Life is Not a Party
ויתרוצצו הבנים בקרבה
“And the children struggled within her.” (Bereishit 25:22)
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read about the twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebecca, who ultimately fathered two very different nations. Right from the get-go Jacob and Esau didn’t get along too well and as the Medrash tells us, they began fighting even while in utero. The Torah tells us “the children clashed inside her” (Bereishit 25:22). Rashi, the primary commentator on the Torah, explains the fight, “They were struggling with one another, and fighting over the inheritance of two worlds (this world and the World to Come).”
The problem is that once we see how they lead their lives, what their hobbies, interests and lifestyles were like, this whole fight seems to have been a big mistake. Esau loved to go hunting, and enjoyed killing and stealing. He enjoyed this world, without seeming to care in the least bit about the World to Come. To further prove the point, he sold his spiritual birthright for a bowl of beans, indicating that even a minute of pleasure in this world was worth more to him than the spiritual benefits of the first-born.
Jacob on the other hand, sat in the tents and studied. He spent his entire life working on his World to Come, totally dismissing the delights of this world. So why did they have to fight in the womb? If I was an arbitrator, I would have made a simple deal: Esau gets this world and Jacob gets the next world! Can’t we all just get along?
The answer is that in truth both of the worlds are indelibly linked, and like all humans, each brother needed both components. Esau however, just wanted to enjoy this world. But, as long as there was another world out there, one that is eternal and much more real, he couldn’t experience pure pleasure in the physical world. Deep down, he knew that there was more to life than the simple party. That knowledge alone gives the party person immense dissatisfaction and a desire to seek something deeper, something real.
Why is it that the biggest celebrities who have every material pleasure in the world at their fingertips remain such a depressed group of people dependent on “substances” to bolster their emotional well being? Why was it that John D Rockefeller once said, “I can think of nothing less pleasurable than a life devoted to pleasure?”
The answer is that the soul, the part of our body that comes from that Other World gets no satisfaction from physical pleasure. On the contrary, it is often disgusted when there is an overload of physicality. That soul is what didn’t allow Esau to get the maximum out of this world. Therefore, he wanted to dominate the next world too, to subdue it, so that he could enjoy this world with the utmost of hedonistic pleasures, as he desired. Although his goal in life was the World to Come, Jacob realized that he needed this world, a world where G-d isn’t apparent, and filled with obstacles to serving G-d, in order to truly merit the World to Come. A soul living exclusively in the next world has no challenges to overcome, no battles to fight, and thus can never really earn the World to Come. Therefore, Jacob wanted to dominate this world too, so that he could enjoy the World to Come with the utmost of spiritual pleasures that only comes after hard work.
The final irony is that in the end, the spiritual path of Jacob not only earned him a great World to Come, but also gave him a life in this world filled with tranquility, goodness, and inner-peace. He ultimately won and got the best of both worlds!
The Benefit of Ignorance
ויאמר ה’ לה שני גיים בבטנך ושני לאמים ממעיך יפרדו ולאם מלאם יאמץ ורב יעבד צעיר
“And G-d said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides will be separated; the might shall pass from one regime to the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.’” (Bereishit 25:23)
After twenty years without children, Rebecca’s pregnancy was not without its challenges. Unaware that she was carrying twins, she was distressed by a disturbing struggle taking place within her womb.
Whenever Rebecca passed a house of study, Jacob would become agitated, indicating his natural inclination for Torah study. If she passed a house of idol worship, however, Esau would become agitated, expressing his own penchant for idolatry. (Rashi, Bereishit 25:22) Seeking to understand this paradox, Rebecca approached Shem, the son of Noah, who had an academy of higher learning and was also a prophet. He revealed that Rebecca would give birth to twins whose characters would be completely divergent from each other. Jacob would embrace righteousness, and Esau, his evil inclination. (Rashi, Bereishit 25:23)
The prophecy proved to be true. Jacob developed into a wholesome man, drawn to the service of G-d. Esau became a manipulator who sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and misled his father with regard to his true nature. (Bereishit 25:27-34) Rebecca never told Isaac about the prophecy regarding Esau, however. In fact, she let decades go by before finally orchestrating events in a way that would allow Isaac to see for himself that Esau was essentially unredeemable. (Bereishit 27:1-40)
This story raises a number of questions: Why did Rebecca not inform Isaac about the future difficulty they would experience with Esau? How could Rebecca allow her husband to be continually tricked by Esau? Why did she wait until the last moment before thwarting the blessing intended for Esau? Finally, what did Isaac mean when he felt the hands of Esau yet heard the voice of Jacob? (Bereishit 27:22)
The answer to these questions begins with Maimonides’ understanding that a negative prophecy does not necessarily have to come to true. (Laws of the Foundations of Torah, 10:4)
Esau’s fate was not sealed – not before his birth and not after. He had free-will to overcome his challenges and could have done so. Had Esau internalized the lessons of his parents and teachers and overcome his evil inclination, he would have become a partner with Jacob in founding the Jewish nation.
However, Esau failed to do this and remained the same evil person throughout his life. This strengthens our original question: Why didn’t Rebecca tell her husband?
The following anecdote will help answer this question and provide an insight into the proper way to relate to human potential: There was once a school teacher who received an apology from the principal in the middle of the school year. “I’m sorry for sticking you with the slow class,” he said.
The teacher was shocked. “Slow class?” he wondered aloud. Taking out the original roster, he pointed to the numbers next to each name, “134, 125, 142, 151… This is the brightest academic group I have ever had the privilege to teach! Look at these IQ scores!”
The principal took a long look at the page and declared, “Those are not the IQ scores. They’re locker numbers!”
At times, ignorance can not only be bliss, it can also be essential to growth – especially in the relationship between a teacher and student, or a parent and a child.
