Genesis 25:19 – 29:9
Haftorah Malachi 1:1 – 2:7
Parashat Toldot is devoted in its entirety to the story of Yitzchak, and is in fact the only parashat in the study of Bereishit that deals with him. Among other things, the parashat exposes the complex relationship between Yitzchak and his sons, and this will be the focus of our shiur.
From the moment the boys grow up and acquire their very different distinctive natures, the Torah makes it clear that these differences are also reflected in contrasting attitudes on the part of their parents:
And the boys grew up, and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field, while Yitzchak was a plain man, dwelling in tents. And Yitzchak loved Esau, for he relished his venison, but Rivka loved Yaakov. (Bereishit 25:27-28)
While a reason is given for Yitzchak’s love for Esau, “for he relished his venison,” no justification is provided for Rivka’s love for Yaakov. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to assume that his quiet, plain nature appealed to her more than the action-oriented, more hardened nature of Esau, the hunter. At this stage, there is no basis for any moral judgment concerning the two brothers or preference for one over the over; there is only an inner tendency, influenced by the personality of each of the parents.
The years go by, and Yitzchak lives through many events. In his old age, towards the end of the parashat, the Torah once again comes back to the relationships between Yitzchak and Rivka and their children, in anticipation of the blessings that Yitzchak will bestow on his sons. First, however, the text notes:
And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Yehudit, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basmat, daughter of Elon the Hittite. And they were a grief of spirit to Yitzchak and to Rivka. (26:34-35)
There is great importance to this description, appearing as it does at this point in the narrative. It tells us that Yitzchak’s love for Esau did not cloud his sober assessment of Esau’s problematic nature. His love did not cover over the wound of Esau having taken Canaanite women, which caused grief to his parents.
This background helps us to understand Yitzchak’s conduct in the story of the blessings.
First of all, it must be noted that Yitzchak’s blessing to Esau did not include the very significant spiritual blessing – the blessing of Abraham. This blessing is ultimately given to Yaakov. The blessing that Yitzchak originally meant for Esau concerned the material realm:
“May Yahweh give you of the dew of the heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine; let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you; be lord over your brethren, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you; cursed be those that curse you, and blessed be those that bless you.” (Bereishit 27:28-29)
In this blessing, Yitzchak seeks to focus on the goodness of the land where Esau and his descendants are to live, and on Esau’s domination of the nations of the world. The blessing contains no expression of admiration for Esau’s spiritual personality. For this reason, it is Yaakov who receives the blessing that Yitzchak gives him in the next chapter:
“May Yahweh Almighty bless you, that you may be a multitude of peoples, and give you the blessing of Abraham – to you and to your seed with you – that you might inherit the land in which you are a sojourner, and which Yahweh gave to Abraham.” (28:3-4)
The promise of the land and of numerous descendants was never meant for Esau. Yitzchak knew which women Esau had taken as wives, and he was wary of the spiritual path he was following.
We may therefore conclude that Yitzchak admired Esau’s practical abilities in the material realm, and that he bestowed many blessings on Esau that emphasized this realm.
Thus, Yitzchak was torn between his love for Esau and his awareness of Esau’s negative personality. At this stage, the Torah gives us no explicit information about Yitzchak’s attitude towards Yaakov. Nevertheless, it conveys the extent of the gap between his view of his two sons through the use of the word “Bnei” (my son), which appears 14 times in our parashat, all in Chapter 27. There is a clear distinction in the use of this word by Yitzchak and Rivka. At the beginning of the chapter, Yitzchak uses this term in relation to Esau:
And it was, when Yitzchak was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called Esau, his eldest son, and said to him, “My son,” and he said to him, “Here I am.” (27:1)
When Yitzchak addresses Esau, he does not address him by name, but rather by the title, “my son.” From Esau’s response it would appear that he is used to this title and he responds quite naturally.
Later on, through the use of the term “my son,” the Torah describes the extent to which each of the parent’s views his/her favorite as “my son”:
And Rivka heard when Yitzchak spoke to Esau, his son. And Esau went to the field to hunt for venison and to bring it. And Rivka spoke to Yaakov her son, saying, “Behold, I heard your father speak to Esau your brother, saying, ‘Bring me venison, and make me savory food, that I may eat, and bless you before Yahweh before my death.’” (27:5-7)
Rivka hears when Yitzchak speaks to “Esau, his son,” and also detects in his voice his attitude towards Esau as his son. She therefore turns to Yaakov, “her son,” and tells him what she has heard. She then advises him as to what he should do, and this time it is Yaakov who is instructed as “my son”:
“Now therefore, my son, obey my voice according to that which I command you…” (v. 8)
When Yaakov expresses his concern that the scheme his mother is proposing will be exposed, bringing upon him a curse rather than a blessing, she reassures him:
And his mother said to him, “Your curse will be upon me, my son, only obey me and go fetch them for me.” (v. 13)
We will not discuss here the ethical questions surrounding the theft of the blessings, the degree of responsibility borne by Rivka and by Yaakov, and the price that Yaakov pays for this act for the rest of his life. Our focus is limited to the relationship between Yitzchak and Yaakov, which may be addressed separately from these other important questions.
