And Jacob went out from Beersheva, and went toward Charan. And he came upon the place, and stayed there all night because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in the place to sleep. And he dreamt, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, Hashem stood beside him, and said: ‘I am Hashem, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The land upon which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back into this land; for I will never leave you, until I have done what I have spoken to you.’ (Genesis 28:10-15)
- How did Jacob get to this point?
- Why did he left the land of promise for Charan?
- He left his father’s house to stay with his uncle Lavan, yet his father Isaac was instructed to never leave the land of promise. Lavan, from a previous encounter with the Eved (Servant of) Avraham doesn’t appear to be the pinnacle of kindness and thoughtfulness, so why there?
- Lastly, why did Hashem feel it necessary to give Jacob a blessing at a location the Hebrew text repeatedly calls HaMakom?
In order to determine the answers to these questions, one must study the life of Jacob from last week.
At some point in her pregnancy, Rebecca began to realize something was wrong. The joy of motherhood with gentle, fluttery movements in the womb did not happen for her. Instead, it felt like two bulldogs fighting over a chicken bone. It was so worrisome, she took her concerns to her G-d who gave her, probably, a bit too much information. He said, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from you; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23). G-d gave Rebecca some very heavy news. All G-d had to do was explain, “You’re having difficulty because you have twins.” However, G-d takes it one step further and lets Rebecca hear a reading from the last chapter of the book.
I know a lot of people who wished they were prophets; they certainly would like to know a bit of future, but none of them realize the weightiness of prophesy. Rebecca was told she is carrying twins (partially explaining her difficult pregnancy), but she was given a prognosticator’s glimpse into the two children she carried. She, basically, was told she would be smitten with a dysfunctional family; in case you’re wondering, yes – we inherit familiar dysfunction from the very best. How awful to be told that one child would be chosen over the other. Most parents want to see all their children succeed, but Rebecca was told that things would not be easy in her household – but how difficult and in what manner the difficulty would arrive was not told to her. Will the stronger lead the weaker in an act of kindness? Will the stronger lord over the weaker? The only thing she knew was that they would be separated. For the longest time, I thought Rebecca would have told this vision to her husband Isaac (perhaps because my wife tells me most things), but recently, I’ve changed my mind. As we go through this short story of our forefathers, I will point out why I think she kept this a secret until about Genesis 28:5.
And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and he was called Esau. And after that came forth his brother, and his hand held onto Esau’s heel; and he (Isaac, that is) called his name Jacob (Genesis 25:24-26). Look again at the passage and notice the lack of symmetry. This is an important tool for Biblical interpretation. The text says everyone called the older boy Esau, but it says Isaac called the younger Jacob. Rebecca never calls Jacob Jacob because she knows he’s not Jacob. The name Jacob indicates servitude to the older brother, and G-d already told Rebecca that the older will serve the younger. Never in our text does Rebecca call Jacob Jacob. She always calls him, my son.
We’re told the older is, admoni kulo ke’aderet se’ar, red all over, hairy like a robe. The term used for David haMelech is admoni which most versions of the Tanach translate as ruddy, but it, likewise, means, he is red, like my hair once was. Admoni is a play on Edom, a nation that comes from Esau, and Se’ar is a play on the word Seir, a mountain range within Edomi territory. Esau was born into the world with as much hair as Robin Williams. His physical appearance portrays someone who is complete or accomplished, not only physically, but also in worldview. This arrogance is found even in his name, for Esau is derived from the word esui, which gives the sense of being completed, done, or finished [Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary, ©1995 Kernerman Publishing LTD and Lonnie Kahn Publishing Ltd, Jerusalem, IS]. He didn’t need or want self-improvement. In contrast to Jacob’s vibrancy and active personality, Esau is static – what you see is all you get; Esau is esui.
In contrast, Jacob is Ish Tam, a quiet man or a perfect man. This makes Jacob’s character active and vibrant. Jacob [a pun on ekev, or heel] was smooth and childlike. These features are not accidental, serving instead to clearly herald the future of the twins. Again, the lack of symmetry teaches us that Esau was named because of his superficial physical features, while Jacob was named because of his activity.