This is why Rebecca held back from informing Isaac about the prophecy. She saw that Isaac, unaware of Esau’s true nature, was encouraged by any display of progress. Until the last moment, he never lost hope that Esau would be part of building the future Jewish people. Thus, when Isaac felt “the hands of Esau” yet heard “the voice of Jacob,” he was still willing to assume that Esau finally “got it.”
In our lives, we are often tempted to write off recalcitrant students, friends, or spouses as unredeemable, unable to change their “coding,” and unable to succeed in school, career or relationships. Usually, these conclusions are backed up by all sorts of tests, results, and prognostications about the future. Then, when a person acts as “predicted,” we become even more entrenched in our opinions. Quietly – or not so quietly – we seal the other person’s fate.
However, Rebecca’s forbearance and Isaac’s patience toward Esau show us that we should never give up on another person’s potential for greatness. Rather, we have an obligation to suspend judgment and work relentlessly to bring out the best in that person’s nature. By defining people by their potential for greatness, rather than by the flaws they must overcome, we help them write a new script for their future. Doing so is one of the most powerful blessings we can bestow on another human being.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
ויחפרו עבדי יצחק בנחל וימצאו שם באר מים חיים ויריבו רעי גרר עם רעי יצחק לאמר לנו המים … ויחפרו באר אחרת ויריבו גם עליה … ויעתק משם ויחפרו באר אחרת ולא רבו עליה ויקרא שמה רחבות ויאמר כי עתה הרחיב ה’ לנו ופרינו בארץ
“Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of fresh water. The herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, ‘The water is ours.’ … Then they dug another well, and they fought over that one also … He relocated from there and dug another well, and they didn’t quarrel over it, so he called its name Rechovot, and said, ‘For now G-d has granted us ample space, and we can be fruitful in the land.’” (Bereishit 26: 19-22)
The Torah relates in what seems to be excruciating detail the story of the various wells dug by Isaac and his servants, the names they were called, and how their jealous neighbors repeatedly fought with them to challenge their ownership. As we know that every word in the Torah is carefully measured and is excluded unless absolutely necessary, why does the Torah spend numerous verses relating what seems to be such a mundane and inconsequential event?
To appreciate the answer to this question, Rabbi Isaac Zilberstein tells an amusing (and true) story of a now-happily-married couple whose dating period couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. As the man was returning home from their first date, he was slightly injured in a minor car accident. After he recovered, they went out again. On their second date, the building they were in caught on fire and the woman was taken to the hospital for treatment. Still unfazed, they went out a third time. On that date, they were walking on the sidewalk when a flame which was coming out from a store caught on the lady’s dress.
By this point, the man had had enough and was ready to accept the Divine “hints” about the potential match. He decided that he didn’t wish to go out with this woman again. However, when he was recounting the events to his highly rational parents, they scoffed at his superstitious fears and convinced him to go out one more time. On the fourth date, the car they were in was involved in an accident, and both of them were slightly injured!
Although everything about the couple’s interactions seemed quite compatible, the man was quite shaken and adamant in his refusal to date the woman further. His father approached Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky to solicit his opinion about the entire episode. After hearing the incredible story, Rabbi Kanievsky said that he didn’t see any rational reason to decline the otherwise compatible match. In light of the opinion of Rabbi Kanievsky, the man agreed to continue dating the woman. All of their subsequent dates were indeed incident-free, and marked the beginning of a beautiful life together for the happy couple!
Rabbi Aharon Bakst (1867-1941) suggests that the Torah relates this episode to teach us the valuable lesson that in spiritual matters, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We hear so many miraculous stories of pious Rabbis that we might erroneously assume that if a person is attempting to perform a mitzvah, everything will work out on his initial attempt without any unforeseen delays or obstacles. If it doesn’t, we may despondently conclude that it is a sign that this endeavor hasn’t found favor with G-d and should be abandoned.
To counter this mistaken understanding, the Torah recounts the great lengths to which Isaac had to go to successfully locate an uncontested source of fresh water. The lesson we can take from here is that there is no room for superstitious despair. If our projects of spiritual growth don’t go the way we would have hoped, we should reexamine them. If they still make sense on their own rational merits, we shouldn’t read ominous signs into an unexpected turn of events, but rather we should persevere and redouble our efforts as our forefather Isaac did in this week’s parsha.
Jacob – A Man of Truth
אולי ימשני אבי והייתי בעיניו כמתעתע והבאתי עלי קללה ולא ברכה
Perhaps my father will feel me, and I will appear to him as a deceiver, and I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing (Bereishit 27:12).
Our sages teach us that Jacob’s defining characteristic was a passionate devotion to truth. However, when we study the Torah portion this week, Parshat Toldot, this is not how it seems. Jacob followed Rebecca’s suggestion that he deceive his blind father in order to “steal” from him the blessings intended for Esau, his brother. Moreover, when he expressed his misgivings about the plan, he did not seem to object to the idea of fooling his father; it was only the fear of his father’s curse should the plot be uncovered that concerned him.
Things get even worse. Our sages (Makkot 24a) derive from this very verse that Jacob was the paradigm of a man of truth. What do they see in the verse that we do not?
Based on an insight of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Brody offers a brilliant solution. There are two words for “perhaps” in Hebrew: “pen” and “ulai,” and each of them expresses a different idea. Whenever the word “pen” is used, the speaker hopes that the event will not actually come to pass. The opposite is true when the word “ulai” is used. In that case, the speaker hopes that the event will come to pass — that the “perhaps” will become reality.
When Jacob objected to his mother’s plan, saying, “Perhaps my father will feel me,” he used the term “ulai.” This doesn’t seem to fit the pattern. Why would Jacob secretly wish for this plot to be foiled?
