In this Torah portion, we confront two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Being that we are descendants of Jacob, we know which brother we are supposed to be rooting for, yet our identification with Jacob raises some questions.
For one thing, the Torah tells us that Isaac loved Esau, which is very difficult for us to understand or accept.Why would Isaac love Esau? We are told that God Himself hated Esau, as the Prophet Malachi teaches:
"...says the Lord: 'yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid waste his mountains and gave his heritage to the jackals of the wilderness." (Malachi 1:2-3)
So how could Isaac have loved Esau? When Isaac became old, why did he wish to bless Esau when Jacob deserved the blessing?
The key to understanding the relationship between Isaac and Esau, as well as that of Esau and Jacob, may be found in the beginning of this Torah portion where we learn that Rebecca is pregnant and experiencing extreme, perhaps unnatural pain:
"And God said to her, 'Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.'" (Genesis 25:23)
Rebecca alone was informed of the different destinies of her children. Apparently, Isaac was unaware of their duality, and, consequently, of their separate missions.
"And the first came out red all over like a hairy garment; and they [Isaac and Rebecca] called his name Esau.And after that came his brother out, his hand clenching the heel of Esau; he [Isaac] called his name Jacob." (Genesis 25:25-26)
It is interesting that both parents name the first born, while only the father names the second. In fact, nowhere in the Torah does Rebecca refer to her second son as Jacob.She always calls him "my son." Perhaps she knows that his identity is not determined by his relationship with his brother; perhaps she realizes that he will later receive a different name from God - the name Israel.
"And the boys grew; and Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; Jacob was pure, living in tents." (Genesis 25:27)
A priori we would have thought that Judaism would prefer the man of the tent to the hunter. Why, then, are we told that Isaac prefers Esau?
"And Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his venison; but Rebecca loved Jacob." (Genesis 25:28)
What is translated in English as "he ate of his venison" in Hebrew is "tzayid b'fiv," meaning literally "hunting was in his mouth." So Isaac's love is directly connected to Esau's hunting - he loved the meat that Esau fed him. A most perplexing relationship.It is also strange to note that this makes Isaac's love for Esau conditional, dependent on Esau's hunting skills, while Rebecca's love for Jacob is described without qualitications - it is unconditional.
From this passage many have inferred that Isaac loved Esau more than he loved Jacob, and that Isaac wanted the legacy of Abraham to be manifest in Esau. However, we shall see that this inference is erroneous.
When Jacob goes in to his father's room to take the blessing intended for Esau, the blind Isaac says:
"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 is certainly a beautiful one.It speaks of wealth and power.What it neglects to mention is a spiritual mission or message. When Esau stands before his father and understands that his brother Jacob has taken the blessing intended for him, Esau says to Isaac:
"Bless me as well, father.'He (Isaac) said: 'Your brother came in deception and he took your blessing." (Genesis 27:35)
It would seem that Isaac has "run out" of blessings. However, when Jacob is about to leave, Isaac summons Jacob and blesses him again:
"May God bless you, may you multiply and become a great nation. May he grant you the blessing of Abraham for you and your descendants to inherit the land which God had given to Abraham."(Genesis 28:3-4)
Evidently, Isaac did have another blessing to give - the blessing that he always intended for Jacob, the blessing of Abraham and the Promised Land. Isaac had meant to give the blessing of power to Esau and the blessing of spirit to Jacob. However, due to Rebecca's intervention, Jacob first received the power blessing. Isaac apparently felt that his spiritual son needed only spiritual blessings, while his physical son needed the physical blessing. Rebecca's understanding was quite different; she felt that the spiritual cannot subsist without the physical. Divine Providence sided with Rebecca, and in the end, Jacob got both.
Why did Isaac see things differently that his wise wife? Perhaps Isaac pitied Esau and felt that if Esau would be a hunter, absorbed in the physical world, he would be best to prosper by God's hand rather than by any of his own unsavory tactics. What we can conclude is that the love of Isaac for Esau was, indeed, conditional, and therefore limited.
The Sages hint at a deeper understanding, analyzing the Torah text when Jacob stands before his father to receive the blessing, and Isaac thinks that it is Esau who is standing before him:
"And he [Isaac] came near, and kissed him, and smelled the scent of his [Jacob's] clothes and blessed him.And he [Isaac] said, 'Behold the scent of my son is like the scent of a field that is blessed by God.'" (Genesis 27:27)
What is Isaac smelling?
