“Isaac Blesses His Sons”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we learn how Isaac’s intentions to bless Esau are thwarted by the deceptive actions of Rebecca and Jacob.

In volume four of his Questions and Themes in Tanach (Bible), Professor Menashe Duvshani offers a unique view on Isaac’s blessing of his sons. For many years, Menashe Duvshani was among the premier Bible educators of Israeli high school students. For decades, Israeli High School students used Professor Duvshani’s review books to prepare for the High School matriculation exams.

Professor Duvshani views the narrative of Isaac blessing his sons as a play in seven acts. In each act, only two actors appear. He cites Professor Shlomo Dov Goitein, who notes that biblical narratives often have few actors. Never, in this entire episode, do more than two personalities appear together at one time.

Duvshani identifies two scenes in this play. The first scene takes place in Isaac’s tent and consists of Isaac blessing both Jacob and Esau within several hours of each other. The action in this scene moves fast and furious. In the much briefer second scene, which occurs at some indeterminate time after Isaac blesses his sons, Jacob is sent away to Haran.

The Torah states in Genesis 27:1, “Vayehi kee za’kayn Yitzchak, va’tich’heh’nah ey’nahv mayr’ot,” Isaac became old and his eyes became weak. Professor Duvshani points to the double meaning reflected in the words of this verse. Not only could Isaac not see well because of his poor vision, he was also unable to discern which of his two sons deserved to receive his blessing.

In Genesis 25:28, we learn that Isaac loves Esau because he provided venison for him to eat, and that Rebecca simply loves Jacob for no stated reason. Isaac strongly identifies with Esau, whose physical abilities much impressed Isaac. Esau was big and strong, and probably assisted Isaac more than his much meeker brother Jacob did, helping to provide for the family by working the fields and hunting. Jacob, on the other hand, is described in the Torah (Genesis 25:27) as being, “Ish tahm, yo’shayv oh’hah’lim,” an innocent person, who dwelt in tents. As opposed to Esau, Jacob was a spiritual person whose soul clung to G-d and to heavenly thoughts. He was a sensitive, delicate child, who was close to his good-hearted and wise mother, and most likely never went out to hunt with his brother Esau.

Because Esau had already sold his birthright to Jacob, Isaac calls Esau (Genesis 27:1), “B’no ha’ga’dohl,” his big son, and not his “first born.” Isaac properly calls Esau his “big son” for two reasons. First, Esau is chronologically older, and he prefers Esau over Jacob.

Nevertheless, Isaac does not bless Esau straight away, but rather tests him, sending Esau to hunt venison, and prepare a meal for him the way he likes it. Surely, Isaac could have done without the meal, but he wanted to make certain that Esau was worthy of the blessing.

While all this is going on, we learn that Rebecca, who was more insightful, prefers Jacob over Esau for two reasons. Rebecca understood the spiritual nature of the boys, and saw that Jacob  was clearly more worthy of the blessing than Esau. Perhaps she also felt that Jacob would be in need of the blessing far more than Esau. After all, Esau, the strong man of the field, could protect himself without a blessing, whereas Jacob, who was weak and innocent, needed protection. She, therefore, suggests that Jacob obtain the blessings through deception, surely a dangerous ploy, which could easily backfire, and result in a curse for Jacob. Jacob is clearly hesitant, but Rebecca succeeds in convincing Jacob to go ahead with the scheme.

At the very start, Rebecca raises the stakes by introducing the possibility of a divine blessing. Not only does she tell Jacob to bring his father food, she assures Jacob that as a result, he will be blessed (Genesis 27:7), “Lif’nay Hashem lif’nay mo’tee,” before G-d before my death, which, of course, is something that Isaac never said.

Furthermore, Rebecca promises Jacob (Genesis 27:13) “Ah’lai k’l’laht’cha b’nee,” that she accepts upon herself all responsibility if the deception backfires and Jacob is cursed. She further advances the scheme by costuming Jacob to look like Esau, placing goat skins on Jacob’s hands and on his neck. In this way, she helps Jacob overcome his concern that his father might recognize the deception if he is touched by Isaac.

Meanwhile, Rebecca prepares the food for Jacob to bring to Isaac, in the way that Isaac loves. She seeks out two goats, one for food, and the second, probably for disguising Jacob’s body.

Despite his initial hesitation, once the scheme is set in motion, Jacob throws himself into it thoroughly. Not at all passive, he skillfully tries to convince his father that he is worthy of the blessing.

At this point, Professor Duvshani asks the key question:  How could Rebecca ever think that a stolen blessing, achieved through deception, would be of any value?

