Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Birth of twins Eisav (name related to thick hair) and Yaakov (named for overreaching to grab his brother’s heel [Eikev] during birth). Eisav is a skilled hunter and outdoorsman who fed his father Yitzchak; Yaakov is a mild mannered shepherd who preferred the indoors. Yaakov buys the Birthright from Eisav.
• Sires twins after twenty years of marriage
• Is warned by God not to travel to Egypt
• Stays in Gerar because of famine
• Prospers in agriculture
• Is evicted by king Avimelech and his envious nation who (falsely) assert that Yitzchak prospered at his nation’s expense
• Digs new, and re-digs old, closed water wells that the Gerarites allege are theirs
• Swears an oath of non-aggression with Avimelech at the latter’s insistence
• Is embittered by Eisav’s marriage to two Hittite women
• Blesses Yaakov in an incident where (instigated by his mother) Yaakov pretends to be Eisav, the brother that Yitzchak summoned to be blessed
• Instructs Yaakov to travel to marry a woman from Rivkah’ s family in Padan Aram
• Blesses Yaakov with the Avrahamic promise of a Nation and a Land
Parenting and Childrearing
Yitzchak prays repeatedly to God in one corner of the room (opposite his wife) for Rivkah to conceive after twenty years of a barren marriage. It appears that they are not pleading together as one but as two individuals opposite one another. Rivkah conceives and goes to inquire why she is experiencing the pains of what appears to be a struggle between the twin fetuses in her womb. She is told that she will give birth to individuals who will head nations that struggle for domination and leadership—information that she apparently does not share with her husband, Yitzchak. Eisav, born first, grows to be a hunter. Yaakov is described as Ish Tam (honesty, simple, unassuming) who becomes a tent dweller (as a shepherd or as a student in Yeshiva). Yitzchak favors Eisav (because he brings him food) and Rivkah favors Yaakov (no reason given).
Lack of unity and parental favoritism breed an environment of intense sibling rivalry and potential fratricide. Psychologist Henry Kagan, cited by Rabbi Gunter Plaut, notes that each of the twins was half loved. Yaakov grows up filled with fear because he is insufficiently loved by a feminine father. Eisav, who is insufficiently loved by his masculine mother, grows up filled with hate. It took the “therapy” of life’s hardships for the brothers, after many years of a hateful relationship, to reconcile.
On buying the Birthright
The ancients believed that the first born male in a family had a preferred status; received a double portion inheritance; and was given a seat of honor among his brothers. He was quasi-holy with responsibility for religious and ceremonial activities. In primitive times the firstborn or the head of a clan acted as the priest.
One day Eisav comes home famished and demands that Yaakov pour down his gullet the red stuff that he is cooking. Eisav agrees to Yaakov’s demand that he first sell the Birthright to Yaakov, reasoning that “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”Eisav swears to it; is fed bread and lentils stew; eats, drinks, and leaves, thereby spurning the Birthright and its historic importance.
Yaakov’s bartering of food for the Birthright seems less-than-appropriate behavior. Some assert that this shows Yaakov’s desperate longing to be the one to carry on the religious heritage of his father and grandfather. Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz thinks that Yaakov suspected that his brother had little regard for the Birthright and, when this opportunity to put him to the test presented itself, he acted to determine what Eisav really thought about the Birthright, knowing full well that withholding the food would not have fatal consequences. Others view the story as a parable of life on how the exceptional person (Yaakov) is able to outmaneuver a more run-of the-mill person (Eisav).
The Torah does not explicitly tell us whether Yaakov’s behavior was morally justified, but implies that it was not. Perhaps because of behavior like this and his later tricking his father about his identity, Yaakov’s life is filled measure for measure (Midah K’neged Midah) with trials, with tragedies and with being tricked by others. He will be deceived by Lavan; he will lose the wife he loves; he will be inconsolable upon learning about the presumed gory death of his favorite son; and his last days will be spent in a strange land totally dependent on a son. The Torah talks to us all about the inevitable repercussions of any immoral and unethical behavior.
