by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – November 19, 2009
As we read chapter 27 of the first of the five books of the Torah, we find, “And it came to pass when Isaac was old and his eyes were dim…and he called his son Esau…And he said, ‘Behold I am old and know not the day of my death. Now, therefore, take your weapons…and capture for me game. And make for me savory meat…that I may eat in order that my soul may bless you before I die.’ And Rebecca heard Isaac speaking to his son Esau…And Rebecca said to Jacob…’Go now to the flock and bring me from there two good kid goats and I will make them savory meat for your father…And you are to bring it to your father…in order that he should bless you before his death.’ And Jacob said to his mother Rebecca, ‘Behold my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am a smooth-skinned man. My father may feel me’….And Rebecca took the garments of their son Esau…and put them upon Jacob…and she put the skins of the kid goats upon his hands and on…his neck….And he came to his father and said ‘…eat of my game in order that your soul may bless me’….And he came near and kissed him and he blessed him and he said…’G-d should give you of the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth…cursed be those who curse you and blessed be those who bless you.’ And it came to pass when Isaac completed blessing Jacob and Jacob had just left the presence of Isaac his father that Esau his brother entered from his hunting. And he had also made savory meat which he brought to his father, and he said to his father, ‘Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game so that your soul may bless me.’ And his father Isaac said to him, ‘Who are you?’; and he said ‘I am…Esau’….And he [Isaac] said ‘Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing’….And Esau said to his father, ‘Do you have but one blessing?’…And Isaac his father answered…’Behold your dwelling shall be the fat of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above. And by the sword shall you live and your brother shall you serve and it shall come to pass when you shall have dominion that you shall break his yoke from your neck'” (Bereshit 27:1-40).
Upon reading the above passage, several questions come to mind: 1) What prompted Isaac initially to favor Esau over Jacob as opposed to the judgement apparently of his wife Rebecca? 2) Why was it so important for Rebecca to devise such an elaborate ruse in order to sabotage her husband’s plan of blessing Esau? 3) What is there in the nature of Jacob’s participation in this ruse that persuades Isaac to reverse his original decision to bless Esau over Jacob and to allow his blessing of Jacob to stand?
The answers to the preceding questions would seem to lie in an analysis of the characters of the various individuals in question:
Both Isaac and his wife Rebecca were bold and aggressive, albeit righteous, individuals who did not hesitate to take the initiative to execute appropriate action as a situation called for. This is evident from incidents reported in the Torah: Rebecca’s eagerness to assist Eliezer, Isaac’s immediate affection for and marriage to Rebecca, Isaac’s entreating G-d on Rebecca’s behalf, Rebecca’s bold inquiry of G-d, their actions towards Abimelech and his Philistine subjects and Isaac’s construction of an altar in Beersheba (Bereshit 24-26).
This couple, Isaac and Rebecca, bore two sons, “And the boys grew and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field and Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents” (Bereshit 26:27). While Isaac and Rebecca did not translate righteousness into passivity and, rather, blended their righteous characteristics with a bold and aggressive behavior, the offspring of this unique couple did not seem in their younger years to incorporate both sides of their parents’ characters. Instead, each son appeared to amplify one of their parents’ sides. While Esau chose the aggressive “outdoorsman” behavior of a hunter who would proudly lay the object of his conquest in an appetizing form before his father, Jacob would remain in his tent content apparently with the relatively passive and “low-profile” vocation of engaging in thought or study or assisting his mother in cooking a pot of porridge.
Isaac and Rebecca, in turn, each recognized the significance of the character of each son. “And Isaac loved Esau for he ate of his catch and Rebecca loved Jacob” (Bereshit 25:28). Isaac evidently was of the opinion that, although Esau’s behavior may have been chiefly motivated by a desire for power or conquest, Esau actively contributed to the welfare of others by unselfishly bestowing them with his object of conquest, whereas Jacob’s introverted behavior appeared to be self-centered with no evident and significant demonstration of effecting those around him which could very well lead to his albeit good intentions being thwarted and his being swallowed up by a hostile outside environment against which he would be ostensibly defenseless. Rebecca, on the other hand, was, it would appear, of the opinion, that, by initially entrenching himself in thought, study and self-perfection while still young, Jacob would be better suited to act as needed in the future, whereas Esau’s lust for conquest could serve to be destructive even if it does not exhibit itself as such initially.
