Thursday, November 23, 2006

Toldoth: A Wakeup call for Isaac

In this week's parasha, school children learn, Yitzchak plans to bless Esav as the continuation of the Jewish tradition. Rivkah is more astute, and sees the future of God's message in Ya'akov. She convinces her son to trick his blind, ailing father, and steal the blessings from his older brother. Students doubtless wonder: even if the trickery worked on Yitzchak, would God really allow a blessing to be stolen? Surely God would place blessing where the father intended; a blessing is not some magical oration that is oblivious to intent! And even if, somehow, the ruse would work, would Rivkah and Ya'akov, our holy fore-bearers, really manipulate a poor old man in this way? But even more fundamentally: was Yitzchak really so naiive as to believe that Esav was to continue the work of Avraham? It is clear that Ya'akov studied day and night with his father. It is inconceivable that Yitzchak would see Esav, to the exclusion of Ya'akov, as the next link in the spiritual chain.

Rabbi Hirsch, building upon earlier hints in the parasha, arrives at the startling conclusion, that Yitzchak knew very well the nature's of his twin boys. He always hoped that Ya'akov would be the spiritual inheritor. He planned, however, to have Esav join his brother as the physical and pragmatic protector of Israel. With the two patriarchs, Ya'akov and Esav, the budding nation would have all that it needed, spiritual and physical. Esav would protect the nation, while Ya'akov would temper Esav's wild streak, and subordinate it to Hashem.

It was in this that Esav was so successful in tricking his father. Esav was able to impress Yitzchak as a strong outdoorsman, but one who was controllable. He made efforts to display to his father his ability to subjugate his wild nature to his father's inheritance. Thus Yitzchak's blessing to Esav (given by trick to Ya'akov), was a blessing of physical might and wealth. The blessing meant for Ya'akov was given to him by his father later, and it is the spiritual one.

However, Rivkah saw through this 'paste board mask'. The midrash (בראשית רבה), quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, stating that Rivkah simply wanted to make certain that Esav no longer come and deceive his own father. She saw uncontrollable wildness in her first-born, and realized the danger of this becoming part of Israel. And so, she decided to deceive her husband. She attempted to show him that if the voice of Ya'akov (קול יעקב) could deceive him into believing it was attached to the hands of Esav (ידי עשו), then how much more easily could Yitzchak have been deceived all these years into believing that the hands of Esav had redeeming qualities!

When Esav comes in and learns of the trick, his father immediately learns the lesson his wife was teaching him. He immediately confirms the physical blessing he gave Ya'akov, sealing Esav out of the Jewish nation. Later, the spiritual blessing is also passed to Ya'akov. Esav begs his father for at least some blessing, and Yitzchak utters a 'blessing' that forever pits the spiritual values of Israel in an epic struggle with the physical wildness of Edom. "You will live by your sword, and will constantly struggle to remove your brother's yoke from your neck..."

And so, the nation of Israel begins with Ya'akov, who demonstrates his leadership and physical prowess at the well, and in Lavan's house, as well as his spiritual side. It is up to his twelve sons after him to split up the qualities, while remaining true to the totality of the Jewish experience. Esav is relegated to the apocalypse, when the final battle between Godliness and Lustful living takes place.