Rabbi Brody explains: Truth was indeed, Jacob’s essence, his passion. Now, however, he found himself between a rock and a hard place. His mother Rebecca, a matriarch of the Jewish nation and a paragon of righteousness, was commanding him to deceive his father (Bereishit 27:8), something that went against the grain of everything Jacob stood for. Even if this deception was necessary, it would cost him personally.
This is why Jacob secretly hoped that the plot would fail. “Let my father uncover my true identity,” he thought. “If G-d means for me to receive the blessings, let it not come about through deception.” Nevertheless, he did what he had to do, and successfully received Esau’s blessings.
The fact that Jacob used the word “ulai” is seen by our sages as the greatest proof of his passion for truth. It demonstrates that Jacob would happily have relinquished the opportunity to receive his father’s blessing rather than deceive him.
As we go through life, we may encounter situations where it seems clear that a deeply rooted value needs to be set aside in consideration of some greater value. Jacob’s willingness to forgo his father’s blessing — despite being told by his righteous mother that it was more important than his commitment to truthfulness — teaches us how reluctant we should be before dispensing with any value, whatever the reason, and be sure not to jeopardize our core values.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, the Torah declares that Isaac was the son of Abraham, and then immediately states that Abraham was the father of Isaac. Rashi explains this was done to defend against the cynics of Abraham’s generation, who were spreading claims that Isaac was really the son of Abimelech. The cynic’s claim was as follows: Look how many years Sarah lived with Abraham and did not have a son. Now, after her abduction by Abimelech, she became pregnant. Clearly, Isaac is not Abraham’s son! Therefore, G-d made Isaac look exactly like Abraham, so it would be clear to all that Isaac was his son (Rashi, Bereishit 25:19). However, Abraham had already fathered a son with Hagar. It was Sarah who was incapable of having children, not Abraham.
Given that the cynics’ reasoning was completely illogical, what need is there for the Torah to defend Isaac’s lineage as coming from Abraham?
Rashi writes (Bereishit 25:21) that although both Isaac and Rebecca prayed for children, G-d listened to and answered the prayers of Isaac. This was because Isaac’s father was the righteous Abraham while Rebecca’s father was the wicked Betuel, and the prayers of a righteous person whose father is also righteous carry more weight than those of somebody who is righteous but whose father was not. As they were both praying for the same thing – to have children with each other – in what way were Isaac’s prayers answered more than Rebecca’s? (Imrei Daas by Rabbi Meir Shapiro)
“Isaac prayed to G-d on behalf of his wife because she was barren. G-d allowed Himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rebecca conceived. The children agitated within her, and she said, ’If so, why am I thus?’ And she went to (the academy of the prophet Shem) to inquire of G-d. And G-d said to her (through the prophet): ‘Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides shall be separated. The might shall pass from one regime to the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.’ When her term to bear grew full, then behold, there were twins in her womb.” (Bereishit 25:19-24) Rashi explains this agitation: When Rebecca passed a house of idol worship, she felt Esau struggling to exit, and when she passed the yeshivah of Shem and Ever, she felt Jacob struggling to exit.
A simple reading of this narrative is surely inadequate to understand its deeper meaning. (Your average fetus, after all, doesn’t have the capacity to push its way out at will, is oblivious to its surroundings, and doesn’t have identifiable spiritual inclinations). On the basic level however, we understand that Rebecca was distressed when she thought she was bearing a child with dual tendencies. How does the news that she was bearing twins, one of whom seemed to be destined for idol worship, assuage her agony?
As explained by Ramban (Nachmanides) (Bereishit 27:4), Rebecca approached the prophet Shem without consulting her husband Isaac, himself a prophet. Why wouldn’t Rebecca have first addressed her concerns with Isaac? (Rabbi Label Lam)
Already as a young boy, Esau’s negative character was quite obvious. (As Rashi notes, for example, Esau committed murder, adultery and idolatry on the very day his grandfather Abraham died!) When it became obvious that Ishmael was headed in the wrong direction, Abraham banished him. That action led to Ishmael mending his ways. (See Bereishit 21:9-21) Isaac, however, did not adopt this strategy with regard to Esau. This is especially surprising in light of the fact that Isaac carefully guarded the traditions and actions of his father Abraham (see, for example, Bereishit 26:1-7, 18)
Since Isaac was aware of Abraham’s banishment of Ishmael and its ability to prompt repentance, why would he have allowed Esau to remain in his household, when banishment may have helped him repent?
Isaac, who was blind, wanted to bless Esau, his firstborn. At Rebecca’s suggestion, Jacob dressed up and pretended to be his wicked brother Esau.
Years earlier, Sarah sent away Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, because she was afraid he’d be a bad influence on Isaac. Understanding who her two sons were, Rebecca convinced Jacob to fool his father and receive the blessing instead of Esau. If Rebecca knew that Esau was wicked, why didn’t she send him away like Sarah had to Ishmael, thus protecting Jacob from physical or spiritual harm?
Although Esau tricked his father into thinking he was righteous, Isaac must have realized that Jacob was even more righteous. Why, then, would Isaac choose to bless Esau anyway, instead of the more pious Jacob?
Isaac wanted to bless Esau, his older son. He instructed Esau to hunt some fresh meat and prepare a meal so that he could “earn” the blessing. Rebecca wanted Jacob to receive the blessing instead of Esau, so she made a plan to fool Isaac, who was blind, into thinking that Jacob was Esau. Jacob would serve Isaac the meal he requested, serving it faster than Esau could by taking sheep from their own flocks and having Rebecca prepare the meal. He would also wear the sheepskins to mimic the feel of Esau’s hairy arms.
As a deeply spiritual person, Isaac’s blessings would likely be of a similarly spiritual nature. Why, then, might Isaac have asked Esau to engage in such a physical act of hunting and preparing a meal for him to earn these spiritual blessings?
