11/11/2013 07:50 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Blessing Works

Why does time go forward? Physicists debate why the arrow of time moves in the direction it does. In imagination we sometimes reverse the direction: Merlin in the Arthur stories grew younger. But we also naturally project and often confuse the time trajectory of human life. We think what we have must be a product of what we have done. Perhaps blessings don't quite work that way.

Under the direction of his mother Rebecca Jacob pretends to be his brother, disguising himself, and stealing the birthright which should have been Esau's. Why does the biblical Jacob, who deceives his aged father, deserve a blessing? For that matter, why do other biblical heroes like Abraham and Sarah deserve to be blessed? Although the Rabbis of the Talmud offer reasons for Abraham to receive a blessing (such as the story that, realizing the truth of one God, he broke his father's idols, a story which is not found in the Torah), the text itself never tells us why Abraham deserves to be chosen. Even later biblical figures, like Moses and David, seem to have little or no past achievements of described character traits that make them suitable for blessing.

We mistake the trajectory however. As a rule, biblical heroes do not receive blessings because they deserve it. They receive blessings so that they may prove deserving. A blessing is not a reward, it is an opportunity.

When God first approaches Moses, the reluctant shepherd has to be coerced into appearing before Pharaoh. Once he agrees however, Moses' true task begins. Now he must demonstrate, again and again, that he is worthy of the trust god has conferred upon him.

When we turn to the even more problematic case of Jacob, the calculus becomes clearer. Jacob does not deserve the blessing. But there is something - In Rebeka, in Isaac perhaps, in God - that senses that Jacob will be able to prove himself equal to the blessing he receives. In the subsequent story of Jacob, in his dreams, his struggle with the angel, his eventual reuniting with his children and grandchildren, is the vindication of what begins as a sordid tale of deceit.

God judges people by potential. Not as human see does the Lord see, God explains to Samuel, off to anoint a new king; for humans see what is visible, but God sees into the heart. This is the Bible's way of insisting that God knows the possibility of a person. The blessing is one's chance to become what she or he might be; less often is it a capstone to a life already lived.

When a person builds a business and decides to give it to a child, it is not because that child has already run a successful business. It is a blessing to be realized. We are looking down the wrong direction of times arrow - the blessing points ahead, not behind.

If you are reading this your life is filled with blessing. No doubt there are struggles as well, sometimes soul wrenching struggles. But we are surrounded by blessings and often wonder what we did to deserve them. I suggest we change the question - what will we do to deserve them? If you have been given wealth or status or physical or mental gifts, what can you do in your life to demonstrate that the gift was well given?

The purpose of a blessing is not to gauge why you have been good, but in what ways you might be good, given the tools and abilities and gifts in your life. Sometimes a misdeed is an engine that animates goodness. Jacob understood that his act, decisive and painful, meant that he had a lot to accomplish in order to prove that the blessing was not a mistake. The result of his faith, determination and action was Israel. What will yours be?