Yitzchak blesses his sons
“When Yitzchak was old and his eyes were too dim to see” he calls his older son Eisav to hunt some game, prepare it into a tasty dish and serve it to him so that he may be given a special blessing before he dies. According to some, Yitzchak’s sight related to old age. Others think that “too dim to see” means his judgment was impaired. A Midrash attributes his weakened sight to the tears of the angels that fell during the Akeda. To me this means that the trauma of the Akeda affected his sight and/or his judgment (insight regarding who the deserving son was).
Rivkah, who has been eavesdropping, instructs Yaakov to bring two choice kids from the flock that she will prepare for him to bring to his father so that he, and not Eisav, will receive the blessing. A reluctant Yaakov notes that, unlike his hairy brother, he is smooth skinned and fears “ooliye yemushaynee avi— if my father touches me I will appear like a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing”.
Rabbi Jacob Mecklenburg (German scholar, 1785-1865), in his Haketav Vehakabbalah (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) points out how the words and the text point to Yaakov’s reluctance to be a deceiver. Yaakov says ooliye rather than pen. The latter implies that the speaker does not want the event to occur, whereas the former suggests that speaker hopes that the event does happen. Yaakov (feeling guilty?) wants to be found out! His mother Rivkah accepts responsibility and he “went, took and brought” reluctantly carrying out his mother’s request without much enthusiasm. The Midrash adds that he went “under duress, bent and weeping”. His mother even has to dress him in his brother’s clothing to complete the charade.
When Yaakov arrives, his father Yitzchak asks “who are you?” to which Yaakov responds “I am Eisav your first born…please sit up and eat”. Because of Yaakov’s distinct speech mannerism (i.e., citing the help of God as the reason for his speedy return), Yitzchak is suspicious but then draws Yaakov near and exclaims:”Hakol Kol Yaakov v’hayadayim yeday Eisav—the voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands are the hands of Eisav”. Yaakov blesses his son with material rewards (V’yetain Lecha Haelokim Meetaal Hashamayim…).
No sooner had Yaakov left than Eisav arrives and orders his father to sit up and eat. Yaakov is seized with a violent trembling when he realizes that it was Yaakov whom he blessed earlier. Eisav bursts into a wild, bitter sobbing and pleads to also receive a blessing. Yitzchak hesitates but ultimately pronounces blessings of material reward-- the fat of the earth and the dew of the heavens above. Yaakov also predicts that Eisav and his descendants will “live by the sword”.
When Rivkah learns that Eisav plans to murder Yaakov she urges Yaakov to flee. At Rivkah’s instruction, Yitzchak sends Yaakov to her family in Padan Aram to find a wife. Yitzchak prays that God grant him and his descendents the blessings to possess the land that He gave to Avraham.
Rivkah’s aim was to assure her son Yaakov of prosperity, of happiness and of receiving the Avrahamic blessing. But as with Yaakov, perhaps the lesson here is that the end does not justify the means, and because of her actions her son was anything but happy being forced to flee home like a refugee and escape to a foreign land. Too, it seems that she never saw her beloved son again.
Why did Yitzchak insist on blessing Eisav?
Yitzchak favored Eisav. He experienced a kind of spiritual blindness (according to Abravanel) that prevented him from perceiving reality. The Midrash also offers another explanation: at the Akedah, Yitzchak glanced on high and saw the Divine Presence. One who has “gotten a peek” of the Essential Truthful God is incapable of understanding falsehood and hypocrisy in the world.
Hayyim Ibn Attar (Moroccan Kabbalist, 1696-1743) in his Torah commentary, Or Hachayyim, opines that Yitzchak wanted to bless Eisav because of his weakness and misconduct, hoping that blessings of bounty would influence Eisav to mend his ways.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s approach focuses on the centrality of the Bechira process in the Book of Bereshit-- God’s designation of Avraham and his offspring to become His special nation. Since Yaakov and Eisav were born from the same mother, Yitzchak assumed that both were to receive the Divine promise of Land and offspring.
Bechira stands in contrast to Bracha, a father’s personal blessing to each son reflecting his individuality. God does Bechira; a father bestows Bracha. Yaakov’s intention was to bestow a Bracha to Eisav of prosperity and leadership because Eisav was the family man with children who has a job and took care of others. Yaakov, who is single and living at home, would presumably be blessed by Yitzchak with prosperity and spiritual leadership at a later time.