Isaac apparently made his blessing conditional on “hunting” and “preparing” the meal — not just on receiving the final product. Though Rebecca convinced Jacob that it was okay to appropriate the blessings, he wouldn’t be fulfilling the conditions necessary to receive these blessings. How could Jacob have hoped to receive the blessings by using their own sheep prepared by his mother?
The Torah refers to Jacob (Bereishit 25:27) as an – איש תם – a wholesome and honest man. How can he be described as an honest man when he stole the blessings from his brother Esau? (Michtav M’Eliyahu by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler)
Q: It is interesting to note a substantial difference in the approach taken by Rebecca in her interactions with her husband Isaac as compared to the style chosen by Sarah in her dealings with Abraham. When Sarah noticed the evil ways of Ishmael, she directly confronted her husband Abraham and ordered his immediate expulsion (Bereishit 21:9-10). In this week’s parsha, although Rebecca was clearly aware of the difference between her sons, we never find that she directly told her husband Isaac the truth about their wicked son Esau. Instead, she resorted to a backhanded scheme to ensure that Jacob, the righteous son, would receive the blessings (Bereishit 27:8-10). Why didn’t she confront Isaac in the same manner that her mother-in-law had previously exercised?
A: There is one critical difference between the two cases. Sarah did not give birth to Ishmael as Rebecca did to Esau. Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant. No matter how bad a child may behave, a mother is still a mother. The natural love that Rebecca felt toward her biological son Esau prevented her from confronting Isaac and insisting that he be sent away in the manner that Sarah was able to insist that Ishmael, who was not her son, be banished. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Rashi writes (Bereishit 27:9) that one of the two goats which Rebecca commanded Jacob to bring served as Isaac’s Passover sacrifice). What was her purpose in doing so?
A: Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld explains that Rebecca worried that when Esau would later come in with his food, Isaac would realize what had happened, and would then eat from Esau’s food and give him the blessings that he had given Jacob in error. To prevent this, she made sure that Isaac would eat the Passover sacrifice, because the law is that אין מפטרין אחר הפסח אפיקומן – one may not eat or drink anything the entire night after eating the Passover sacrifice (or the afikomen in present times). In fact, Rabbi Zonnenfeld points out that Isaac told Esau (Bereishit 27:35) בא אחיך במרמה – your brother came with cleverness. The word מרמה – trickery – has a same numerical value of 287, the same as the numerical value as the word afikomen. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Isaac and Rebecca were married for 20 years, and in spite of all of their efforts, they were unable to conceive and bear a child. They petitioned and beseeched G-d to give them children. However, Rashi explains (Bereishit 25:21) that they didn’t merely pray as one would typically do, but rather they entreated G-d repeatedly and with tremendous fervor before they were finally answered. What was G-d’s rationale for making them endure such intense and prolonged suffering? Why didn’t He answer their prayers immediately?
A: Rabbi Meir Shapiro notes that Rashi writes (Bereishit 25:30) that Abraham died 5 years prematurely so that he wouldn’t have to endure the pain of seeing his grandson Esau commit terrible sins. Recognizing that this would happen made it incredibly difficult for G-d to answer their prayers, for He understood that the sooner He would give them the children for which they were pleading, the sooner Esau would be prepared to embark upon his path of wickedness, and the sooner His beloved Abraham would have to die so as to be spared the anguish of witnessing Esau’s actions. Therefore, G-d put off answering the heartfelt pleas of Isaac and Rebecca until they had prayed repeatedly with so much intent that He was “forced” to grant their request.
Many times in life we are convinced that we need something for the sake of our long-term happiness and well-being. We pray and cry and pray again, eventually becoming frustrated at G-d’s apparent cruelty in ignoring or rejecting what we feel are our heartfelt and reasonable requests. At such times, we should remind ourselves of the lesson we learn from Isaac and Rebecca and take comfort in the knowledge that sometimes G-d, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, recognizes that what we are firmly convinced we need and deserve may in reality not be in our own long-term best interest. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Although Jacob and Esau were twins, they had little else in common. Their goals, values, and morals couldn’t have been farther apart. What accounts for the vast difference between them?
A: Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, often referred to as the Alter of Kelm, explains that the tremendous gap between them lies in one fundamental difference. The name עשו is related to the word עשוי – fully made – as Esau was born with hair and teeth, much like an older child. The name יעקב, on the other hand, is associated with the word עקב — heel – as Jacob viewed himself as being at the very bottom of his life’s work. Jacob’s name is expressed in the future tense, as he understood that he wasn’t already a finished product and constantly had more work to do to keep growing to maximize his potential.
The Alter of Kelm explains that the reason human babies are born so weak, in contrast to other animals which are born already capable of sustaining themselves, is so that they will be prepared to learn from their parents. Esau was born viewing himself as a completed package, and he was therefore lacking in his interest to learn from others.
