Parshat Toledot: The anguish of the blessing and the curse

“When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, ‘Bless me too, O my father!’"

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by
One of the most famous operas, Verdi’s Rigoletto, is based upon the power of a father’s curse and ends with the bereaved jester exclaiming in great anguish over the corpse of his beloved daughter: “Ah, la malediction!” (“Ah, the curse!”).
We encounter similar anguish in Esau’s bitter sobbing when he hears that his blessing has been given to Jacob and cannot be revoked. “He burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!’” (Genesis 27:34). Curses and blessings, especially those given by a father, are taken very seriously in these stories of our early patriarchs and even before.
Noah curses his son Ham and it has dire consequences for Ham’s son Canaan (Gen. 9:25-27). A later story has Jacob on his deathbed blessing and cursing some of his children, too, and it is considered consequential in their future history (Gen. 49:1-29).
Our Torah portion, Toldot, contains the most famous or infamous of these stories, because it involves a tale of intra-family intrigue, including the deception perpetrated by Rebekah and Jacob upon Isaac, who is nearly blind and infirm, raising the question of the ethical and moral standing of their actions. As Jacob says to his mother when she suggests the deception, “I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing!” (Gen. 27:12). Her reply is in essence “Just do it and I’ll take the responsibility.” Of course the Torah does not see it that way, and it is Jacob who suffers for what he has done. In a classic case of mida k’neged mida (the punishment fits the crime) Laban deceives Jacob, substituting Leah for Rachel as his bride, just as Jacob had deceived Isaac. In case that’s not clear, Laban says specifically, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older” (Gen. 29:26).
“My mother told me to do it” is no excuse. The Midrash goes so far as to say that Esau’s bitter cry was repaid by Mordecai’s “crying out loudly and bitterly” (Esther 4:2) over the fate of the Jews in Shushan! (Gen. Raba 67:34).
Indeed, “Ah, the curse!” Why is Rebekah so determined to see to it that Jacob receives the blessing that Isaac intends to give to Esau on his deathbed? The answer may well lie in the words she received from the Lord when she inquired as to why the twins were struggling in her womb before birth: One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger (Gen. 25:23).
This means that Esau (the elder) will serve Jacob (the younger). Yet if Isaac has decided to bestow his blessing upon Esau, does this not mean that Esau will triumph over Jacob, exactly the opposite of God’s promise? Rebekah has the task – she believes – of seeing to it that this will not happen. Indeed she may have been right. Look at the blessing Isaac gives Jacob when he thinks that he is Esau. Along with prosperity he says, “Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you. Be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be those who curse you, blessed they who bless you” (Gen. 27:29). This would indeed seem to contradict what Rebekah had been told.
Another possible factor that has to be considered is the question of the nature of the blessing that Isaac intends to bestow. There are ‘blessings’ and there is ‘the blessing’ – the blessing that God gave to Abraham and that was then given to Isaac, the blessing that is found in Gen. 22:17-18: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sands on the seashore, and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants…” This blessing determines who will be the true leader of the nation and whose children will inherent the land. Perhaps Rebekah believes that it is this divine blessing that Isaac intends to bestow and it is inconceivable that it should be given to Esau, who so clearly cannot be the successor to Abraham and Isaac. Isaac is about to make a terrible mistake, she believes, and she must do everything she can, including a massive deception, to prevent this.
If this is the case, she is mistaken. Isaac has no thought of bestowing that Abrahamic blessing on Esau. As much as he may love him – for a father looks for every reason to love his son no matter what – he is not as blind as all that. His sight may be failing, but he is not so befuddled that he does not understand that the blessing of Abraham must go to Jacob. Indeed after the deception, when Isaac already knows what Jacob has done and might want to punish him for it, he sends him on his way with the very blessing of Abraham, which he never mentioned when he thought he was blessing Esau. Now Isaac says to Jacob, “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham” (Gen.
28:3-4). It could hardly be clearer than that. How exactly he thought that he could give this blessing to Jacob if he also blessed Esau with mastery over Jacob is not clear.
What could have been done in this case to avoid the deception? Perhaps Rebekah could have spoken to Isaac and tried to clarify exactly what he had in mind.
Perhaps the two could have worked something out that would have satisfied both the need to give Jacob the Abrahamic blessing and the need not to alienate their other son. This was not done and the consequences were tragic for all involved. Words are powerful things.
Blessings and curses have consequences. Deception is never without a price. The need for honesty and for straightforward communication within a family has never been demonstrated better than in this sad but fascinating tale of intrigue and misunderstanding.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a longtime Jerusalem Post columnist, is a prominent lecturer and author who twice received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society).