The drama reaches its climax when Yaakov stands before Yitzchak:
And he came to his father, and he said, “My father,” and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” (v. 18)
At this stage, Yitzchak does not know who is in front of him. The term “my father” may be coming from one of his sons, but it might also be coming from one of his servants or some other member of the household, since this is a common way of addressing a respected person. Likewise, the question, “Who are you, my son?” is not meant in the narrow sense of a biological son, but rather addresses a younger person, whoever he may be. But from this point onwards, the identification becomes more specific:
And Yaakov said to his father, “I am Esau, your firstborn (bekhorekha); I have done as you told me; arise, I pray you, sit and eat of my venison, that your soul may bless me.” (27:19)
Attention should be paid to the fact that Yaakov does not answer Yitzchak here as Esau answers him later on – “I am your firstborn son (binkha bekhorekha), Esau.” Apparently, Yaakov was not sufficiently aware of how integral the term “my son” was to the relationship between Yitzchak and Esau, and how naturally Esau would apply it to himself in response to Yitzchak’s question. Possibly, he did not dare utter the term, so fraught with significance, in relation to himself.
Yitzchak accepts that it is Esau who stands before him, and turns to him with the question that bothers him:
And Yitzchak said to his son, “How is it that you found it so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because Yahweh your Elohim sent me good speed.” (27:20)
It light of our discussion above, it seems that this is the first time in Yaakov’s life that Yitzchak addresses him directly using the term “my son.” Tragically, Yitzchak calls Yaakov “my son” only when he believes that he is Esau.
Twice more Yitzchak repeats the expression “my son Esau” in Yaakov’s hearing, before blessing him:
And Yitzchak said to Yaakov, “Come near, I pray you, that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not…” (27:21)
And he said, “Are you really my son Esau?” And he said, “It is I.” (27:24)
Now convinced that it is Esau who stands before him, Yitzchak calls him “my son,” with no further qualification. The impression one gains is that there is no need to add anything, since it is clear that he means to refer to Esau:
And he said, “Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s venison, that my soul may bless you.” And he brought it near to him and he ate, and he brought him wine and he drank. And his father Yitzchak said to him, “Come near now, and kiss me, my son.” And he came near, and kissed him, and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said, “See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which Yahweh has blessed.” (27:25-27)
The blessing that is then conveyed by Yitzchak, believing that he is blessing Esau, dwells on the fraught aspect of the relationship between the parents and their sons:
“May Yahweh give you of the dew of the heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine; let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you; be lord over your brethren, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you; cursed be those that curse you, and blessed be those that bless you.” (27:28-29)
Beyond the material blessing, Yitzchak emphasizes Esau’s domination of his brethren. Special attention should be paid to the term, “your mother’s sons.” It seems that Yitzchak is aware that Yaakov is his mother’s “son,” and it is for this reason that he uses a different formula from the one that Yaakov will later use in blessing his own sons: “May your father’s sons bow down to you” (Bereishit 49:8).
In so doing, Yitzchak emphasizes Esau’s superiority over Yaakov – which indeed finds expression, in the material realm, in the future as well.
“Moreover, He shall be blessed”
With Esau’s arrival, Yaakov’s deception is exposed. Yitzchak’s reaction is most surprising:
And Yitzchak trembled very much, and said, “Who then is he that has taken venison, and brought it to me, and I have eaten of all before you came, and have blessed him? Moreover, he shall be blessed.” (27:33)
From his question, Yitzchak appears to be altogether astounded and shocked that someone managed to deceive him and obtain his blessing. Why, then, does he add, at the end, “Moreover, he shall be blessed”? If he is so shocked, would it not be more appropriate for him to say instead, “He shall be cursed”?
The contrast between the first part of his reaction and the second seems to indicate that at the point in between, Yitzchak realizes what has happened. As he tells Esau shortly afterwards, “Your brother came with cunning and has taken your blessing” (27:35). The moment that Yitzchak understands that it was Yaakov who took Esau’s blessing, he is quick to declare, “Moreover, he shall be blessed.” He sees now that even the material blessing that he had meant for Esau – who took Canaanite women as wives, to his parents’ grief – was not appropriate for him. And from this point a certain distance seems to develop between Yitzchak and Esau.