And the boys grew; Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. (Genesis 25:27)
Isaac is no fool, contrary to the opinions of many Biblical scholars. In the text, we learn that Esau was a hunter. We’ve read about one other hunter thus far in the Biblical text, and this hunter was notorious. Our sages tell us this hunter was the villainous leader of Babel in the valley of Shinar. Under his leadership, the Tower of Babel was built, and Abraham was thrown into the furnace used to fire the bricks. Esau reminds us (and Isaac) of Nimrod, Jacob reminds us of Rebecca (we see him clearly acting like his mother at the well when he first meets Rachel), and Rebecca, in turn, emulates her father-in-law, Abraham. In light of this, is it fair to assume that Isaac, come hell or high water, is going to force G-d’s hand by bestowing the blessings of Abraham unto his most-favored eldest son? Is that Isaac’s intent? One might think so when Genesis 25:28 is read.
Now Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his venison; and Rebekah loves Jacob. (Genesis 25:28)
What is most notable about this passage is not that Rebecca loves Jacob, but that Isaac loves Esau because of his game. A parent does not need to have a reason to love a child. The child is theirs – the parents have no choice but to love their child. The lack of symmetry in the verse should make us pause and think. The dichotomy needs to be answered. Isaac uses Esau’s talents as a way to love his eldest son, while Rebecca simply loves Jacob. Because Esau is more like Nimrod than Abraham, Isaac does what he can to help his son do what is right. If he can give his son tasks, this gives Esau opportunities to do mitzvot. Since Esau is a man of the field and loves the hunt, Isaac will love his son in the midst of his son’s activities. Since Esau hunts, Isaac puts extra effort into showing love for his son by forcing himself to appreciate his son’s activities (this may be the basis for 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where Paul mentions that he becomes all things for all people). What is also striking is that Isaac’s love for Jacob is not mentioned, but there is dialog between the two, and this dialog is always tender. Rebecca and Esau have no relationship – which in itself is a relationship, albeit a bad one. Rebecca has been given inside information, and this seems to affect her ability to build a relationship with her oldest son. She sees him as overpowering, shallow, self-serving, misogynist, and lacking a certain holiness. She knows that the son in whom to invest her time, effort, and love is the younger.
There’s one other things that is missed in every translation I checked, so I corrected it above: Isaac loved Esau… …Rebekah loves Jacob. The uncomfortable error in tense is fixed in translation because it’s universally considered a mistake. However, it is not. It is a statement of the kind of love the parents had for these children. Isaac, since he searched for ways to love Esau, this love was shown during the time the two of them shared. Rebecca, on the other hand, has an undying love for Jacob. Isaac loved Esau in the presence of Esau, Rebecca continually loves Jacob. Pirkei Avot 5:19 affirms a simple truth about love: Any love that depends upon a specific cause is gone when the cause is gone; but if it does not depend upon a specific cause, it will never cease.
And Jacob simmered pottage; and Esau came in from the field, and he was faint. And Esau said to Jacob: ‘Let me swallow, from the red… the red, for I am faint.’ Therefore was his name called Edom. (Genesis 25:29-30).
Some translations, again, to fix an apparent continuity problem. Verse 9 says Esau is faint (ayef). If he is faint, why is he asking for food? He should be looking for a cot. By translating ayef as famished, they miss an important psychological aspect to the text. Esau, for the first time, has experienced death in his family. Abraham, at the age of 175, has died. Esau sees the futility of the promises given to Abraham. The promise of 400 years of servitude before the blessings of Abraham are realized is a gut-wrenching long-term prospect. The sun still sets and rises on the day of his grandfather’s death. Life is what it shall always be. Esau is tired of the charade.
The text tells us this is when Esau collected a nickname for himself, Edom, which means red. For those who wonder why Torah chooses Edom as his alternate ego instead of Nezid, [pottage], Hazeh [stuff], or Haleiteni [devour], I think it’s based upon the words used by Esau as he describes that which he desires: min ha adam ha adam, literally from the red the red. The Food Channel talking heads, when I had cable, spent a lot of time oohing and aahing over the colors of the food, but the color is the most superficial of a food’s attributes; there are far more important qualities that should draw our concern. This fixation on superficiality defines Esau’s character; therefore, his emotive response is triggered by the red red stuff and he says, let me devour, or let me swallow, intimating a need for instant gratification. Therefore, to match his superficial passions, Esau is nicknamed Edom – fitting nomenclature for the one-dimensional brother of Jacob.