Consequently, as he was nearing his last days on earth, Isaac wished to formally express his feelings towards Esau and encourage him to continue to manifest what seemed to be his aggressive yet selfless tendencies. At this point, Rebecca, who considered Esau’s behavior as suspect and disagreed with her husband’s stance, seized the opportunity to persuade Isaac of the veracity of her stance and thus enlighten him before he firmly established a mistaken view as never before. Her plan was to demonstrate that Jacob could escape his tent and effectively act in a manner that would favorably effect another – in this case Isaac. In order to assist his mother in enlightening his father, Jacob stepped out of what may have appeared to be his self-centered world, did not hide behind a veil of self-righteousness, and agreed to participate in a cunning ruse for the sake of a positive goal (see Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 65b). As a result, Isaac, although realizing that he was deceived, refused to retract his blessing of Jacob and emphatically reiterated “he shall be blessed” (Bereshit 27:33). After Isaac perceived that Jacob was not glued to his tent and was capable of acting boldly and effectively if he felt the need, Isaac was persuaded that Jacob was, indeed, better deserving of prosperity and of Isaac’s encouragement since Jacob was able to combine knowledge and self-perfection within his tent with a concern for others outside of his tent, a combination which Esau lacked. Therefore, Isaac stood by his blessing of Jacob that “G-d should give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth and plenty of grain and drink. People should serve you and nations should bow to you; be lord over your brethren and your mother’s sons should bow to you; cursed be those who curse you and blessed be those who bless you” (Bereshit 27:28-29). But Isaac stood by this blessing only because he recognized Jacob’s unique combination of characteristics. If, however, Jacob would neglect either component of his character and thereby permit Esau’s dominion over him then Isaac tells Esau “you shall break his yoke from off your neck” (Bereshit 27:40).
Jacob would later apparently adopt a similar insight before his own death. In chapter 47 and 48 of the book of Bereshit, we are told, “And the days of Israel drew near to die….and Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill,’ and he brought his two sons with him, Menashe and Ephraim….And Jacob said to Joseph….’Your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before my coming to you to Egypt are mine; Ephraim and Menashe as Reuben and Simeon will they be to me'” (Bereshit 47:29-48:5). As the famous Biblical exegete and Talmudic commentator Rashi (R. Solomon b. Isaac) notes, Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Menashe granted each of them a portion in the Land of Israel equal to that of each of Jacob’s own sons.
The question, however, arises: Did Jacob’s other sons not also have children and, if so, why does Jacob show preference for Joseph and his sons? The matter is all the more perplexing when one considers the reaction of Jacob’s sons to his previously showing preference to Joseph when Joseph was still young. In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 10b, our Sages look down upon Jacob’s previous manifestation of bias towards Joseph by stating: “One should never treat one of his children differently from the others, for, as a result of the value of two selah of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph over and above that of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him which proceeded to cause our forefathers’ descent to Egypt.” Was Jacob’s blessing now of Ephraim and Menashe another error in judgement?
The answer would appear to lie in the occurrences since Joseph’s youth. In his youth, Joseph appeared to his brothers to be but a youngster who was pampered by his father, spoke conceitedly to those around him and reported gossip about his brothers. Consequently, his brothers grew angry and resentful. Only Jacob, advanced in age, maturity and intelligence, was able to recognize Joseph’s potential and the consequent truth behind Joseph’s speech, as a result of which Jacob “heeded the matter” of Joseph’s boasting (Bereshit 37:11). However, since Joseph’s youth, many things occurred to him. Joseph was sold in bondage, and, yet, became master of the household of the Egyptian minister Potiphar. He was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of criminal action and subsequently imprisoned, and, yet, he became master of all of Egypt. And when the entire land of Egypt was faced with impending famine, only Joseph was able to devise a plan to save the populace from starvation. Finally, after revealing his identity to his brothers after being apart so many years, Joseph, despite being sold into slavery by their hands, does not utilize his present position of power to punish his brothers but greets them with tears of joy.
After all these occurrences which would demonstrate Joseph’s special character even to his brothers, Jacob was then justified and not afraid to show preference to Joseph over his brothers by blessing Ephraim and Menashe with portions equal to that of Jacob’s own sons for Joseph would pass down his special character and talents to his children who would, consequently, be able to accomplish more with what they would be given.
Moreover, we find that, when he blesses Ephraim and Menashe, Jacob purposely switches his hands, placing the right one upon Ephraim and the left one upon Menashe despite Menashe’s being older and, therefore, ostensibly deserving the symbolicly superior right hand to be placed on him. When Joseph attempts to correct the apparent error, Jacob exclaims, “I know, my son, I know; he [Menashe] shall also be a people and he shall also be great but his younger brother shall be greater than him” (Bereshit 48:19), serving to further demonstrate that Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons was indeed well thought out and not a capricious act of whim.
Not anyone deserves a blessing and everyone should not necessarily be treated equally. Whereas everyone should be cared for and provided with his or her needs, some may be capable of doing more with what they have than others and, therefore, may deserve more than others. As Isaac recognized that Jacob deserved a blessing more than Esau because of his unique combination of characteristics, so did Jacob recognize that Joseph should receive a greater portion than that of his brothers for with his capabilities, he and his lineage could accomplish more with such a portion. Jacob and Joseph were not just given blessings. They were given their just deserts.
As our forefathers realized thousands of years ago, we also should realize nowadays that not always can we or ought we dispense our support equally to all. We have to be able to differentiate between Jacob and Esau.