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This Week's Torah Portion: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today? (Part 7)

Dëvar Torah — Parashath Tolëdoth (Genesis XXV, 19 – XXVIII, 9)

Our parasha tells the story of a great rivalry which has continued down to our days. It begins when Rivqa (“Rebecca”) is finally able to become pregnant after a protracted period of infertility. Indeed, after both she and her husband Yitzchaq (“Isaac”) have both undergone treatment with the only truly effective “fertility drug” — prayer — she is blessed with twins.

But already at the beginning, it is clear that this is no ordinary pregnancy:

And the children struggled within her, and she said, If [it is] so, why [is] this [happening to] me? And she went to ask Ha-Shem (XXV, 22).

Rashi elucidates the nature of the struggle:

When she would pass the entrances of the Torah of Shem and Ever [vide infra] Ya‘aqov [“Jacob”] would rush and try to get out; when passing the entrances of idolatry, ‘Esav [“Esau”] would try to get out.

Small wonder that Rivqa went to ask Ha-Shem what was going on!

Ha-Shem answers her question:

There are two nations in your belly, and two peoples will be separated from within you (ibid., 23).

The strange rivalry continues as the boys are born:

The first to come out was named ‘Esav [“Hairy”] for his abundance of red hair, and afterward his brother came out, and his hand was clutching ‘Esav’s heel; (ibid., 26).

Rashi explains that he was trying to hold ‘Esav back, because he, Ya‘aqov, had been formed first in Rivqa’s womb, and wanted to be the first out as well, that he might claim his birthright legitimately (ya‘aqov means “he will hinder”).

As the boys grow up, the differences in their characters become very pronounced: ‘Esav becomes “a man knowing how to hunt,” “a man of the field” (ibid., 27). The midrash defines ‘Esav’s object in this as “to trap and deceive his father with his mouth.” ‘Esav was an insincere flatterer, a manipulator, a liar whose energy was devoted to doing whatever it took to gain his ends.

In this, unfortunately, he was somewhat successful:

“And Yitzchaq loved ‘Esav, for he was trapped by his mouth” (ibid., 28, Rashi ad loc.).

Ya’aqov, on the other hand, is characterized as “a simple [tam] man, dwelling in tents.” The contrast is clear: Unlike ‘Esav, Ya‘aqov was “uncomplicated,” “unsophisticated” (both possible translations of tam). Rashi tells us that what was in his heart was on his lips; the concepts of falsehood and manipulation never occurred to him. In addition, he was constantly to be found in the “tents” of Shem and ‘Ever, whose study house was the repository of such Torah as had been given to Noach. He was not to be found in the streets.

It is singular, then, that Verse 28 contrasts Rivqa with Yitzchaq. While Yitzchaq, as we have seen, loved ‘Esav, the verse ends “and Rivqa loved Ya‘aqov.” One may fairly ask how Yitzchaq, whose entire being was dedicated to Ha-Shem’s service, so much so that he is described by the Rabbi as an ‘ola tëmima, a “perfect sacrifice” (cf. my comments on last week’s parasha), could possibly overlook the obvious superiority of Ya‘aqov over ‘Esav.

The great 16th century commentator Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno casts the contrast in its true light: The difference was not that Yitzchaq loved ‘Esav excessively, but “even though he knew beyond doubt that ‘Esav was not so perfect as Ya‘aqov,” nonetheless he was led by ‘Esav’s attentions to overlook how truly warped he was.

Not so Rivqa, who loved Ya‘aqov exclusively “because she recognized ‘Esav’s evil nature.”

We see here another example on the prophetic level of the bina yëtheira, the “additional insight” which the rabbis say is granted to women, similar to what we saw with Sara and Avraham last week. Rivqa saw more clearly than Yitzchaq.

The next escalation of the rivalry comes on an occasion of family mourning (ibid., 28-34). Ya’aqov, we read, was preparing a nëzid, a stew of red lentils. The rabbis tell us that the occasion was the funeral of Avraham. ‘Esav comes on the scene, exhausted (as the Talmud says) from having taken advantage of his grandfather’s death … to go on a crime spree.

For our purposes, the specific crimes committed are not important. His depravity was on display for all who had eyes to see, and Ya‘aqov was determined to prevent such a complete scoundrel from gaining primogeniture, for in those days the first-born were responsible for Divine service.

The Torah conveys the urgency in Ya‘aqov’s voice as he pushed the sale:

Sell today your birthright to me .… Swear to me today.