This stands in stark contrast to Jacob, who even at the age of 60 opted to invest an additional 14 years to study in yeshiva before seeking a wife. Later, as he traveled to Egypt to be reunited with Yosef at the advanced age of 130, his first priority was to send his son Yehuda ahead for the purpose of establishing a yeshiva so that he wouldn’t miss out on even one day of his studies. In fact, the greatest level a yeshiva student can hope to attain is that of תלמיד חכם – a Torah scholar – but even a sage who reaches such a level is still referred to as a תלמיד – a student with much still to learn. We live in a society which views its elders with anything but reverence. We must combat this pervasive attitude by learning from our forefather Jacob, who teaches us the importance of respecting and learning from our elders. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
IT’S TIME TO LEAVE
“And the children struggled within her, and she said, ‘If so, why am I thus?’ and she went to inquire of G-d.” (Bereishit 25:22)
The children struggled within her – When she passed the academy of Shem and Ever, Jacob struggled to leave the womb, and when she passed a temple of idol worship, Esau fought to leave. Rashi
The children struggled within her – Fearing that Jacob might look to his twin brother for guidance and learn from his wicked ways, the Almighty implanted a deep-seated animosity between the two at a very early stage of their existence. This dislike underlies the manifold examples of persecution the Jewish people have suffered at the hands of Esau and his descendants over the centuries. (Sefer Chassidim)
If so, why am I thus – The plain meaning of the verse is that she experienced abnormal pain and feared that she was about to lose her fetus. This left her greatly perplexed, for the Almighty had performed a miracle on her behalf, and miracles are not performed for naught. She therefore sought the advice of Shem and Ever to help her better understand the ways of the Almighty. (Ohr HaChaim)
The Talmud teaches that while in the womb, a fetus is visited by an angel who teaches it the entire Torah. With a teacher of such a high caliber, why would Jacob want to leave the womb to study in a yeshivah where he surely could not find a teacher of a similar quality? Perhaps Jacob wished to study Torah in a manner which would allow him to also follow through with action, an option unavailable to a fetus that can study, but cannot perform the mitzvot about that which he studies.
RED MEANS STOP
“The first one came out with a reddish complexion, covered completely with what was like a hairy robe, and they named him Esau.” (Bereishit 25:25)
And They Named Him Esau – Everyone called him so, because he was “made” and fully developed with hair, as one who is much older. – Rashi
He was named Esau because he was mature like a newborn animal, which is fully formed even at birth. This is not typical of humans who lack hair, mental faculties, speech, and much more, at the time of their emergence from the womb. – Ksav V’Kabbalah
Animals are born with very limited souls, which severely inhibit their ability to experience spiritual growth while on earth. This is symbolized by their limited need for physical development as well. During the course of its lifetime, an animal will not grow too much smarter or more sophisticated, only larger. A human being, on the other hand, is expected to develop significantly over the course of his lifetime. He enters the world in a spiritually immature state, and must gradually develop and become a mature person. His lack of physical maturity at birth corresponds to this uniquely human responsibility. Esau’s physical maturity at birth was not merely a case of advanced fetal development, but an ominous sign of his future lack of spiritual development and maturity.
TO EACH HIS OWN
“The lads grew up. Esau became a skilled trapper, a man of the field. Jacob was a perfect man, who dwelt in tents.”(Bereishit 24:27)
The Lads Grew Up…Esau Became… – As long as they were young, they were indistinguishable by their deeds and their exact character was difficult to discern. Once they turned thirteen, Jacob went his way to houses of study and Esau went his way to worshipping idols… – Rashi
Dwelt In Tents – The tents of Shem and Ever. [Jacob studied Torah with them.] – Rashi
Esau Became A Skilled Trapper…Jacob…Dwelt In Tents – The original plan was for Esau to tend to material matters in an honest and scrupulous fashion, while Jacob would tend to spiritual matters. They would enjoy a partnership akin to that of Yissachar and Zebulun in which each would be supportive of the other, and a world leader in his own right. Only once Esau abandoned his responsibilities, was Jacob saddled with both sets of responsibility. – Sfat Emet (RabbiYehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847 – 1905)
Although it became clear that Esau would never match Jacob’s spiritual prowess, there was plenty that Esau could accomplish in the realm of the Divine. Had he dedicated himself to living a scrupulously honest lifestyle and supporting his brother’s Torah study, he would have set an example for all of humanity, and merited a considerable share of eternity. His unwillingness to do even that for which he was destined to succeed, is what ultimately doomed him; not his inability to model Jacob’s ascetic lifestyle.
NO THANKS TO ESAU
“Jacob was cooking a stew when Esau came in from the field and he was exhausted” (Bereishit 25:29)
And he was exhausted – “As a result of committing murder as it states: ‘For my soul is fatigued before the murderers.’ – Rashi
This occurred on the day of Abraham’s passing and therefore Jacob, not Isaac, was cooking the food because a mourner may not cook his own food. It was a lentil stew because their round shape symbolizes the circle of life. It lacks a mouth [i.e. an opening] and in this manner is similar to a mourner whose speech is restricted. – Rabbeinu Bachya
The death of Abraham was premature by five years and a gift from the Almighty to spare him from witnessing Esau’s betrayal of his path. – Talmud, Bava Basra 16b
Although in passing, it sounds altogether innocent, the idea that G-d removed Abraham five years before his time just to spare him the pain of witnessing Esau’s betrayal is nothing less than incredible and supports the statement of the Talmud [Brachot 7b] that declares, “A wayward child in the home is more difficult to abide than all the pain of the war with Gog and Magog.” Putting aside Abraham’s personal loss of life, imagine how much more the world could have benefited had Abraham lived another five years! Who knows how many more people he could have influenced and turned toward the service of the Almighty? The Almighty knew this, yet He still decided that it was more important to spare the Tzaddik Abraham pain than to gain more loyal servants.
“I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens, and will give to your offspring all the lands…Because Abraham heeded My voice, and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.” (Bereishit 26:5)
Abraham heeded My voice… – The gift of the Land is attributed to Abraham’s loyal obedience of G-d’s word in the following four categories:
1. Safeguards: Rabbinic enactments that safeguard Biblical prohibitions by acting as a barrier around them.
2. Commandments: Laws such as homicide and theft, that man would have intuited and instituted, even had the Almighty not done so.
3. Decrees: Laws that are incompatible with human reason, but must be observed anyhow as a Divine decree.
4. Torahs: The Written Torah and the Oral Torah.
How did Abraham observe the Torah so long before its presentation at Mt. Sinai? Ramchal explains that due to his exceedingly close relationship with the Almighty, Abraham intuited His desires and acted accordingly even before the Almighty dictated His will. This can be compared to one who is so in step with his spouse that he perceives her desire even before she articulates it. Similarly, Abraham possessed such a deep reverence for the will of G-d that he toiled to decipher and obey it, even though no such demand of him was made by the Almighty.
