“The Deception of Isaac”
(updated and revised from Toledot 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we encounter the well-known, and rather intriguing, story of Isaac’s attempt to bless his son Esau.

In Genesis 27 we learn that the Matriarch, Rebecca, is mortified by her husband Isaac’s intention to bless Esau, who she feels is unworthy of the blessing. Rebecca decides to trick Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob, the son who she feels is truly deserving.

At his mother’s behest, Jacob dresses up as Esau, puts wool on his hands and neck, and deceives 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 when he learns that his brother Jacob, who had earlier coerced Esau out of his birthright, had, once again, deceived him and stolen his blessing. Because of Esau’s fury, and open declaration to murder his conniving brother, 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 described in Genesis 25:27, as an אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, 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 ruse, rather than try to convince Isaac that he was mistaken?

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

Let us attempt to address each of these issues:

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 in the home of Isaac and Rebecca, seems to have gone awry. He has taken two Hittite wives for himself, wives who cause significant 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 possible solution to this quandary may be found as we look closely at the contents of the blessings that Isaac actually gives Jacob. Thinking that he was blessing Esau, we see that Isaac never really intended to give Esau the primary blessing, the Abrahamitic blessing of inheriting the land of Canaan. The actual blessing, mistakenly given to Jacob, recorded in Genesis 27:28, וְיִתֶּן לְךָ הָאֱ־לֹקִים מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ…הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ, is a promise of wealth, success in the field, and dominion over his brothers. The 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, which is 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 28:4, states: וְיִתֶּן לְךָ אֶת בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ, לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן אֱ־לֹקִים לְאַבְרָהָם And may He [G-d] give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojourning, which God gave to Abraham. This is the sacred 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 Ohr HaChaim, because Isaac had hoped that the blessings would transform Esau, and that as a result he would subsequently leave his life as a hunter and adopt a more appropriate way of life.

Rebecca, however, was unaware of Isaac’s true intentions. She was certain that Isaac was indeed bent on giving Esau the crucial Abrahamitic blessings. 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, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר, that the older will serve the younger. If that is so, why then did Rebecca not confront Isaac directly. After all, the Matriarch Sarah had confronted Abraham (Genesis 21:10), expressing her anger over the inappropriate behavior of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, demanding that he and his mother be sent away.

The Netziv in his commentary Ha’amek Davar, explains that the relationship between Rebecca and Isaac was different from that of Sarah and Abraham. Comparing herself to her holy and righteous husband, Isaac, Rebecca was ashamed of her presumed personal inadequacies, and was consequently intimidated by him. Perhaps she felt this way because she grew up among evil idolators, while Isaac was considered an עוֹלָה תְּמִימָהOlah T’mimah, a truly pure person, who was prepared to allow his father to offer him up as a sacrifice to G-d. Even when Rebecca first encounters Isaac (Genesis 24:64), scripture records: וַתֵּרֶא אֶת יִצְחָק, וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל, she [Rebecca] 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 they meet, 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 her 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 other commentaries, Rebecca never really intended to deceive Isaac, but rather to demonstrate to 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 to seek a blessing which wasn’t intended for him?

Jacob was extremely close to his mother, whereas Esau was close to his father. Try as he may, Jacob simply could not refuse Rebecca’s importuning. He tried to tell his mother, Genesis 27:11-12, that if he gets caught, that he will appear in Isaac’s eyes as a מְתַעְתֵּעַ –“mitatay’ah,” as one who mocks. He tells her 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, saying that she will accept Isaac’s curse upon herself. 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. Concerning Jacob, Genesis 27:14 states, וַיֵּלֶךְ, וַיִּקַּח, וַיָּבֵא לְאִמּוֹ –He went, he took and he came to his mother.  The Midrash insists that Jacob was forced into this deception. It graphically describes how at each step Rebecca compels him to act. Initially, Jacob reluctantly agrees, but refuses to take the food, until Rebecca says to him, “Take.” He then takes the food, but refuses to bring it in, until Rebecca says, “Bring.” And even when Jacob enters the room, he is hesitant, apprehensively saying, Genesis 27:18, אָבִי“Avi,” my father, reflecting his timidness. The Midrash depicts Jacob as entering his father’s chamber half-heartedly, 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 by tradition, and in reality, 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, in Laban’s home, during which he must perform backbreaking labor only to be 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 again and again. In Genesis 32:5, Jacob, in dread fear of Esau, instructs his messengers to call Esau אֲדֹנִי –“Adonee,” my master, and to refer to himself as עַבְדֶּךָ –“av’dehcha,” your servant.

Jacob learns the hard way that deception doesn’t pay. Now he must go through the transformation of becoming Yisrael.

Becoming a patriarch isn’t easy!

May you be blessed.