Professor Duvshani suggests that the answer to this question is vital to understanding the entire episode. Apparently, Isaac was also not entirely convinced that Esau was the one who deserves to be blessed. Perhaps there were conversations between Isaac and Rebecca about which child is more worthy of the blessing. Consequently, Isaac sets a test for Esau. But once Isaac realizes that he has been deceived by Jacob, he regards the deception as a heavenly omen that he intended to bless the wrong son. That is why Isaac never expresses anger toward Jacob. To the contrary, Isaac actually reaffirms the first blessings with a second set of blessings. It is also highly likely that Isaac understood from the taste of the food that Rebecca was involved in this scheme. He now realizes that the correct decision is to bless Jacob. Obviously, a blessing achieved through deception would be invalid. This was not such a blessing.

When Jacob approaches his father pretending to be Esau, Isaac is not at all certain that the person standing before him is Esau. At the very start of the deception (Genesis 27:20), Isaac is surprised when Esau, who is really Jacob, returns with the food so quickly. Three times Isaac asks (Genesis 27:18, 21 & 24) ”Who are you, my son?” “Are you indeed my son Esau, or not? Is this my son Esau?” He’s especially suspicious because (Genesis 27:22) the voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau. Even though as twins their voices may have been similar, their style of speaking was profoundly different. Jacob was polite, Esau much less so.

Although Isaac was probably able to discern through the style of speech that the person standing before him was not Esau, nevertheless, once Isaac blesses the boy he stops questioning.

Thinking that he is speaking to Esau, Isaac promises his son the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land. He blesses his son that he should have general economic blessing, sufficient rain, and lands that are productive. He further promises his son that he will rule over other nations, and that his place will be superior over all other members of the family. Concluding the blessing, Isaac says (Genesis 27:29): “Oh’r’reh’cha ah’roor, oo’m’vah’r’cheh’cha baruch,” those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed.

Shortly after Jacob departs, Esau enters and offers food to his father in return for the blessing. Isaac, in shock, asks who he is? Esau announces that he is Isaac’s firstborn son, Esau. Isaac trembles, but not because he feels that he has done an injustice to Esau. It’s true that his brother came deceitfully and took his blessing, but Isaac does not revoke the blessing; in fact, he confirms the blessing.

Isaac then blesses Esau as well, with a blessing of economic prosperity.  Although Isaac is able to bless both his children with economic abundance, he cannot bequeath to both of them the authority to rule. Consequently, Esau will live by the sword, and will be subservient to his brother, unless his brother rebels against G-d. There is also a slight difference in the nature of the blessings to the sons. Jacob’s success must be earned by proper behavior. He must deserve to be favored by G-d. Esau’s blessing, however, is not conditional and does not depend upon his moral comportment.

Esau hates his brother for stealing his blessing (Genesis 27:41) and is determined to kill Jacob, but will not do so as long as his father, Isaac, is still alive.

Rebecca is concerned for Jacob’s safety, and suggests that he flee to Haran, where he can stay with Rebecca’s brother, Laban, until Esau’s anger subsides. Says Rebecca (Genesis 27:45): “Why should I lose both of my children on the same day?”

Rebecca asks Isaac for approval to send Jacob away, making no mention of Esau’s threat to kill Jacob. Instead, she invokes (Genesis 27:46) a different reason, expressing her concern about the daughters of Heth, again demonstrating her ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Isaac blesses Jacob a second time. Now there are no doubts in his mind that Jacob is the child who is truly worthy of the birthright and the blessing of Abraham. Esau goes to Seir, the land of Edom, confirming that Canaan, the land of the forefathers, is to be given over to Jacob.

With all this, Duvshani points out that the Torah does not take a favorable view of the deceptive actions of Rebecca and Jacob. Both of them are eventually punished for their behavior. Jacob, who deceived his father, is himself deceived several times. Laban deceives him with Leah, and changes his salary ten times. Jacob’s own sons deceive him by saying that Joseph has been torn to pieces. Rebecca, on the other hand, is forced to separate from Jacob, her beloved son, and made to watch as he sets out alone on the road to Haran, a very dangerous journey, and apparently never sees her beloved child again.

Duvshani summarizes this important biblical narrative by saying that it is not simply a story of a struggle between two brothers, but rather the beginning of an historic confrontation between two nations, and how the blessings impact on the destiny of both sons. Throughout the First Temple era, terrible enmity develops between these two peoples, and Judea and Edom (Esau) are in direct conflict. Only later, in the time of the Second Temple, do the Jewish people overcome the Edomites. Fortunately, during the struggle for the blessing, Jacob and Esau never meet, allowing for an eventual reconciliation between the brothers, after many years of separation.

May you be blessed.