Facing Our Blessings, Part 2
When last we left Ya’akov, his father had given him a blessing without recognizing him, a blessing that Ya’akov knows was not meant for him. As he flees from home, he is plagued by wondering whether he deserves blessing at all, and this anxiety continues to nag at him throughout his time with Lavan. On a literary level, “recognition”—or lack thereof—reemerges at pivotal moments of this unfolding story. Following the theme of recognition in Ya’akov’s journey allows us to address the same fundamental questions ourselves: Do we deserve the blessings we have? Do we get the blessings we “deserve”?
Lavan confronts Ya’akov when he sneaks away with his large family and many possessions to return home. Accusations abound. Most pointedly, Lavan accuses Ya’akov of stealing his idols. In response, Ya’akov says:
...נֶגֶד אַחֵינוּ הַכֶּר־לְךָ מָה עִמָּדִי וְקַח־לָךְ...
...“In the presence of our kinsmen, recognize what I have of yours and take it!”...
At face value, he is simply saying that Lavan should check for the idols. But the significance of this imperative “recognize!” becomes more powerful when we pay close attention to the broader meaning and usage of this word. The last time we saw this Hebrew root was when Ya’akov came to Yitzhak for blessing and he “did not recognize him / וְלֹא הִכִּירוֹ.” These two scenes are the first times the Torah uses this relatively uncommon root (נ.כ.ר.). Literarily, the scenes are in conversation, centered around the theme of recognition.
What does “recognition / נ.כ.ר.” entail? It can simply mean to identify something or someone, but it can also connote feelings and actions that flow from recognition of a particular individual. A judge should not “recognize” one party over the other and give preferential treatment (Deuteronomy 16:19); a father should not “recognize” the son of a beloved wife and offer more inheritance, over and above the firstborn from a hated wife (21:17). In one grammatical form, the Hebrew root can also mean its opposite: to disguise or alienate. The concept of “recognition” in these broader senses has been the object of much study across disciplines in the past several decades, in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience alike.1 With recognition comes clarity about who we are, who we are in relationship with, and what these relationships require of us.
This concept of recognition drives the string of stories of Ya’akov and his sons throughout the book of Genesis. Pivotal moments hinge on this same Hebrew root, and on the root question of whether a relationship will deepen in mutual recognition or unravel in alienation. Yehudah shows Ya’akov Yosef’s coat dipped in blood saying: “Recognize / הַכֶּר־נָא”—is this Yosef’s coat (37:32)? As a mirror to this scene, pregnant Tamar turns to Yehudah, after he was with her as a prostitute, and voices the same imperative to “Recognize / הַכֶּר־נָא” the personal belongings he had left behind (38:25). Her ask isn’t only for identification, but to live up to his responsibility in this relationship, in contrast to his earlier abandonment towards his brother echoing in these same words. Finally, when Yosef “recognizes” his brothers who come down to Egypt during famine even as they don’t “recognize him” (וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ, 42:8) and disguises himself (וַיִּתְנַכֵּר, v. 7), he is living out a complex tension between recognition and alienation in his relationship to family.
What exactly was the nature of the initial “lack of recognition,” when Ya’akov came before his father? Why does it continue to reverberate so powerfully—as he confronts Lavan, and as his sons bear his legacy of alienation? One midrash offers an eerie and profound interpretation of Yitzhak’s failure to recognize Ya’akov. Yitzhak may very well have identified that it was Ya’akov in front of him, but through his prophetic ability to see into the future, he saw that Ya’akov’s descendants would include people who were wicked—no better than Esav.2 So he saw no reason to compassionately embrace Ya’akov as more deserving of blessing in his own right, to “recognize” him as the preferred son.3 By bringing up Ya’akov’s future wicked descendants, the midrash also leaves us with the sense that Ya’akov didn’t inherently “deserve” blessing. We end up with a story where there is no alignment between blessing and merit. There is no such thing as a deserved blessing.
It is this lingering impact of Yitzhak’s lack of recognition, and Ya’akov’s anxiety about whether he deserves blessing, that comes to a head in the climactic scene when Ya’akov confronts Lavan with the demand for recognition, הַכֶּר־לְךָ. As Lavan searches through all of Ya’akov’s belongings, Ya’akov launches into a speech demanding recognition for his hard work under the extremely difficult and unfair conditions of Lavan’s terms (Genesis 31:37-42). Ya’akov speaks of how much he has done to earn this prosperity—i.e. his own blessing—and cringes at Lavan’s accusation that Ya’akov is a crook who has earned none of it. Invoking the word “recognize / הַכֶּר,” Ya’akov shows how scarred he is from his father’s lack of recognition, how much anxiety he carries about whether he will ever be recognized as someone worthy of blessing.
The final biblical story that hinges on this same root is that of Boaz and Ruth, which can be seen as a denouement to the cascading effects of “recognition gone wrong” in the relationships surrounding Ya’akov and his children. When Boaz chooses to behave generously towards Ruth, offering her food and protection, she turns to him saying:
וַתִּפֹּל עַל־פָּנֶיהָ וַתִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי וְאָּנֹכִי נָכְרִיָּה׃
“Why have I found favor in your eyes to recognize me, when I am a stranger?”4
Ruth feels she is receiving an undeserved blessing, but it is not a source of guilt or anxiety. This undeserved blessing represents an expansive gaze of recognition, one that embraces the other in relationship even when there is no reason to do so. Boaz’ generosity of recognition stems from Ruth’s initiative in extending the recognition of family and compassion towards her mother-in-law, Naomi, when she had no responsibility to do so. Recognition in this story is about cascading acts of generosity, not about trying to earn or pay back what we receive. This accords with how the philosopher Paul Ricoeur speaks of the comfort and catalyzing effect recognition offers, as it “lightens the weight of obligation to give in return and reorients this toward a generosity equal to the one that led to the first gift [of being recognized].”5 Ruth generously recognizes Naomi, and this catalyzes a separate act of generosity.
The resolution to Ya’akov’s misalignment of undeserved blessing is not to try to justify why we deserve the blessings we have. We live in a world where prosperity, hard work, and merit don’t necessarily match up. Following in the footsteps of Ruth and Boaz, we can aspire to an approach where the response to undeserved blessing is to expansively share our own gaze of recognition, empathy, and responsibility, to do whatever we can to move forward that undeserved blessing into the world.
1 French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in his book Parcours de la Reconnaissance, speaks of recognition as a fundamental part of coming into our own self-knowledge and sense of responsibility towards others. See the translation of David Pellauer, The Course of Recognition (Harvard, 2005). Facial recognition has become its own research area, in neuroscience and psychology, as we have developed the skills to explore the specific brain area dedicated to facial recognition and how it is stimulated in significant moments, particularly as part of developing parent-child relationships.
3 One commentary explicitly interprets the root נ.כ.ר. here as showing love and compassion. See Peirush Maharzo of R. Zev Wolf Einhorn, 19th c. Belarus: “לא הכירו. פי' מלשון רחמים וחמלה כמ"ש מדוע מצאתי חן בעיניך להכירני.”