Yitzchak's Blessings

  • Rav David Silverberg

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHAT TOLEDOT

 

Yitzchak's Blessings

by David Silverberg

 

 

 

A.    Overview of Parashat Toledot

 

            This shiur will focus on the final section of Parashat Toledot, the blessings conferred by Yitzchak on his sons, Yaakov and Esav.  This topic ranks among the most intricate, complex and perplexing issues throughout Chumash, one which directly involves much of the rest of Parashat Toledot.  We must therefore begin with a brief overview of this parasha in order to have before us the relevant information that stood before the eyes of our commentators as they arrived at their respective conclusions.

 

            Section 1: The Birth and Development of Yaakov and Esav (25:19-34)

I.       Rivka's infertility and eventual pregnancy; her prophecy of "two nations" in her womb, the oldest of which will serve the younger.

II.    Yaakov and Esav's childhood and adolescence, the former growing into a "tent dweller" while the latter works as a hunter.

III.  Esav's sale of the birthright to Yaakov.

 

Section 2: Yitzchak's Travails in Gerar (26:1-33)

I.       Yitzchak's resettlement in Gerar to escape the famine; Rivka's abduction and return; Yitzchak's agricultural success, triggering jealousy from the local population and his banishment from the city.

II.    The struggle for ownership over Avraham's wells.

III.  Yitzchak's treaty with the king of Gerar.

 

            Section 3: Yitzchak's Blessings to His Sons (26:34-27:9)

I.       Esav's marriage to a Hittite girl, much to his parents' disappointment.

II.    Yitzchak's desire to bless Esav before his death and Yaakov's devious seizure of the blessing.

III.  Esav's threat to kill Yaakov, prompting the latter to flee to his uncle in Charan, where he is to marry one of his cousins, while Esav marries another cousin - Yishmael's daughter.

 

            The fundamental question we will address is the same question that troubled the great minds of our commentators throughout the centuries: what did Yitzchak have in mind when he sought to bless Esav?  This question consists of several components, including: what did this blessing entail?  What was at stake that prompted such an extreme reaction on Esav's part?  What did Rivka see that Yitzchak did not?  We will survey the various approaches taken to these and related issues, scrutinizing and assessing each one in search of its strengths and weaknesses.  In the process, we will encounter virtually every major factor that our commentators undoubtedly considered as they analyzed this most difficult - and fascinating - parasha.

 

B.    Esav as Yitzchak's Heir?

 

            The commentators seem divided over one critical issue relating to this incident: by conferring this blessing upon Esav, did Yitzchak express his selection of Esav over Yaakov as heir to God's covenant to Avraham?  Towards the beginning of the parasha, we read that Yitzchak "liked" Esav (25:28).  Does this mean he preferred Esav over Yaakov as his successor, and it is this blessing he wishes to bestow upon him?

 

            The Ramban in fact adopts this approach, claiming that Yitzchak intends here to appoint Esav his exclusive heir to the covenant of Avraham.  For some reason, Rivka had never related to him the prophecy she received that "the oldest will serve the youngest," indicating that Yaakov, the younger twin, had been granted the status of heir apparent.  The Ramban speculates that Rivka felt that telling her husband of this prophecy would insult him.  Rivka therefore resorts to a cunning and shrewd plan to ensure the fulfillment of her prophecy.

 

            This approach, taken as well by the Abarbanel, features one critical advantage over many of the alternatives: it explains the tension and riveting drama that characterizes this narrative.  At stake here is not merely a kind word of good wishes from the father, but rather the entire family heritage and legacy of Avraham.  At his mother's behest, Yaakov steals from Esav not merely blessings of success and prosperity, but rather the distinction and privilege of the covenant.  If an ordinary blessing is not worth killing for, perhaps, in Esav's eyes, one's eternal legacy is.

 

            At the same time, this theory raises many difficulties, most of which are noted in one form or another by other commentators.  Most obviously, perhaps, how could we attribute such a grave error of potentially catastrophic consequences to our patriarch?  How could Yitzchak have overlooked Esav's obvious grounds for disqualification, not to mention show preference to him over his righteous, scholarly brother?  What more, just prior to this narrative we read of Esav's marriage to a Hittite woman, to which BOTH Yitzchak and Rivka react with "bitterness of spirit" (26:35).  How startling it is, then, to find immediately thereafter Yitzchak's appointment of Esav as his sole successor!

