Sunday, November 04, 2007

Parshat Toledot 1

The episode of Ya’akov “stealing” the blessings from his father Yitzchak is one of the most misunderstood incidents in the Torah. How could Ya’akov, who is the summit of the three patriarchs, the pillars upon which our religion rests, stoop to the deceit and dishonesty of cheating his own brother out of his blessings. Also, we must ask, how can anyone steal a blessing? A blessing is an expression of potential, showing someone their strengths and weaknesses, therefore it is impossible to “steal” someone else’s blessing. (For example, one could never turn a potato into an apple by reciting a different blessing over it.) And how could Yitzchak be so blind to Esav’s behaviour, that he didn’t realise which of his sons most deserved the blessings? Finally, if Rivka could see the truth, and had received prophecy stating that Esav would be subservient to Ya’akov, why didn’t she simply explain to Yitzchak that he was making a mistake, as Sarah had told Avraham when she knew he was wrong about Yishmael?

If we look closer at the text, we find that Yitzchak didn’t make as big a mistake as we may have thought. After he has blessed Ya’akov, thinking that he was Esav, and Esav himself comes in, Esav asks “Have you not reserved a blessing for me1?” Yitzchak explains that he has already given away the blessings, and none remain. Yet when Ya’akov leaves, to flee from Esav and to find a wife, Yitzchak summons him and blesses him2. In fact this is the “Abrahamic” blessing, that includes being fruitful, and the promise of the land of Israel. So Yitzchak obviously knew where the spiritual continuation of the nation lay. In contrast, the blessings that he had intended to give Esav are all material, the dew of the heaven, the fat of the land, corn and wine, subjugation of other nations, etc.

The Torah describes Esav as “A cunning hunter, a man of the field”, whereas Ya’akov is “A quiet man, dwelling in tents”3. Yitzchak understood the different natures of his two sons, and envisioned a partnership between them; Esav would be responsible for supplying the physical needs of his brother, and leave Ya’akov to devote himself totally to study and spirituality. (We find a similar arrangement between two of the sons of Ya’akov, whereby Yissachar was involved in commerce, and supported his brother Zevulun in his full time Torah study. This way they could each maximise their potential, and share in the rewards.) However, Yitzchak had underestimated the extent to which Esav was involved in the material world. He was totally immersed in the “survival of the fittest” of the physical, that even human life ceased to have any importance for him. Rivka, having grown up in Padan Aram surrounded by this materialistic mentality, was able to recognise the truth of who her eldest son was.

However this would not per se qualify Ya’akov for the material blessings. He had to show that he was able to survive in the “real” world, outside the confines of the tents of Torah. Rivka realised this, and therefore told Ya’akov that he must actually become Esav, if only temporarily, by impersonating his brother. Wearing Esav’s clothes is also a metaphor for taking on some of his skills and abilities. Not only that, but Ya’akov must show his ability to survive through less than ideal behaviour when necessary. In this way he was able to receive the material blessings from his father, by becoming Esav he earned his right to a share of the physical world. From this point on, the path to spiritual perfection is through revealing the G-dliness hidden in the physical, thus elevating it to the level of the Divine.

1Genesis 27: 36
2ibid. 28: 3
3ibid. 25: 27

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