“Esau was forty years old and he married Yehudit, the daughter of Be’eri, the Hittite and Bosmas, the daughter of Eylon the Hittite.” (Bereishit 26:34)
The Lads Grew Up…Esau Became… – Esau is compared to a swine…When the swine lies down it stretches out its hooves [which are split – although he doesn’t chew his cud] as if to say, ‘See, I am a clean animal.’ For his first forty years Esau would kidnap wives from their husbands and take them forcibly; when he turned forty he said, ‘Father was forty when he married and I will do likewise. – Rashi
The Hittite…The Hittite – This is the nation about which Rebecca declared, “I am disgusted with my life because of the daughters of Chet. If Jacob marries a woman of the daughters of Chet, like these, from the daughters of the land, what is life worth to me?” Clearly, Esau had no qualms about building his nation through these women.
Interestingly, the Torah does not relate that Isaac warned Esau against marrying these women. Ha’emek Davar derives from this that although Isaac harbored a deep love for Esau, he was under no illusions that Esau and Jacob were equally great. He knew that Esau fell far short of Jacob’s spiritual level, but nevertheless felt that he was a fine and upstanding person who could accomplish worthwhile objectives. This explains, in part, why Isaac entertained the thought of blessing him, although Jacob was certainly the more worthy candidate, since they were primarily of a material nature and may have suited Esau more.
DO I REALLY HAVE TO?
“He went, took them, and brought them to his mother. His mother prepared a tasty dish just as his father liked.” (Bereishit 27:14)
He Went, Took Them – Usually, in describing the mitzvah actions of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and their servants, the Torah describes the haste in which they performed them:
• He [Abraham] lifted his eyes and behold, three men were standing near him. He saw them, and ran from the door of the tent to greet them. (Bereishit 18:2)
• The servant [Eliezer] ran towards her and said, ‘Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher.’ (Bereishit 24:16)
• She [Rebecca] quickly emptied her pitcher into the trough and she ran to the well again to draw water and she drew water for all his camels. (Bereishit 24:18)
Surprisingly, although Jacob must have desperately coveted these blessings and he knew that Esau was due to return any minute to claim them, it does not appear from the verse that he hurried in the slightest. “He went, took them, and brought them…” but it doesn’t say that he rushed? In fact, the Medrash writes that he dragged his feet, walked stooped over and cried as he did so? Ktav V’kabbalah explains that Jacob was the epitome of a truthful person and although he coveted the blessings, it troubled him greatly that he had to behave in a deceitful manner to claim what was rightfully his. He did what he had to, but he took no joy in the fact that he had to compromise his principles. Hence, the lack of enthusiasm evident in the verse.
TRUTH ALWAYS PREVAILS
“And when Isaac grew old, his eyesight grew dim and he could not see. He called Esau, his elder son, and said to him, ‘My son.’ Esau said to him, ‘Here I am’… ‘Make it into a tasty dish for me, the way I like it, and bring it to me that I may eat, so that my soul will bless you before I die…’” (Bereishit 27:1-3)
He Called Esau, His Elder Son – Why did he choose to bless Esau and not the more pious Jacob? Isaac knew of Jacob’s spiritual greatness and reasoned that he did not need the blessing as much as Esau who still struggled to conform religiously. He assumed that the blessings promised to Abraham would transfer anyhow to Jacob. – Rada”k (Rabbi David Kimchi (1160 – 1235)
He hoped to help Esau improve his actions, much as Abraham’s prayers on behalf of Ishmael spurred Ishmael on to repent. Ishmael however, sinned only by worshiping idols, whereas Esau was a murderer of men. It is easier for an idolater, whose sin is primarily directed at G-d, to recover, than it is for a murderer, who has harmed his fellow. Esau was therefore, a less-than-ideal candidate for repentance. – Etz HaDaas Tov
Contrary to popular belief, many commentators believe that Isaac was well aware of Esau’s shortcomings, but in the manner of a loving father, sought to provide him a way out of his troubles. Unfortunately for Esau, his earlier actions rendered him thoroughly unfit for the blessings, and Rebecca had no choice but to intervene and ensure that the blessings went to Jacob instead.
MOM ALWAYS KNOWS BEST
“But his mother said to him, ‘Your curse [will] be upon me, my son, only listen to me and go fetch them for me.’” (Bereishit 27:13)
Your curse [will] be upon me – She trusted in G-d’s promise to her that the “younger son will serve the elder,” and therefore knew that he would be okay. – Rashbam
Your curse [will] be upon me – If your father grows angry at you, tell him that I sent you and he’ll get angry at me instead. – Malbim
Your curse [will] be upon me – In Hebrew, the word for “upon me” is “Alai” [Ayin, Lamed, Yud]. These letters are an acrostic for the names, Esau, Laban, Yosef (Joseph), and represent the three major instances of hardship that Jacob would suffer in his lifetime. His mother reassured him that this decision would indeed bear consequences, but they would be nothing more than the following three examples. – Gaon of Vilna
Chiddushei HaRim explains that Rebecca knew that Esau had one thing going for him: his exemplary dedication to serving his father, even at the cost of his life. He would hunt and trap for him although at times, it entailed placing his life in grave danger. It was in the merit of this self-sacrifice that Esau earned the blessings. If Jacob was going to earn the blessings, he would have to demonstrate similar dedication to obeying his parents. Thus, she bade him to do an act that entailed great danger if he were discovered, in the hopes that by obeying her command, he would merit the blessings instead of Esau.
