Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As Yitzchak ages and develops blindness, he arranges to bless his older and favored son, Esav. Rivka, upon overhearing her husband’s plans, instructs her favorite, Yaakov, to masquerade as his older brother in order to receive his father’s blessing.
Yaakov complies with his mother’s instructions and is successful in deceiving his father and obtaining the blessing.
When Esav returns and discovers his brother’s actions, he threatens Yaakov’s life. In response, Rivka instructs Yaakov to return to her homeland, both for his own protection and to find a wife. Yaakov leaves for Padan Aram with his father’s agreement and further blessings.
A number of difficult and fundamental questions can be raised as we take a new look at this familiar, yet strange, biblical narrative. These questions strike to the very core of the tale and to the basic issues that it raises.
First, and foremost, how do we understand the concept of interpersonal berachot (blessings bestowed by man) within Jewish tradition? What, exactly, is the nature of man’s power to bless? What strength do the blessings that we recite on behalf of others, such as prayers for those who are ill, really have?
Are interpersonal blessings so magical that if they are recited in error they are, nonetheless, effective? Specifically, if Yitzchak bestows a blessing upon Yaakov believing that he is really blessing Esav, does Yaakov nonetheless receive the blessing because he is standing there?
How does God fit into the picture? What is Rivka so terribly frightened of? If Esav had been blessed by his father couldn’t God have countermanded that blessing? Doesn’t God ultimately bless the individual who is most deserving?
Why is the entire struggle for the blessing necessary? Couldn’t Yitzchak have blessed each of his children? Esav’s objection upon discovering Yaakov’s deceit, “Have you only one blessing, my father?” seems to make a great deal of sense.
How could Yitzchak have been so unaware as to believe that Esav, and not Yaakov, should be the heir to the spiritual legacy of the family? [Note: One approach to this question has already been offered (see Toldot 1, Approaches f).]
How are we to approach the issue of means and ends as it applies to Yaakov and Rivka in this narrative? What moral lessons are we meant to learn? How could Rivka instruct her son to deceive his father and how could Yaakov agree? Is there any value to a blessing received through deceit? Does the end justify the means? (These questions will be addressed separately in the next study.)
A wide variety of answers are suggested by the rabbis in response to the questions raised above. Listed below are some, although far from all, of their approaches. As will soon become clear, the pieces of the puzzle can be mixed and matched as the rabbinic comments are combined to create a cohesive picture.
The power of interpersonal blessing is a God-given gift so fundamental that it is included in the very first instructions given to the first Hebrew. As God commands Avraham to leave his homeland and embark upon his career, God states: “And you will be a blessing.”
The rabbis, in the Midrash, interpret this phrase as follows: “Blessings are given to your hand. Until now, they were in My [God’s] hand. I blessed Adam and Noach. From this time on you will bless whom you wish.”
By granting man the power to bless, God withdraws and deliberately limits his own power. As part of the divine partnership agreement with humanity, God will respect the words spoken by man and reckon with them when he makes his decisions. Man, thus, acquires the power of blessing and prayer.
God grants effectiveness to our prayers, both on behalf of ourselves and for the welfare of others.
In addition to the power of interpersonal blessing and prayer, there is strength in every spoken word. Words make a difference, affecting the
people and the world around us for better and for worse. This strength can be seen when we speak kindly towards others and, conversely, when we attack others with our words, even indirectly. Jewish law, therefore, pays great attention to issues concerning appropriate and inappropriate speech. Speech is the domain in which our humanity is most keenly expressed; God created the world with His word, and we were created in His image, with the power to build or destroy with our words.
If God takes into account the words spoken by every individual, he pays particular attention to the words spoken by the righteous. A blessing granted by Yitzchak to Esav, therefore, would have had some effect; God would have been “forced” to reckon with the words of the righteous patriarch. Similarly, a blessing bestowed by Yitzchak, even unintentionally, upon Yaakov has significance.
While Yitzchak could well have blessed each of his children with individual blessings, some authorities suggest that the struggle between Yaakov and Esav takes place over a specific blessing.
The Ramban, for example, maintains that at issue was the blessing concerning the inheritance of the land of Israel and the continuing covenant with God. The Abravanel agrees but adds that the bracha included the mission of imbuing mankind with the belief in one Deity.
The sibling struggle is, therefore, understandable, for this blessing would determine the spiritual heir to the patriarchal legacy.
Another explanation as to why Yitzchak seems to have only one blessing may be rooted in the prophetic vision granted to Rivka during her pregnancy.
“Two nations are in your womb…and the might shall be passed from one to the other…”
The rabbis understand this prophecy to mean that Yaakov and Esav and their descendents can never be equal in strength. When one is ascendant the other will be weak.
Although Yitzchak could have blessed each of his children, the one who received the primary blessing would, by definition, have ruled the other. This knowledge gives rise to the struggle between Yaakov and Esav.
An alternative approach to the entire narrative is suggested, with minor differences, by a number of scholars. This approach is based upon evidence within the text that, all along, Yitzchak intended to bestow two separate and very different blessings upon his children: one upon Esav, and one upon Yaakov.
The key to this approach lies at the core of the story, in the blessing that serves as the source of contention. The blessing, ultimately bestowed upon Yaakov disguised as Esav, reads as follows:
Behold the scent of my son is as the scent of a field which God has blessed – And may God give to you of the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land, and abundant grain and wine. Nations will serve you and régimes will bow down to you; those who curse you will be cursed and those who bless you will be blessed.