In the end, the sale was made willingly:

And ‘Esav said, Behold, I am going to die, and why do I need a birthright? … And ‘Esav disparaged the birthright.

The rivalry comes to a head in Chapter XXVII. The Torah presents a picture which, on its face, is truly pathetic. Here is Yitzchaq, old and infirm, blind, wishing to give a final patriarchal blessing to the son who truly needs one, his beloved, wayward ‘Esav. Here is Rivqa, the scheming mother, determined to secure even this for her favorite, Ya’aqov, resorting to a shabby trick and brow-beating her reluctant son to abandon his integrity and go along with it.

The trick done, the blessing delivered to its unintended address, ‘Esav arrives on the scene and inevitably exposes the tawdry conspiracy. When he realized what had happened, ‘Esav “cried out a great and very bitter cry”; v. 34). He begged Yitzchaq:

Bless me, too, my father (ibid.).

The stricken father informs him:

Your brother has come with deceit and taken your blessing (v. 35).

‘Esav is broken:

Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me, too, my father! And ‘Esav raised his voice and wept.

What was this all-important blessing, so vital that Rivqa would force her son to violate his principles, the innocence and truth which were the hallmarks of his life? The Torah provides us with the text:

And G-d will give you of the dew of the heavens, and of the fats of the land, and much grain and oil. Peoples will serve you and nations will bow to you; be a strong man to your brothers, and your mother’s sons will bow to you. He who curses you is cursed, and he who blesses you is blessed (ibid., 28-29).

The blessing is quite materialistic, rooted in this world and its concerns; in short, it seems well suited to ‘Esav, in keeping with his coarse character. The mystery deepens: Why did Ya‘aqov need such a blessing?

It was not that Yitzchaq would have begrudged Ya‘aqov a blessing; to the contrary, we see at the end of the parasha, when Ya‘aqov is about to depart for Syria, both to get away from his brother and to seek a wife, that Yitzchaq confers on him the birkath Avraham (“blessing of Avraham”), the inheritance of the Holy Land which could only be realized through Torah and Divine service.

This, clearly, is a blessing fit for Ya‘aqov. Why, then, did he need the first one, and assuming that he did need it, why did Divine Providence so arrange things that it had to be taken by deceit, in seeming violation of Ya‘aqov’s integrity?

Rabbi Naftali Tzëvi Yëhuda Berlin, in his Harchév Davar, offers the following explanation: Yitzchaq knew full well that Ya‘aqov would get the birkath Avraham, such that he would become Yisra’él. He would be the immediate progenitor and eponymous ancestor of the nation, and would bear the standard of Torah and Divine service in the Holy Land and the world at large. This inheritance, dependent as it is on direct Divine Providence, could only belong to those ready to shoulder the legacy of Yitzchaq’s utter dedication to Ha-Shem — the quality which had made him an ‘ola tëmima.

This could only be Ya‘aqov, and Yitzchaq would consider his descendants only those who shared his dedication. But in his love for ‘Esav, flawed as his character was, he wanted to give him a blessing, too: That he and his descendants would at least enjoy success in this world, as Ya‘aqov and his would enjoy success in the next.

But Rivqa, out of her absolute love for Ya‘aqov, saw that not all of his descendants would be so perfectly righteous. There would be those among them who would be closer, perhaps, to ‘Esav than they should be. They would gain the blessing of enjoyment in this world, of material success, and perhaps out of that material success would be brought to do chesed, kindness, with their wealth in this world.

Ya‘aqov, though acceding to his mother’s request, did not sacrifice his integrity. A careful reading of the dialogue between him and Yitzchaq (vv. 19-27) shows how studiously Ya‘aqov avoided directly lying to his father (the one seeming exception, v. 19, can be read, as Rashi notes, “I have come as you told me; ‘Esav is your firstborn”).

Thus we see that the blessing had to come to Ya‘aqov as if he were ‘Esav, for the quality is taken from ‘Esav, from his world-view and philosophy. For this reason, it was necessary that Yitzchaq believe that Ya‘aqov was ‘Esav. Rivqa was not scheming for advantage, and ‘Esav’s histrionics, as should be obvious from his attitude revealed supra, were strictly for Yitzchaq’s consumption.

In every generation since, we have seen that there are those who are lax in observance, who throw off the yoke of Torah altogether, but nonetheless enjoy success and wealth. We need not envy them, for we know that this is the product of Yitzchaq’s blessing. Our task is to help them do chesed with their resources, so that at least that merit will redound to their credit.