Hey, I Never Knew That
And G-d said to [Rebecca], ‘There are two nations in your womb…’ ” (Bereishit 25:23). The word for nations is written in a way that can also be read as “exalted ones” and the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a) states that this is an allusion to two descendants of Jacob and Esau, Rabbi Yehudah the Prince and Antoninus. Rabbi Yehudah was the leader of the Jews in Israel, a wealthy descendant of King David, and a great Torah scholar. Antoninus was the Roman governor of Israel, a wealthy person in his own right and also a scion of a politically powerful Roman family. The two leaders were close friends; Rabbi Yehudah taught Torah to Antoninus, and Antoninus provided Rabbi Yehudah with political protection and money so that he could complete the writing of the Mishnah. The Maharal explains that they represent the potential of a positive partnership between Jacob and Esau, and a paradigm of what the relationship between Rome and Jerusalem could ideally be (Gur Aryeh, Bereishit ad loc).
The Talmud (Yoma 28b) states that Abraham kept the entire Torah, even though it had not yet been given to the Jewish People. The proof text cited is in this week’s Torah portion: “Because Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws (Hebrew — My Torahs)” (Bereishit 26:5). It certainly seems from the text that Abraham did more than merely obey G-d’s explicit commandments to him. But how was it possible for Abraham to have kept laws that were not yet revealed to humanity? There are numerous responses to this question (Ramban ad loc., Maharal Gur Aryeh 45:6), but the basic understanding of many commentaries is that the Torah is an intrinsic part, even the spiritual foundation, of the physical world. Just as a scientist is able to look deeply into the physical reality and discern various natural laws, so too a “spiritual scientist” like Abraham was able to look into the world and discern the spiritual laws of reality — the mitzvot — and hence was able to fulfill them even before Revelation (Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman, Torah and Reason).
Word of the Week
After realizing that he had been tricked by Jacob into giving him Esau’s blessings, the verse states “ויחרד — vayecherad Isaac an exceedingly great חרדה — charada…” (Bereishit 27:33). Rashi (based on the Targum Onkelos) translates this as “he was amazed” or “was greatly perplexed.” The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates it as “he trembled” which is in accordance with the many times it is used throughout the Prophets meaning “tremble” or “fearful.” One who is fearful or trembles at the word of G-d is called חרד — chareid (Ezra 9:4), and Isaiah (66:5) refers to those “who tremble at the word of G-d” as חרידים — chareidim.
“Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year meah she’arim, a hundredfold; and the L-rd blessed him” (Bereishit 26:12). The word meah means 100, and she’arim — שערים is understood by the commentaries (Rashi ad loc.) as meaning “measures.” So the verse means that Isaac reaped one hundred times the estimated output for that field or season and was blessed by G-d “one hundred-fold.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (ad loc.) points out that in Biblical Hebrew, she’arim always means “gates,” and only in later Mishnaic Hebrew does it mean “measures.” He therefore translates the blessing of meah she’arim as meaning that Isaac “reached one hundred markets,” she’arim referring to the gates of each market place.
I find it difficult to understand the story of Rebecca coaching her son Jacob to defraud his father Isaac in order to receive the special blessing, since I believe the Torah places a priority on truthfulness. And then we read about the conspiracy between Rachel and Leah to swindle Jacob into marrying the wrong sister. What’s going on here?
Perplexed and vexed,
You are absolutely correct, Celia, that our Torah places supreme value on truthfulness. Ours is a Torah of truth. The Talmud tells us that G-d’s personal imprint seal reads, “Truth.” As a result, your question is well placed and an explanation is in order.
When Jacob questioned his mother Rebecca about the propriety of deceiving his father to “steal” the blessing away from his brother Esau, Rebecca responded that if he is cursed for this act, she will bear responsibility for it— “Upon me [Rebecca] will rest the curse.” The primary interpreter of the Torah (Targum Onkelos) explains that Rebecca was telling Jacob that she was permitted to perpetrate this deception as a result of prophecy. Most probably, this prophetic advice was given to her years earlier, when she sought an explanation from the prophets for her difficult pregnancy (Bereishit 25:23, Rashbam). At that time she was told that she is carrying two sons, and “the older will serve the younger.” If by receiving a blessing it would turn out that the younger son (Jacob) would end up serving the older (Esau), Rebecca understood from the prophet that she would be required to intervene in order to prevent such a switch from occurring. This is the source for Rebecca’s motive. We nevertheless need to explain why deception was an acceptable method.
By way of background it is important to note that Jewish law (halachah) clearly forbids deception. For example, it is forbidden to represent that you are selling a car, if there is no engine under the hood. This is called “geneivat da’at,” literally, ‘stealing another’s understanding.’ However, one is only guilty of “stealing” another’s understanding, if that person’s understanding is accurate (in other words, that person’s understanding is not, so to speak, “stolen goods”—i.e., based on false notions). Therefore, Isaac, who was not privy to the prophecy of Rebecca, was operating under a false premise— that Esau should be accorded this special blessing. It turns out that this is a unique case where “deception” would be permitted, since Jacob was “deceiving” a mistaken Isaac. By “deceiving” Isaac, Jacob (and Rebecca) saved Isaac from making an error. Admittedly, this type of “deception” is a potentially dangerous concept, for one might erroneously apply it to any case where he believes another individual is operating under false premises. However, it may only be applied in cases of prophecy, because only under those conditions can one be absolutely certain that the other individual is mistaken, since through prophecy, he has G-d’s knowledge and perspective on the matter. In all other cases, he can’t be absolutely certain that his perception is incontrovertibly accurate.