One can’t help but be disappointed upon reading this text. Is this what the fuss is all about? Strikingly absent in this passage is any spiritual component. The blessing is totally physical in nature. Where is the spiritual heritage that is meant to lie at the center of the patriarchal legacy?
You could easily miss it, but a second blessing is found at the end of the narrative. This blessing is bestowed by Yitzchak upon Yaakov as the latter prepares to leave for Padan Aram. This time, however, Yitzchak knows to
whom he is speaking:
May Keyl Shakkai (the Lord) bless you, make you fruitful and numerous, and may you be a congregation of nations. May He grant you the blessing of Avraham, to you and to your children with you, to inherit the land upon which you have dwelt, which God gave to Avraham.
Here, then, is the missing content – the reference to the spiritual legacy of Avraham. This legacy appears only in the blessing given deliberately by Yitzchak to Yaakov and not in the bracha originally intended for Esav.
The critical differences between the two blessings lead some scholars to maintain that the text clearly reflects Yitzchak’s original intention to bless each of his children differently. Contrary to popular assumption, the patriarch never intended to choose one child at the expense of the other. Instead, he planned to maximize the strengths of each. Esav, whose power lay in the physical world, would be blessed with material bounty, while Yaakov, the mild-mannered student, would be encouraged towards success in the spiritual realm. Some commentaries even suggest that Yitzchak intended that there be an unequal partnership between his two sons.
Esav would rule over Yaakov and provide for his physical needs. In this way, Yaakov would be free to pursue his study of Torah.
At face value, it would seem that Yitzchak, far from showing favoritism, is actually applying proper parenting skills. He recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each of his children and encourages each child to pursue the lifestyle most appropriate for him.
Rivka, however, knows better. She recognizes the painful truth that Yaakov can neither live in partnership with nor be dependent on the likes of his brother, Esav. She also realizes something much deeper. Yaakov and his descendents will survive and thrive only if her younger son receives both blessings. Yaakov must learn to succeed not only in the tent of study but on the battlefield of life. Rivka, therefore, does the one thing she can do. She pushes Yaakov out of the tent and into the arena of struggle for the physical blessing.
Rivka knows that the third patriarch cannot afford to be an innocent student who avoids the challenges of life. She also recognizes in her younger son hidden abilities of which even he is unaware. Her intuition is proven correct as, from this point on, Yaakov faces challenge after challenge, in the house of Lavan and beyond. When the patriarch successfully rises to meet those challenges, he demonstrates life skills essential not only to his own survival but to the perpetuation of his legacy across the ages.
Once again, the actions of a matriarch, in difficult circumstances at the dawn of our history, lay the groundwork for our nation’s survival and success.
Points to Ponder
1. Our final interpretation of the narrative of Yitzchak’s blessings serves as a challenge to current trends within the Orthodox Jewish community. The proliferation of young men who dedicate their lives solely to the study of Torah, while laudable on one level, is placing a tremendous burden upon family after family, and upon the Jewish community in Israel and throughout the world.
The concept of kollel (an institution of all-day high-level Torah study for the married man) has had a long, proud tradition within Jewish history. Kollel, however, was never meant for the masses. This institution was classically reserved for the select few who could dedicate their lives to such study and who would then give back to the community by serving as rabbis, educators and dayanim (judges).
Judaism places great stress upon an individual’s responsibility to be self-sufficient and not dependent upon parental or communal funds. The rabbis of the Talmud were almost all self-supporting, as were Rashi, the Rambam, the Ramban and countless sages across the pages of our history.
In question, as well, is our place on the world stage. The contributions that we, as a people, have made to countless human endeavors have historically benefited world civilization in immeasurable ways. Who knows how many young men, unsuited to full-day Torah study, pushed into that world by peer and communal pressure, could actually sanctify God’s name in greater fashion through accomplishments in other spheres of human activity? All this could, of course, be done while still setting time aside for regular Torah study.
A reassessment of our priorities, without a dilution of our dedication to Torah study and observance, is in order as we look towards the future. Can this system be self-perpetuating? What will be the fate of the next generation, children of “learners” who will not have wealthy parents to support them?
The time has come to re-examine Rivka’s premise: To survive as a people we must be the beneficiaries of both the physical and the spiritual blessings. We must succeed both in the tent of study and on the battlefield of life.
2. An additional layer to the concept of bracha may be hinted at in our tradition’s only formal blessing recited over a mitzva (commandment) of interpersonal blessings. As the Kohanim (priests) ascend the platform in the synagogue to bless the community they recite the following preliminary bracha: “Blessed art Thou, Lord, our God, Who has sanctified us in the sanctity of Aharon (the brother of Moshe and the first High Priest) and commanded us to bless your people of Israel, with love.”
The last two words of this preliminary blessing are unique. No other blessing over a mitzva concludes with the words “with love.” We do not say “to light the Sabbath candles, with love,” nor “to sound the shofar, with
This phenomenon can be understood if we view man not only as the conveyor of blessing but as the creator of blessing. The true role of the Kohanim is then reflected in both the Priestly Blessing and the preliminary blessing before it.
The Priestly Blessing culminates with the summoning of the greatest gift God can bestow upon man: shalom, “peace.” Peace may be a divine gift, but it is created in this world, as part of the God-man partnership, through our mortal efforts.
When the Kohanim bless the congregation “with love,” therefore, they are not only bestowing God’s blessing but creating it. The harmony inherent in their actions concretizes God’s gift of peace and roots it in our reality. So, too, every time we recite an interpersonal blessing, underscoring the love and connection between ourselves and those around us, we play a role in bringing the blessing of God’s blessings to this world.