Cantor Eyal Bitton shares a few thoughts on prayer and the parasha of the week.

Destiny by Merit, Not Identity

2023-11-15 Parashat Toldot

In Parashat Toldot, we see the triumph of merit and the rejection of identity. In the story of Isaac’s blessings, there’s a departure from the expected, as the younger Jacob takes precedence over his older brother, Esau. Within the societal norms of that time, it was conventional wisdom that the elder, Esau, should naturally inherit the sought-after blessing from his father. However, the narrative takes an unexpected turn, with Jacob emerging as Isaac’s heir. The Torah, with its keen emphasis on merit, challenges the prevailing notion that privilege should be given to someone by dint of their birth.

As we delve into the text, the proactive pursuit of the blessing by Jacob comes into sharp relief. His recognition of the spiritual significance prompts strategic actions that showcase merit through determination and resourcefulness. Here lies a fundamental truth – destiny is not solely dictated by identity; merit is the decisive factor. The obvious question is: why should Jacob’s deceit be applauded or rewarded?

It could be argued that Isaac knew all along that it was Jacob he was blessing and not Esau. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Regardless, I believe that this issue is secondary to what the text is trying to convey to us. And it is clear that Isaac stands by his blessing of his younger son.

If we look at Genesis 28:3-4, after the deception, Isaac affirms his blessing. He blesses his son once again, fully aware of who he’s blessing, and he adds the blessing that his son will continue Abraham’s promise of becoming a great nation and of inheriting the land of Israel.

In the tradition of the time, the eldest was bestowed with the father’s blessing. This moment is a paradigm shift, one that encourages us to question entrenched beliefs, challenging the narrative that birthright should eclipse merit. It urges us to consider that passion-driven and purposeful merit should be what determines the blessings we receive and the paths we choose. The Torah asks us to contemplate a paradigm where effort, character, and deeds reign supreme over preconceived notions of identity.

In the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, we pray:

May the Merciful One consider us worthy of the messianic era and life in the world that is coming. 

Harachaman, Hu yezakenu limot hamashiach ulchayei ha’olam haba.

It is not because of our identity that we should be rewarded. It is because of merit. If we are to be worthy of the ultimate redemption, it is through our own actions, our own conduct. This idea aligns with the Toldot narrative, acknowledging that our actions and merits shape our destiny.

In rejecting that things must be the way they are simply based on things over which we have no control, we ask, “Why?” We ask, “Why must it be that way? Why can’t I choose a different path?” In asking “Why”, we embark on a journey that challenges us to choose a path where actions, not just identities, sculpt our destinies.