The truth of the matter is that the collusion between Rachel and Leah to deceive Jacob into marrying Leah is also based on prophecy. The Medrash tells us that there was a popular saying at that time: “Rebecca has two sons (Esau and Jacob) and Laban has two daughters (Leah and Rachel)—the older daughter will marry the older son (Esau and Leah) and the younger daughter will marry the younger son (Jacob and Rachel).” Some interpret this statement as a prophecy and not a mere folk rhyme. Jacob, as it turns out, had both the quality of the older and younger son. Although he and Esau were twins, Jacob was by rights the older son, even though he emerged from the womb second, since we are told that he was conceived first. Rashi explains this with the analogy to a narrow tube which is filled with two stones—the first one in is the last out. From the perspective of existence, Jacob was older; from the perspective of life outside the womb, Jacob was younger. Although Jacob was of the opinion that he should marry Rachel, Rachel informed her sister Leah that the prophecy demanded that Leah also marry Jacob, since by rights Jacob is the older son. Only as a result of the accuracy of prophecy would our Matriachs get involved in deception. But, as we mentioned above, it is not deception if you save an individual from erring.
The Jewish people were built on these two seminal events—the special blessing of Isaac and the building of our people from both Rachel and Leah. All twelve tribes emerged from their homes and we are here today as a result. In essence, the Jewish people are unlike any other people—we are built upon the bedrock of prophecy and this is because we have a G-dly mission in the world.
Thank you for your honesty Celia. May you continue to study with a critical eye and discover the depths that lie beneath the surface of our Torah.
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
Rabbi Menashe Klein was asked if one is permitted to be stringent in areas of Jewish law in which one’s ancestors had a custom to be lenient. Rabbi Klein strongly opposes deviating from the customs of one’s forefathers even to be stringent, and adduces a proof from our parshah. When Isaac dug wells after the Philistines had filled them in, he called them “the names that his father had called them” (Bereishit 26:18). Rabeinu Bachya quotes Rabbi Hai Gaon who says that Isaac did this in order to honor his father, Abraham. He then states “that one should be inspired by this not to change from the ways of his forefathers, even in a minor matter, and how much more so in matters of behavior and ethics” (Responsa Mishneh Halachot 12:385)
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s portion, Toldot, begins with the circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of Jacob and Esau, the two sons of Isaac and Rebecca. For the first twenty years of their marriage, Rebecca was barren, yet through the strength of Isaac’s prayers on her behalf, she conceived.
However, during her pregnancy, the verse notes that the “children agitated within her” (Bereishit 25:22), causing Rebecca great distress. Rashi explains that when Rebecca passed by a house of learning, Jacob would become active, indicating his desire to be there. When she passed a house of idol worship, Esau would agitate to be there.
Unaware that she was carrying twins, Rebecca sought out prophetic counsel and was told that she would bear twins who would become the progenitors of two distinct nations, different and in conflict with each other. The birth of Jacob and Esau confirmed this: Jacob was described as a wholesome man, drawn to the tents of study; Esau was a man of the field, concerned with the physical world. He was also able to manipulate his father regarding his true nature.
On the day of Abraham’s death, their different characters became known to the world at large. On that very day, exhausted and returning from the field (where he had engaged in the three cardinal sins of idol worship, murder and adultery), Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of red lentils. (Red in Hebrew is edom, which later became the name of the nation that emerged from Esau.)
The portion continues with an episode reminiscent of the life of Abraham. A famine struck the land, and Isaac took steps to move down to Egypt. However, G-d instructed Isaac not to leave the Land of Canaan (Israel), and conferred the blessing of Abraham on him that his children would inherit the land and greatly increase in number.
Isaac settled in Gerar. Here, too, Isaac, like his father, referred to his wife as his sister, out of fear that the people of Gerar would kill him and abduct her if they learned of their true relationship.
As time passed, Isaac resumed his relationship with Rebecca. This was witnessed by Abimelech, the king or Gerar, who was actually peeking through the window with an eye toward taking Rebecca for himself!
Abimelech summoned Isaac and asked him why he had deceived him, and placed him in the position of taking a married woman. Isaac answered that he was concerned that the people of Gerar would kill him because of Rebecca. In response, Abimelech issued a decree of protection for Isaac, who was allowed to live in Gerar unmolested and in peace.
Settling in more permanently, Isaac was blessed with great success – to the point at which Abimelech and the people of Gerar became fearful and envious of his power. Isaac was driven from Gerar and harassed by disputes over the ownership of the wells he dug. Eventually, however, a peace treaty was forged.
Growing older, Isaac realized that the time had come to bless Esau, in the hope that this would move Esau to subjugate his materialistic nature in service to G-d. He told Esau to hunt game and bring him delicacies to eat, in order to create the proper framework for a blessing.
Hearing this, Rebecca interceded. She was aware of Esau’s true nature and realized that he was not fit to receive G-d’s blessing of material wealth. She convinced Jacob to disguise himself in order to receive the blessing from his father. Rebecca dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and prepared a meal for Isaac.
When Jacob appeared before his father, Isaac, whose sight was failing, was unsure who stood before him. Repeatedly, he asked Jacob to “confirm” that he was, in fact, Esau. And in one of the most famous declarations of history, Isaac stated, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Smelling a fragrance reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, Isaac conferred the blessing on Jacob.
Just as Jacob left, Esau entered, accompanied by a very different scent. Isaac was momentarily fearful and disoriented, because he sensed the depths of Gehinom (hell) surrounding Esau. When Esau asked for his blessing, Isaac replied that Jacob has taken the blessing – and confirms that this was in fact his wish.
Esau cried in anguish, beseeching his father for a blessing as well. At first, Isaac demurred. However, he eventually relented and granted Esau a blessing. Without invoking G-d’s name, Isaac blessed Esau that he should inherit the fertile places of the earth and live by his sword. In other words, Isaac “blessed” Esau that he would live according to the normal course of nature, rather than in a close and ongoing relationship with G-d, as is befitting a person who has rejected this relationship from his youth.
The portion concludes with Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau. Isaac instructed him not to take a wife from the Canaanite women, but to go to Paddan-Aram, to Rebecca’s brother Laban, to find a wife.