 

            The Abarbanel answers that the Torah itself alludes to an explanation in its introduction to this narrative: "When Yitzchak was old and his eyes were too dim to see… " (27:1).  Not only did Yitzchak's eyesight begin failing him, but so did his power of judgment, which was blinded by his affection for Esav.  As bitterly disappointed he felt over Esav's choice of a wife, he held out hope that through a unique blessing, preceded by Esav's demonstration of devotion and love, he can pray on his son's behalf and positively influence his character.  His emotions misled him to believe that a blessing will suffice to render Esav worthy of founding God's nation.  Rivka, of course, had classified information to the contrary, and thus felt compelled to intervene. 

 

            This suggestion by the Abarbanel helps resolve another difficulty, as well.  Why must Yitzchak designate a successor through the conferral of a special blessing?  His father, Avraham, never conducted such a ritual.  In fact, only after Avraham's death did God Himself personally appear to Yitzchak and bless him (25:11), presumably reaffirming his role as successor (Rashi's second interpretation there).  According to the Abarbanel, Yitzchak faced an awkward predicament of sorts: his choice for heir to the covenant is not quite deserving of this honor and responsibility.  He must therefore bestow a special blessing upon him so that he qualifies as Yitzchak's successor.

 

            The notion that Yitzchak "had the wool pulled over his eyes" appears in earlier sources, as well.  The Torah bases Yitzchak's particular fondness of Esav on the "game in his mouth" (25:28).  Rashi offers two possible interpretations of this ambiguous clause.  He first notes the translation of Onkelos, by which Esav earned Yitzchak's admiration by bringing him food.  This would perhaps accommodate the Abarbanel's claim: the natural sense of appreciation for his son's devotion blinded Yitzchak to Esav's poor qualities.  Secondly, Rashi suggests (based on the Midrash) understanding "game" here as a metaphorical reference to deceit.  Esav successfully masqueraded himself before Yitzchak in a disguise of piety, to the point where Yitzchak mistook him for the destined bearer of Avraham's legacy.  According to both interpretations, Yitzchak was "duped," plain and simple.

 

            Another objection one could raise against the approach of the Ramban and Abarbanel involves the astonishing lack of spousal communication it presumes.  Can we accept the fact that over several decades Rivka withheld from her husband her prophecy as to the future of their only two children?  (Note that Chazal calculate the sons' age at this point at sixty-three years!!)  Did the issue of a successor never come up in conversation between Yitzchak and Rivka?  The Ramban's suggestion that Rivka feared the embarrassment Yitzchak might suffer, or the speculation that she assumed Yitzchak had received a similar prophecy, do not alleviate our astonishment at the couple's never having spoken openly regarding this issue.

 

            The final and perhaps most troubling difficulty posed by the Ramban's approach emerges from Yitzchak's blessing itself.  Nowhere in the blessing conferred to Yaakov (disguised as Esav) does Yitzchak make even the slightest reference to the covenant of Avraham.  He mentions this promise only later, when he sends Yaakov away to flee from Esav: "May Kel Sha-dai bless you… May He grant you the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning… " (28:3-4).  Apparently, the blessing intended for Esav served some other function and did not formally appoint Esav his father's successor. 

 

C.    Sharing the Legacy

 

            Rejecting the possibility that Yitzchak planned on selecting Esav over Yaakov, several more recent writers have claimed that Yitzchak intended for both his sons to jointly continue Avraham's legacy.  Probably the earliest reference to this theory appears in the commentary of the Malbim.  The Malbim writes that as evidenced by Yitzchak's reaction to Esav's marriage, Yitzchak never deemed him a candidate for successor.  Nevertheless, he figured that Esav's military and logistical talent would be of great service to his brother, who would emerge as the spiritual founder of God's nation.  Yaakov, the "simpleton, a dweller of tents" (25:27), needed a partner who would oversee the administrative and political arrangements necessary for the cultivation of a thriving and prosperous nation.  This partnership would allow Yaakov, the scholar, to devote his time and energy solely to the spiritual development of this nation, unencumbered by the mundane responsibilities otherwise cast upon his shoulders.

