine protection, of fulfillment of the Chafetz Chaim‘s
prayer for the young boy.