And Jacob said, “Sell to me, today, your birthright.” And Esau said, Behold I am in peril and what good is this birthright to me [what benefit will this birthright bring to me]? And Jacob said, “Swear to me today,” and he swore to him, thus selling his birthright to Jacob. (Genesis 25:31-33)
Jacob, playing on Esau’s proclivity for instant gratification, asks, Michrah chayom et bechorasecha li, Sell me, today, the right of firstborn. Esau’s needs are to be filled today, while Jacob reached for the future and desired, like his grandfather Abraham, a city with an eternal foundation. Therefore, Jacob’s apparent passivity while dwelling near the tents was a means to an end. It is a method by which he reached for the future instead of seeking to sate his pleasures today. The main difference in their actions can be summed in their way: Esau is reflexive and Jacob is reflective. Want more proof? Look at the episode where Rebecca complains about Esau’s Hittite wives. What does Esau do to solve the problem? He gets a wife from his uncle Ishmael’s family in addition to his other wives. When Esau discovers his two wives were bothersome to his father (no mention of his mother), he gets a third wife that he can bring to family functions.
I have already spent more time on this introduction than I intended, so I would like to get to the main point. In Chapter 27, Isaac calls for Esau and instructs him to go on the hunt. Isaac, seeking the best for his older son, is giving him tasks to do in order to convert Esau’s mundane task into a mitzvah. Esau, an avid hunter, will gladly do this task for his father, and he will also get a blessing and commendations upon his return. Rebecca, who must be related to Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, hears all. She calls her son, Jacob, and tells him, Go, now, to the flock, and catch two good kids of the goats; and I will make them into a savory food for your father, just as he loves it; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.
Jacob is put into an uncomfortable position. Does he rebel against his mother or does he deceive his father. In the midst of a horrible moral conundrum, he chose to do the latter, counting on, I believe, the mercy of his father should he be caught. Rebecca conjures her culinary wizardry, dresses her son to be like Esau to the touch, and sends her son into Isaac’s tent.
And he came to his father, and said: ‘My father’; and he said: ‘Here am I; who are you… my son?’ And Jacob said to his father: ‘I am Esau your firstborn; I have done according to your wishes. Arise, Please, sit and eat of my venison, so your soul may bless me.’ And Isaac said to his son: ‘How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?’ And he said: ‘Because Hashem your G-d sent me good speed.’
These three verses seem to indicate the gig is up before it even starts. Was Isaac thinking it would take two or even three days before Esau returned from the hunt? The rapidity of Rebecca’s order leads one to believe Jacob was entering the text that very day! This is why Isaac is amazed. There are two important phrases in the narrative. First, Jacob says, Please, sit, and eat of my venison. This should have been a clue that something was wrong. Compare Jacob’s please, sit, and eat, etc., to Esau’s Let my father rise and eat of his son’s venison, etc. The gig should be up; not only does Jacob says please, he gives Hashem the credit for his success! Never in Torah does Esau speak of G-d… unlike his father and brother. Why doesn’t Isaac end Jacob’s shenanigans with a terse, “Alright, Jacob, knock it off,” and send him out of the tent? It’s because Isaac believes Esau is changing. He realizes Esau is not the spiritual son, but Isaac has spent his life making peace, whether it’s with his barren wife, or the people of the land and the wells dug by his father. He hopes to see peace – especially between his two sons – blossom into something wonderful. He hopes to share with both of them the blessings of Abraham.
And Isaac said unto Jacob: Come near, Please, that I may feel you, my son, whether you are my very son Esau or not. And Jacob went near to Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’
This last sentence is the most important of this exchange: The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. In one of my methods of hermeneutics, one must listen to the tone of voice. Is Isaac saying this as a question or as an exclamation?
- Is he saying, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau?” Or
- Is he saying, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau!”
If you believe Isaac is asking a question, you believe he’s an idiot. He knows there’s a problem, but he proceeds to give a most valuable gift to the wrong person. You are suggesting he does not hear the vocal tonal qualities of Esau, but proceeds to bestow a blessing on the wrong fellow.