 

            The most obvious proof to this approach lies within the text of Yitzchak's blessing.  As noted, this blessing makes no mention of God's promise to Avraham.  Instead, it speaks of economic prosperity ("May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth… ") and military might ("Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you").  It concludes with the prayer that Esav become "master over your brothers," which we may easily interpret as a reference to governmental authority, rather than subjugation.  This blessing, then, wishes upon Esav economic, military and political success - the three primary responsibilities charged upon a national government, which Esav is to form.

 

            Rav Menachem Leibtag emphasizes a critical point relevant to this approach.  Due to hindsight, we tend to take the selection of one of Yitzchak's sons over the other as a self-evident presumption.  Rabbi Leibtag suggests that we change our entire mindset with regard to the process of transmission of Avraham's covenant.  God had explicitly told Avraham that only one of his two sons - Yitzchak - will carry his legacy (17:21, 21:12).  We find no recorded prophecy to this effect regarding Yitzchak's sons.  Yitzchak thus had no reason to believe that either of his sons would be expelled from the covenant as his uncle Yishmael had been.  He likely assumed that both Yaakov and Esav would share equally the patriarchal status vis-a-vis God's nation. 

 

            Rivka, of course, knew better.  Unlike Yitzchak, she received an explicit prophecy that in her womb grew "two nations," with the younger of the sons overpowering the older.  She understood that Yaakov alone was destined to establish God's nation, while Esav would remain outside the covenantal legacy of Avraham.

 

            Of course, this analysis falls short of resolving the difficulty we encountered when studying the Ramban's position: why did Rivka never inform Yitzchak of her prophecy?  How could she withhold such critical information from her husband?

 

            However, this approach lends itself to a possible solution, one which requires us to slightly adjust our presentation of this position.  In a VBM shiur several years ago, Rav Ezra Bick elaborated on the direction taken to this issue by Nava Gutman, in the Hebrew journal, Megadim (vol.21), which upholds the "shared legacy" theory while arguing that Yitzchak had full knowledge of Rivka's prophecy.  God had told Rivka, "Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body" (25:23).  Yitzchak may have understood these "two nations" as two tribes within the same nation.  While both sons will participate equally in the formation and establishment of this nation, they will play different roles towards that end.  As the twins grew and exhibited diametrically opposed interests and personalities, Yitzchak understood (so he thought) exactly how these two "sub-nations" would take shape: Esav's practicality would ensure the safety, security and stability of this nation, while Yaakov's wisdom and piety would lend the nation its unique spiritual character.  We may add that Yitzchak himself personally experienced this need for the complementary cooperation between spiritual ideals and practicality.  Chazal describe Esav as an "ola temima," a sacrifice that is burnt entirely on the altar and not eaten by humans.  The common explanation of this metaphor is that Yitzchak lived a purely spiritual existence, to some extent detached from the mundane realities of the world.  This likely accounts for the crises he encounters in Gerar in the middle section of our parasha.  When his mother, Sara, is abducted by the king of Gerar in a parallel incident, Avraham earns the respect and admiration of the local populace and the king offers him land for residence (20:15).  Yitzchak, by contrast, is eventually banished from the city (26:16) and sees his wells stolen by the local inhabitants (26:17-21).  He suffered from his inability to individually balance the ideal and the pragmatic.  He therefore advocated a system of division of labor, or "two nations," by which one son manages state affairs leaving the other to engage undisturbed in spiritual endeavors.

 

Rivka, however, understood the prophecy differently.  The mundane and the sublime cannot be so drastically wedged apart.  Leaving all practical state affairs in Esav's wicked hands would undermine Yaakov's efforts in shaping the nation's spiritual quality.  Instead, Yaakov himself must don "the hands of Esav," he must mold the nation's character by working from within, rather than from without.