Esau seems to understand this, as is reflected in his reaction:
When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with a great and exceedingly bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, O my father.” (27:34)
We may assume that it is the second part of his father’s response that gives rise to Esau’s “exceedingly bitter cry.” Esau understands that not only has his blessing been taken from him, but his father’s attitude towards him has changed.
Indeed, Yitzchak does not immediately accede to his plea:
And he said, “Your brother came with cunning and has taken your blessing.” (27:35)
Esau tries once more, attempting to present Yaakov’s true nature to Yitzchak, and begging him to find some blessing for himself, too:
And he said, “Is he not rightly named Yaakov? For he has supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” And he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (27:36)
Once again, Yitzchak evades his request:
And Yitzchak answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him your lord, and all his brethren I have given to him as servants, and with corn and wine I have sustained him; and what shall I do now for you, my son?” (27:37)
Yitzchak still feels love for Esau, and still calls him “my son.” However, this will be the last time he does so.
Yitzchak decides to give Esau a blessing afterall, only after Esau reaches a point of complete despair:
And Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau raised his voice and wept. (27:38)
But the blessing that Yitzchak gives Esau in fact serves to reinforce the blessing received by Yaakov:
And Yitzchak his father answered and said to him, “Behold, your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above, and by your sword shall you live, and you shall serve your brother, and it shall come to pass when you shall have dominion, that you shall break his yoke from off your neck.” (27:39-40)
This only exacerbates Esau’s anguish:
And Esau hated Yaakov because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, “When the days of mourning for my father are at hand, then I will slay my brother Yaakov.” (27:41)
As we have seen, Yitzchak undergoes a change of perception that has a significant impact on his attitude towards Esau. As we shall see below, it also has an impact on his attitude towards Yaakov.
The Blessing of Abraham
At the end of the story, Yaakov returns to his mother – the mother who calls him “my son” with the full knowledge that he is indeed Yaakov.
Rivka seeks to save Yaakov from Esau’s wrath:
“And now, my son, obey me, and arise; flee to Lavan my brother, to Charan…” (27:43)
Rivka also speaks to Yitzchak, drawing a clear distinction between Yaakov and Esau:
And Rivka said to Yitzchak, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Chet. If Yaakov takes a wife of the daughters of Chet, such as these, of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life be to me?” (27:46)
Yitzchak, in view of his recognition of Yaakov’s spiritual stature, awards him the blessing of Abraham:
And Yitzchak called to Yaakov and he blessed him, and charged him, and said to him, “You shall not take a wife of the daughters of Cana’an. Arise, to go to Padan–Aram, to the house of Betuel, your mother’s father, and take yourself a wife there from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. And may Yahweh Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of peoples, and give you the blessing of Abraham – to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit he land in which you are a sojourner, and which Yahweh gave to Abraham.” (28:1-4)
Yitzchak commands Yaakov not to repeat Esau’s mistake and take a Canaanite wife. Afterwards, he gives Yaakov the most important blessing that he has to give: the “blessing of Abraham.”
As noted, it is quite possible that Yitzchak meant this blessing for Yaakov from the outset. In any event, he now draws a clear distinction between Yaakov and Esau in the spiritual realm, asking Yaakov not to do what Esau has done.
Even at this moment, Yitzchak does not call Yaakov “my son.” Throughout their lives, Yaakov is referred to in this way only by Rivka, while Yitzchak reserves the term “my son” for Esau. Nevertheless, Yitzchak’s special love for Esau has not blurred the important difference in his eyes between the respective lifestyles of his two sons.
Esau hears Yitzchak’s blessing to Yaakov and it has an effect on him:
And when Esau saw that Yitzchak had blessed Yaakov and sent him away to Padan-Aram, to take himself a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Cana’an,” and that Yaakov obeyed his father and his mother and went to Padan-Aram, and Esau saw that the daughters of Cana’an displeased Yitzchak, his father – then Esau went and took to wife Machalat, daughter of Yishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nevayot, in addition to the wives he had. (28:6-9)
We recall that before the episode of the blessings, the text recorded Esau having taken his wives, and that “they were a grief of spirit to Yitzchak and to Rivka” (26:35). Now, after that episode, we are told only that “Esau saw that the daughters of Cana’an displeased Yitzchak his father” (28:8).
It seems, therefore, that Yitzchak’s love for Esau did have some degree of influence on Esau. Although he did not banish his Canaanite wives, he did take Machalat, Ishmael’s daughter, as another wife.
It seems that this positive inclination in Esau should therefore be attributed to Yitzchak’s unconditional love for him.