R. Yochanan said: "There is no harsher scent than the stench of goats that was on his clothing, yet the text says he "smells the scent of his clothes and blesses him!" Rather, when the Patriarch Jacob entered to his father, Gan Eden [the Garden of Eden] entered with him ... And when Esau entered to his father, Gehinom [Hell] entered with him. (Midrash Rabbah 65:22)
When Jacob enters covered in smelly goat fur and saturated with blood and sweat, Isaac smells a field blessed by God.
This is highly significant as Isaac's spiritual identity is somehow related to "the field." We might recall from a previous Torah portion that after his attempted sacrifice on Mount Moriah, Isaac disappears from the text. We are not told that he descended the mountain or where he went (although that information is provided about Abraham). He is absent from the description of the death and burial of his mother Sarah. Even when the servant of Abraham searches for a bride for Isaac, the groom is absent. The next time we see Isaac is when Isaac goes out to pray in "the field" (Genesis 24:63).
Isaac, who was last seen on an altar, ready and willing to be sacrificed to God, now stands in the field and gazes heavenward. Specifically from a field, Isaac searches for God.What was he doing out there?
The answer lies in the scent of the Garden of Eden. When Paradise was lost as a result of the sin of Adam, man was cursed to toil in the field. But if the physical realm can be elevated, then the sin of Adam can be rectified. When Jacob enters and smells of the Garden of Eden, Isaac believes that his son Esau has succeeded in mending the world, of returning that scent of Paradise to the cursed earth. Of course, when the real Esau enters, the gates of hell are opened, and Isaac sadly realizes how far the world is from perfection. Jacob, who sat in the tents, not Esau who hunted, had the scent of the Garden of Eden on him.
But to complete the task, Jacob must be forced to leave his tents and become a man of the field. (And this indeed is what happens next.) Just as Abraham had to grow in a trait against his nature, so too, Jacob will have to leave his natural habitat. As we have seen, the greatness of the patriarchs was in creating new aspects of self, new avenues toward the worship of God.
Eventually Jacob becomes a man of the field, and in a fascinating passage, we are told that his wife comes out to greet him there.
"And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him." (Genesis 30:16)
Things have now come full circle; the pure man of the tents has now become a man toiling in the fields. Jacob has taken up the responsibility of Esau, in addition to his own mission. As a result of this meeting with Leah in the field, two children are conceived and enter the world - Issachar and Zebulun. These two sons will have a great symbiotic relationship - they will work together and complement each other, and they will succeed as brothers where Jacob and Esau failed.
Zebulun will be involved in trade while Issachar will be involved in the study of Torah. One will "toil" in the fields of the world, while the others tries to achieve perfection in the "tents" of a school (Midrash Rabba 99:16). Despite their differences, Issachar and Zebulun will be partners, working together towards one common goal.
This was Isaac's dream, that his two sons Jacob and Esau work together to mend the world. That dream was not realized. Only after Jacob leaves the tents does he possess the spiritual power of both the tents and of the fields, and as a result his children are able to bring their grandfather's dream to its fruition.
How could Isaac be so wrong? How could a patriarch who achieved such spiritual heights as Isaac did miss the mark so badly?
Isaac did not miss the mark. He saw things in an idealistic, pure manner. He saw the world from his own peculiar vantage point, perched on top of an altar high upon a holy mountain. Isaac's vision was forever affected by his awesome experience. The Midrash teaches:
"... as a result of that spectacle; for when our father Abraham bound his son Isaac, the ministering angels wept, as it says,'Behold, their valiant ones cry without, the angels of peace weep bitterly' (Isaiah 33:7). Tears dropped from the angel's eyes into his, and left their mark upon them, and so when he became old his eyes dimmed ... Another interpretation ... when our father Abraham bound [his son] on the altar, [Isaac] lifted up his eyes heavenward and gazed at the Shechinah." (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 65:10)
As a result of his experience, Isaac, in his blindness, sees everything - he sees the future and he cannot distinguish it from the present. The name Isaac means "will laugh," implying the future tense. Isaac's entire perspective is in the future. He sees only the way that things should be, and indeed, the way things will be. The Midrash teaches that Isaac's vision will be realized one day, at the end of history, and Esau will indeed join Jacob in a joint mission. (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 78:14)
In any event at the end of days laughter will fill the world; the laughter and joy of Isaac, the joy of a world perfected.
"Then our mouths will be filled with laughter..." (Psalms 126:2)
Then, but not now, will we experience the laughter, which Isaac in his blindness could see so clearly before him.