 

D.    A Different Blessing

 

            Several factors likely prompted other commentators to dissociate this blessing entirely from the covenantal legacy of Avraham, viewing it as serving a purpose unrelated to the question of Yitzchak's successor.  This group rejects the notion of Yitzchak entertaining the possibility of including Esav in the covenant.  Influenced primarily by the Torah's record of Yitzchak's disgust at Esav's intermarriage, coupled with a rich tradition of rabbinic literature portraying Esav in the most contemptuous light, these commentators see Esav's exclusion as a foregone conclusion.  Other issues we have encountered, including the prophecy to Rivka and Yitzchak's omission of any mention of the covenant in his blessing, also likely contributed to these authors' line of reasoning.

 

            So, what kind of blessing is this?  If Yitzchak does not intend here to bestow Avraham's blessing upon Esav, then what does he plan to do?

 

            Two general alternatives are raised within this group of commentators.  Rav David Kimchi (the "Radak") argues that Yitzchak felt compelled to bless Esav specifically because of his unworthiness.  Lacking sufficient merits on his own right, Esav faced the prospect of severe divine retribution, which Yitzchak, the loving father, wished to avoid through the conferral of a blessing.  Rivka, however, misunderstood Yitzchak's intention as a plan to divert the birthright from Yaakov back to Esav, and thus felt required to intervene on Yaakov's behalf.  Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the "Netziv"), explains differently, that Yitzchak wished to bestow upon his beloved son a special blessing of material success and prosperity.  The Netziv likens this blessing to Noach's blessings to his sons, which, though certainly intended for the children's progeny, did not involve a specific historical process or destiny such as the transmission of the covenant.  Rivka, however, wished even this blessing to be conferred upon her favorite son, Yaakov.

 

            One immediate disadvantage such an approach would face relates to Esav's rage and fury over the loss of his blessing.  If this blessing did not involve the issues of birthright or inheritance, why should Esav react with such vengeance?  Additionally, Yitzchak at first cannot find a blessing for Esav after he had mistakenly blessed Yaakov (27:37).  If this blessing did not involve a specific selection or designation of one son, why did Yitzchak hesitate before bestowing another blessing upon Esav? 

 

            One may suggest that one element in particular irked Esav: "Be master over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow down to you… " (27:29).  Beyond prosperity, this blessing also included the recipient's superiority and dominion over his brother.  The loss of this mastery of Yaakov likely fueled Esav's resentment and forced Yitzchak to somehow pacify his eldest son with some alternate blessing.

 

            In conclusion, we have seen three general approaches towards the meaning and significance of these blessings.  Yitzchak had either intended to name Esav the exclusive heir to Avraham's covenant, to charge Esav with the political and administrative responsibilities of the special nation he and Yaakov will jointly build, or to confer an independent blessing upon his beloved son, unrelated to the covenant of Avraham.

 

Methodological Points:

 

I.       This discussion serves as perhaps a classic representation of traditional exegesis surrounding a particularly difficult and complex issue.  After reviewing the various approaches one finds that virtually no single explanation resolves every difficulty to perfect satisfaction.  Commentators must carefully select which problems appear less troubling and can be left without total resolution, and which demand a satisfactory response. 

II.    The possibility of Yitzchak's mistaken judgment of Esav directly relates to the broader issue of questioning or criticizing our patriarchs' conduct.  Different scholars throughout the years have exhibited varying attitudes in analyzing the actions of our spiritual heroes.  Not surprisingly, the Ramban, who refers to Avraham's relocation in Egypt a "grave sin" (12:10), is the one who portrays Yitzchak in the most negative light in our context, claiming that he misread Esav as his destined successor.  Other commentators refused to attribute an error of this gravity to Yitzchak.  Interestingly, though, Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, in his commentary to our parasha, sharply criticizes Yitzchak and Rivka for their educational mishandling of Esav.  He claims that they raised him as if he were of the same emotional and behavioral makeup as his twin, an error that resulted in Esav's corrupt character as an adult.

III.  Recall the possibility suggested that Yitzchak understood Rivka's prophecy of "two nations" in her womb as referring actually to two tribes within the same nation.  Such a notion depends on the likelihood of defining the Hebrew terms "goy" and "le'om" employed in this context to mean "tribes."  This reflects the substantial interplay that exists between precise word definition and the broader, contextual understanding of the text.  Very often, how one understands an entire section in Chumash can depend on technical nuances related to grammar and word usage.