Book review: Follow the blessing - A father’s dream for Jacob and Esau

Follow the blessing: An excerpt from ‘Explorations Expanded’: A father’s dream for Jacob and Esau

‘Esau and Jacob reconcile,’ by Italian painter Francesco Hayez, 1844. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Esau and Jacob reconcile,’ by Italian painter Francesco Hayez, 1844.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The story of Jacob’s surreptitious acquisition of the blessings his father intended for Esau is well known. This episode, coupled with the Torah’s declaration of Isaac’s love for Esau, leads many readers to misinterpret Isaac’s feelings for each of his sons. While some assume that Isaac loved Esau more than he loved Jacob, the text does not bear this out. Additionally, it is incorrect to assume that Isaac intended to bequeath Abraham’s legacy to Esau; this is certainly not the case. Isaac knew exactly who Jacob and Esau were, what their respective strengths and weaknesses were.
Nonetheless, unlike his wife, who possessed “inside information” regarding their destinies, Isaac dared to dream that his son Esau, the hunter, might yet be part of God’s plan. While Rebekah knew that the two sons would become separate nations, Isaac continued to believe, or at least to hope, that they would remain one family. A careful reading of the blessings he intends for each son illustrates Isaac’s mind-set.
In parashat Toldot, Isaac imparts three blessings upon his two sons. The first was intended for Esau, but was surreptitiously taken by Jacob. The second was bestowed upon Esau; Isaac was fully aware that it was Esau who stood before him when he gave this blessing. The third and final blessing was given to Jacob; Isaac knew he was addressing Jacob, and he also knew that Jacob had already taken the first blessing by guile.
The first blessing, intended for Esau but taken by Jacob, is certainly a beautiful one.
“May God give you from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the earth, and the fullness of grain and wine. Nations will be subservient to you, and peoples will bow to you. You will be your brother’s master, and the sons of your mother will bow to you. Those you curse shall be accursed, and those you bless shall be blessed” (Genesis 27:28-29).
The blessing intended for Esau but taken by Jacob speaks of wealth and power. What it neglects to mention is a spiritual mission or message. It was never Isaac’s intention to leave these spiritual gifts to his elder son. This becomes even more obvious when Jacob is about to leave home, and Isaac summons him and blesses him:
“The Almighty God will bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, and you will become a great nation. He will grant you the blessing of Abraham, for you and your descendants, to inherit the land of your sojournings which the Almighty gave to Abraham” (ibid. 28:3-4).
Evidently, Isaac did have another blessing to give. This “blessing of Abraham,” which included the inheritance of the Land of Israel, was a spiritual blessing, and it was always intended for Jacob; Isaac could not and would not give it to Esau. The blessing of power and wealth which Jacob took had always been intended for Esau; only through Rebekah’s intervention, Jacob received both the spiritual and the physical blessings.
Isaac apparently felt that the son who was devoted to spiritual pursuits should receive only spiritual blessings, while the son who was devoted to physical pursuits should be given only blessings involving the physical realm. Rebekah’s understanding was quite different; she felt that her spiritual son would not survive without the physical blessing as well. Apparently, God agreed with Rebekah.
Perhaps Isaac pitied Esau; perhaps he felt that if Esau would be a hunter, dedicating his life to physical pursuits, he would be better off prospering by God’s hand than by utilizing his own unsavory tactics to succeed. Whatever his rationale might have been, it is clear from the text that Isaac’s love for Esau was, indeed, conditional and therefore limited.
IT SEEMS, though, that Isaac was fully aware of the different capabilities of his two sons. Jacob reminded him of his own father, and Esau reminded him of his father’s adversary and would-be executioner, Nimrod. Esau is described as a hunter; the only other person described in this way was Nimrod.
Isaac had no doubt about Jacob’s capabilities; he knew that his younger son would live a life imbued with spirituality. The other child, Esau, was far more challenging. Isaac loved him for his hunting, and was intrigued with the idea of bringing those capabilities under control, of harnessing Esau’s wild power and bringing him in as a partner for Jacob.
In his mind’s eye, Isaac imagined what might have been if Abraham and Nimrod had joined forces: Perhaps their combined talents could have ushered in the Messianic Age. Now, Isaac hoped to realize this potential through Esau and Jacob, and sought to engineer this historic union.
Isaac knew that Esau was a hunter; by commanding him to bring him food, he turned the hunt into a mitzvah. Isaac’s goal was to bring spirituality to the son who immersed himself in physical pursuits.
If we listen carefully, we can hear Isaac’s excitement when his son comes to him for his blessing:
“He went to his father and said, ‘Father.’ And he said, ‘Yes, which of my sons are you?’ Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau, your firstborn; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your heartfelt blessing.’ Isaac said to his son, ‘How did you succeed so quickly, my son?’ And he said, ‘Because the Almighty your God granted me good fortune.’
Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come closer that I may feel you, my son – whether you are really my son Esau or not.’ So Jacob drew close to his father, Isaac, who felt him, and declared: ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau’” (ibid. 27:18-22).
Isaac was elated by what he heard: Esau had begun to speak like Jacob! The voice – the kindness, the gentleness, the respect, and the reference to God’s involvement in his successful hunting expedition – all of these were the voice of Jacob. Isaac was not confused or wary; he did not wonder why he heard “the voice of Jacob” coupled with “the hands of Esau.” Had he been in doubt, he would have stopped to investigate further before bestowing the blessing on his son. No, Isaac was not confused, he was overjoyed; he believed that his plan to unite his two sons had come to fruition. He heard precisely what he had always hoped to hear – the fusion of the very different capabilities of each of his sons. Little did he realize that in fact it was Jacob who had taken on Esau’s hands, and not Esau who had taken on Jacob’s voice.
Isaac envisioned a partnership between his two sons, and he invested his parenting in teaching them to join forces – Esau in the field and Jacob in the tents – as Yissachar and Zevulun would later do. Jacob and Esau were groomed to be team players. Esau, the fearless hunter, would be in charge of the physical world, while Jacob’s domain would be the spiritual world. Rebekah, however, encouraged Jacob to abandon his father’s fantasy. She had always known that this was not the way things would unfold. God had spoken to her, and she knew that only her younger son would achieve greatness.
Isaac’s dream was that his two sons would work together to mend the world. The dream was not realized by Isaac’s children, for Esau did not accept the responsibility of serving God. Only in future generations would Jacob’s children bring their grandfather’s dream to its fruition.
The writer is director of the overseas student program at Bar-Ilan University, where he also is a senior lecturer in Jewish studies. He also serves as rabbi of the Mishkan Etrog community in Givat Ze’ev. He is the author of more than 10 books on Jewish thought. The newest, Explorations Expanded (Bereishit), Kodesh Press, is a journey that sheds new light on some of the most difficult narratives of the biblical text.