Rivkah intervenes because she knows from inquiries during her difficult pregnancy that “There are two nations in your womb and two separate peoples shall issue from your body…and the older shall serve the younger”. It appears that she never shared this knowledge. Therefore, Yitzchak assumed that both sons are part of the Bechira. Rivkah knew that it could be only Yaakov.
The Netziv thinks that Rivkah’s enveloping herself with a veil when she first caught sight of Yitzchak was impulsive and characteristic of one who feels unworthy. Because she could not overcome this feeling of inadequacy, she was unable to “talk straight” to her own husband. Instead, she needs to resort to the psychological defense of trickery, perhaps something she learned at home as a child. Rav Hirsch thinks Rivkah did not want to deceive her husband. She actually wanted him to discover for himself that it was Yaakov imitating Eisav, thereby driving home the point of how easily Yitzchak could be fooled in his judgment and evaluation of people.
Rivkah has a serious dilemma and only limited time to act. Fearful that Yitzchak intends to give the Avrahamic blessing to the wrong son, she resorts to trickery to ensure that it is Yaakov, who (rightfully) receives it. When the real Eisav arrives, Yitzchak realizes his mistake and, recognizing that Eisav is not suitable to receive the spiritual leadership blessing he saved for Yaakov, grants him a Bracha of prosperity and predicts that Eisav can become the leader only in the event that Yaakov’s leadership falters.
Rabbi Leibtag assumes that at some point Rivkah explained to Yitzchak the reason for her behavior and that it is only Yaakov who is part of the Bechira process. Therefore, when Yaakov leaves for Padan Aram, Yitzchak prays that God grant him--and him alone-- the blessings promised to Avraham of a special Nation inheriting a special Land.
Was Yitzchak really deceived?
Rabbi Plaut suggests that on some (unconscious) level Yitzchak was aware of Yaakov’s identity but pretends to be deceived. He wants to be deceived because in his heart he knows that his favorite son Eisav lacks the ability and character to carry on the destiny of Avraham. Being weak and indecisive, he does not have the courage to face his son with the truth. It is only after the confrontation with Eisav --with the father trembling and the son weeps bitterly--that Yitzchak is able to grant Yaakov the blessings promised to Avraham.
The personalities of Yitzchak and Eisav
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observes that, as a Patriarch, Yitzchak lacked the charisma of Avraham and the shrewdness of Yaakov. The trauma of the near-death Akayda seems to have left him passive. He has to have a wife selected for him rather than finding one for himself. And the woman chosen is a kind of mother substitute. He never travels outside the land of Canaan. When the Gerarites contest the water wells he has dug, he chooses to move elsewhere rather than defend his rights. On the other hand, his business and agricultural skills enabled him to become a very wealthy man. His Patriarchal role was to consolidate the ethics and morals of his father and to then pass them on to his offspring.
The Torah describes Eisav’s devotion to his father for whom he hunted wildlife, prepared it and then fed him. Even when he later plans to murder his brother Yaakov, he decides to wait until after his father dies, presumably to avoid inflicting this emotional pain on dad. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel asserts that “No man respected his parents more than I. notwithstanding I have found that Eisav respected his father more”.
Others view him differently. Targum translates the Torah description of him as Tzayid B’fiv to mean that he sought out ways to trick his father and ask him questions that would convey his being a stickler for proper behavior (which he was, of course, not). The time he arrived home famished was a day that he was exhausted from committing many murders. A Midrash portrays him as a symbol of Jew-hating. He boasts of having perfected murder. Unlike his predecessors who did not get it right he would murder his brother only after the death of their father to assure that there would never be another sibling to replace him. Then there would be no more Israelites and no nation of Israel, an ancient version of the “Final Solution”.
When he realized that Yaakov had been blessed instead of him Eisav sobs loudly and bitterly. That these exact Hebrew words were cried out by Mordechai in the Book of Esther has led some to conclude that the threat of Jewish extinction then was punishment for the pain experienced by Eisav.