If you believe Isaac is making an exclamatory statement, you are exploring a psychological aspect sadly ignored by most commentaries. The idea is that by helping his son along, encouraging him in performing good deeds and providing him blessings and encouragement, Isaac is helping Esau to explore his spirituality. When Jacob says “please,” and “G-d gave me good speed,” Isaac is blinded by the hope he has for his older son. This propels Isaac to deliver his blessing to Esau.
If one pays attention to the blessings, Isaac’s ultimate hope is clearly seen. In last week’s parsha, Isaac gives three blessings and in this parsha, Hashem follows up with one of his own. When looking at Isaac’s blessings, it’s absolutely imperative to understand the context of each.
- The first is a blessing to Jacob when Isaac thinks he’s Esau.
- The second is a blessing to Esau when Isaac knows he’s Esau.
- The third is the blessing to Jacob when Isaac knows he’s Jacob.
With that in mind, I’ve translated the first blessing myself: Look! The smell of my son is the smell of a field blessed by Hashem. May G-d give you of the dew of heaven, and of the rich places of the earth, with an overabundance of corn and wine. Let people serve you, and nations greatly esteem you. Be lord over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons give you respect. Cursed is everyone who curses you, and blessed is everyone who blesses you.
What is most notable about this blessing? Yes, I know this is the impossible question because it’s so open-ended, but one should notice that nations are to esteem him as well as his brother. Isaac is not separating the brothers into two nations. He intends the blessings to be shared in ONE nation under Isaac, and this one nation was to consist of both Jacob and Esau. This is why I think Rebecca did not share G-d’s words with Isaac when she was still pregnant.
As the blessing ends, Esau comes into the camp with his kill, and Jacob leaves his father’s tent. Esau barbecues the game and brings it into the tent to receive his blessing. Upon the realization that he blessed the wrong lad, Isaac says, “Your brother came with guile, and took away your blessing.” Did you catch the nuance? YOUR blessing. He never said he had no other blessing; in fact, he has a pretty good blessing under his sleeve. Instead, Isaac gives Esau a lesser version of the blessing “erroneously” given to Jacob: Behold, of the rich places of the earth shall be your dwelling, and of the dew of heaven from above. By your weapons shall you live, and you shall serve your brother; and it shall come to pass when you break loose, you shall shake his yoke from your neck. Esau realizes he is now subservient to his brother, and he hates Jacob for it. He now hopes for the speedy death of his father so he can enact vengeance upon Jacob and murder him.
Isaac’s third blessing is given to Jacob as he prepares to leave and go to Charan to stay with his uncle Laban (his mother sends him off to remove Esau’s threat to his life, and Isaac sends him off to marry someone besides a local girl). This third blessing was never intended for Esau; it was always waiting for Jacob, the spiritual son who reminded him of Abraham. In this blessing, he says, You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan Aram, to the house of Betuel (your mother’s father); and take a wife from there from the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother. And G-d Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples; and give you the blessing of Abraham to you and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land of your travels, which G-d gave to Abraham.
The fourth blessing, the blessing from Hashem when Jacob was having the dream of the ladder, was a reiteration of Jacob’s blessing. Because some of Jacob’s blessings were received surreptitiously, Hashem ratified the blessings to provide comfort to Jacob.
Whenever I read Isaac’s third blessing – the one he gave to Jacob when he knows it’s Jacob – my heart breaks for Isaac. It was clearly his intent that the blessings would be shared with his two sons and their sons after them. Unfortunately, fate, if you will, has different plans. When G-d visited Rebecca and gave her the ability to see the end of the story, she knew the two boys would be separate nations. Isaac saw them as one nation but with different foci. Jacob would be the spiritual leader who would take care of the avodah (worship and sacrifice), while Esau would take care of the hunting and defense of their borders. This was apparently never Heaven’s plan, or perhaps it was a case of self-fulfilling prophesy.
The narrative never promotes a positive relationship between Rebecca and Esau. She never calls him “my son,” and we never see a single exchange of words. The prophesy from G-d made it clear which son of hers was worth the extra parental effort. She, then, stepped in to make sure that Her son (Jacob, that is) would never bow down to Esau. By stepping in as she did, she fulfilled the words of Hashem and the brothers became two separate nations.
Here’s a short, fascinating task for you: Imagine the tikkun (construction toward eternity) had Isaac’s dream of his sons participating in a single nation was realized!