“The Deception of Isaac”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we encounter in Genesis 27 the well known story of Isaac’s attempt to bless Esau.

Rebecca is mortified by her husband’s intention to bless Esau, whom she feels is unworthy. Rebecca decides to trick Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob, the son whom she feels is deserving. At his mother’s behest, Jacob dresses up as Esau, puts wool on his hands in an attempt to deceive his father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. When Esau returns, expecting to receive Isaac’s blessing, he cries out with great bitterness that his brother Jacob has deceived him. Because of the deception, Jacob must flee to Haran where the story continues, as Jacob encounters Rachel, his future wife, and her father Laban.

How could it possibly be, ask the rabbis, that the righteous patriarch Isaac intends to bless Esau, the hunter, and not Jacob, who is called in (Genesis 25:27) an “eesh tam, yoshaiv ohalim,” a wholesome man who sits and, presumably, studies in the tents?

Secondly, why doesn’t Rebecca confront Isaac directly? Why does she resort to a rouse, rather than try to convince Isaac that he was making a mistake?

Finally, how does Jacob, the future patriarch of Israel, agree to the strategy which calls for him to deceive his father, with the intention of receiving a blessing that was not intended for him?

Let us review each of these questions: How is it possible that the great patriarch Isaac wished to give the blessing to his son Esau rather than Jacob? Esau’s religious development seems to have gone awry. He has taken two Hittite wives for himself, wives who cause undo distress to Rebecca. Esau is the man of the field. Jacob is the pastoral, contemplative, studious type, seemingly far more qualified for his father’s blessing.

A solution to this quandary may be found if we look closely at the contents of the blessings that Isaac gives Jacob. Thinking that he was actually blessing Esau, we see that Isaac never really intended to give Esau the primary blessing, the Abrahamitic blessing. The blessing, recorded in Genesis 27:28, “Va’yeeten l’cha haElokim me’tal ha’shamayim u’mishmanay ha’aretz…heh’vay g’vir l’achecha, v’yishtachavu l’cha bnei eemehcha,” is a promise of wealth, success in the field, and dominion over his brothers. The second blessings that Isaac eventually gives to Esau (Genesis 27:39-40), are also blessings of wealth and dominion. In both these blessings, there is no mention of the blessing of Abraham–the promise of the land, the essential Abrahamitic blessing, which had been passed down from Abraham to Isaac.

The eventual blessing that Jacob receives before he leaves to Padan Aram (Genesis 28:3): V‘yeehten l’cha et birkat Avraham, l’cha ul’zaracha ah’charecha, l’rish’tcha et eretz m’goorehcha asher natan Elokim l’Avraham. This is the essential blessing–the blessing of Abraham to Isaac, and now of Isaac to Jacob, the blessing of the land. Why then, did Isaac want to bless Esau? Says the Or HaChaim, it is because Issac thought that the blessings would transform Esau, and as a result he would subsequently adopt a proper way of life.

Rebecca was unaware of Isaac’s true intentions. She thought that Isaac was indeed bent on giving the Abrahamitic blessings to Esau. This was unacceptable in her eyes. After all, she saw the difference between the boys. Furthermore, she had received a direct prophecy, recorded in Genesis 25:23, “V’rav ya’avod tza’eer,” that the older will serve the younger. If that is so, why then did Rebecca not confront Isaac directly. After all, Sarah had confronted Abraham and expressed her anger over the inappropriateness of the child Ishmael.

The Netziv, in his commentary Ha’amek Davar, explains that the relationship between Rebecca and Isaac was different from that of Sarah and Abraham. Rebecca was ashamed of her presumed inadequacy, and consequently was intimidated by Isaac. Perhaps she felt this way because she grew up among idolators, while Isaac was considered an Olah T’mimah, a truly righteous person. Even when she first encounters Isaac (Genesis 24:64) scripture records: “Va’terah et Yitzchak, vah’tee’pohl may’al ha’gamal,” she sees Isaac and falls off her camel. She feels inadequate, inferior, and quickly covers her face. And remember, according to the midrash, Isaac was 40 years old when he met Rebecca, while Rebecca was only 14 (or 3).

Rebecca knows that Esau is unfit; after all, he married the daughters of the Hittites, whom she could not tolerate. Underscoring Rebecca’s fear of Isaac and feelings of inadequacy is the fact that the only conversation recorded in the Bible between Rebecca and Isaac is Rebecca’s complaint about her daughters-in-law. According to some commentaries, Rebecca never intended to deceive Isaac, but rather to convince him how vulnerable he was to deception, since he was blind from the Akeida and out of touch with earthly reality.

What about Jacob? How did he ever agree to deceive his father and seek a blessing which really wasn’t intended for him? Jacob was extremely close to his mother, whereas Esau was close with his father. Try as he may, Jacob just could not refuse Rebecca’s importunings. He tried to tell his mother that if he gets caught, he will appear in Isaac’s eyes as a “mitatay’ah,” as one who mocks. He tells her (Genesis 27:11-12) that Esau is hairy and that he is smooth, and that he will bring upon himself a curse and not a blessing.

Rebecca persists, giving Jacob no choice. She prepares the food, organizes the clothes, dresses Jacob, puts the sheepskin on his hands and practically forces him in to his father. In contrast to all of the active descriptions of Rebecca, there are very few descriptions of Jacob’s activity. “Vayelech, vayikach, vayavo l’eemo”–He went, he took and he came to his mother (Genesis 27:14). The midrash says that Jacob was forced into this deception. Finally Jacob agrees, but refuses to take the food, until Rebecca says to him, “Take.” He takes the food, but refuses to bring it in, until Rebecca says,”Bring.” And even when Jacob enters the room, he is hesitant saying (Genesis 27:18) “Avi,” my father, reflecting his timidness. The midrash says that Jacob entered his father’s chamber reluctantly, bent over and crying.

Despite the fact that Isaac never intended to give the Abrahamitic blessings to Esau, the fact that Jacob deceives his father is not looked upon favorably, and doesn’t do Jacob any good. As a result, he is forced to flee from his home, to separate himself from his beloved mother, and to run to a foreign land. There he is destined to pass twenty years in exile, during which he does backbreaking labor and is deceived of his salary many times over. Even when Jacob returns, he is fearful that his brother, Esau, might kill him. And when he finally meets Esau, he has to humble himself. He calls Esau “adonee,” my master, and refers to himself as “av’dehcha,” your servant.

Jacob learns the hard way that deception doesn’t pay. Now he must go through the transformation of becoming Yisrael. It isn’t easy to become a patriarch!

May you be blessed.