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Hunting the Blessing; A Lesson in Waiting – Parshat Toldot 5775


Every year, I contemplate what message to convey to my children about the stories in this week’s parsha.   Until now in Bereshit the moral plane was relatively black and white: Kayin kills Hevel, he is clearly wrong; the generation of Noach were evil – Noach was a righteous man while Avraham is the moral voice in an immoral world.  Of course there are questions and grey areas, however, as a whole, good triumphs evil and the lines between the two are defined.

But this week the lines are not only ill defined and blurred they are seemingly non-existent.  There’s no end of ethical dilemmas and problematic behaviour displayed throughout the narrative.  From the indiscriminate means employed in obtaining a birthright that belongs to another, to continual deception of a parent and spouse, it does not make for particularly educational reading.  Over the years I have read many commentaries both ancient and modern that have helped me to re-think the narrative and see it as a developing story from within the rest of the book of Bereshit  rather than as a singular tale.

Though there are so many beautiful and enlightening understandings that I urge the reader to explore[1] I would like to develop a thought that I have been mulling over and that connects to ideas I have developed in previous blogs.  Though not comprehensive I hope it will plant the seeds for further development and thinking.

A theme that I believe weaves its way through Chumash and is at the cornerstone of humanity is the need for process and time in human cognition and understanding.  As I have previously discussed, the eating from the tree of knowledge by Adam and Chava leads to their banishment from a world of the instant and immediate to a reality that necessitates the planting of seeds in the ground and the womb. Central to the human experience is labour, toil and waiting for results, many of which are hidden and take a lifetime to develop.  The process is the same for the physical and cognitive world.  Anything authentic – knowledge, comprehension, truth, good, relationships etc involve effort and time.  They are complex, multifaceted and often obscure.  Instant, quick and simple results leave little space for an authentic and real existence.

“Two nations are in your womb”

In the parsha of ‘Toldot Yitzchak’, I see the same tension between immediate gratification and due process play out.  In fact, inherent in the notion of ‘bracha’ (a central theme in the Parsha) is comprehension of a higher end, a future reality that may not be obvious in the lifetime of the receiver of the blessing. Let’s see how the theme develops:

We begin by hearing that Rivka cannot conceive. The text than recounts how Yitzchak prays and Rivka conceives – as if my magic (25:21). There is a intimation of instantaneous results.  Whilst Rivka is waiting, her patience and resilience being tested, Yitzchak’s request is seemingly answered immediately.  We already have a sense that there is an element of Yitzchak that is interwoven with the instant.  There is an element of him that cannot wait, an unsurpassed immediacy inextricably tied to his personality.  Though she desires it, the  simple and uncomplicated, do not emerge for Rivka and instead we read:

וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת ה

 And the children struggled together within her; and she said: ‘If it be so why am I?’ And she went to inquire of the LORD. (25:22)

Rivka feels an emerging struggle. Like Chava she lives out the consequence of the ‘immediate’ through the troubling and complicated process of giving birth.  Rivka expresses her multiple perplexities in an enigmatic and often misread sentence ‘ אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי‘ – literally translated ‘If so why is this to me?’.  The troubling question is ambiguous in its meaning for we are unsure to what Rivka is referring, but what we can be sure about is that she is facing some sort of existential crisis, brought about by her pregnancy.  She questions her personal condition, perhaps after waiting so long for a dream to be fulfilled, yet when it happens she is left with a vacuum, a feeling that all her troubles will be solved if only… and yet when the “if only” emerges, it is not as she expects, because all the other issues do not disappear:  her marriage, her inner doubts, her yearning and unfulfilled dreams are still prevalent.  And therefore ‘If I am still troubled, what is the point in me being?’  Rivka’s very personal cry, her deep desire for a happy ending and an immediate solution to the ‘Who am I?’, is not immediately solved and in its absence she experiences the loss of all meaning for the world and herself.

God’s response is telling:

“And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” (25:23)

Rivka begins to recognise that her pregnancy represents much more than the fulfilment of a personal desire and dream. Rather than the end, it is the beginning. In asking ‘lama ze anochi?’, Rivka expresses a desire to  return to unity, completion and simplicity.  Instead God answers her with duality and travail.  Through His response, he forces her to look beyond her own experience of existence and to see a bigger picture.  He moves her from the present to the future, from the particular to the national.  If Yitzchak is blinded by the desire for the instant and immediate,[2] God is teaching Rivka the lesson of patience and time.  But perhaps most poignantly, He is forcing Rivka to make choices, to interpret and think for herself.  His answer leaves open room for interpretation.  Though it is usually read as an absolute prophecy of prediction (as translated above) the Hebrew lends itself to many understandings:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

In a literal reading this is what emerges:

‘Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples from your loins shall issue. 

And one people over the other people shall be stronger (or shall prevail)

And the elder shall serve the younger (or the elder, the younger shall serve).’

There are still many questions: Who shall be the stronger one – the elder of the younger?  Who shall serve the other, the elder shall serve the younger or the opposite?  What is the meaning of stronger? Physical strength, material strength?

Far from a predetermined prediction, God is allowing Rivka to decipher the situation for herself. He is administering to her a new condition for her question of ‘Who am I?’, by transferring a sense of purpose and initiative to her.  Rivka must watch events unfold, using her heightened intuition to determine which of the two brothers shall prevail.  Departing from her death wish she moves into a new reality that entails a sharp sense of time and process to build and determine not necessarily her future but that of her progeny.  Rivka has become attuned to a new reality that must make space for far more than her personal and immediate desires.[3]

Birthright and Hunting

From the initial description in the Scripture of the two brothers, a picture of their personalities emerges:

25 And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and they called his name Esau. 26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them. 27 And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob (Chapter 25:25-28)

Eisav, physically similar to an animal, hairy and red like the earth, perpetuates  animalistic characteristics.  He is wild, a hunter in search of immediate gratification.  He has no time to wait to eat, he wants the raw meat in his mouth.

Yaakov is always ‘on the heel of’, he is following behind, seeing things from the side.  He is in the tent, sitting and waiting, cooking stews that require time and effort.  But he is not fully developed, he lacks the maturity and aptitude to use these skills successfully and so he is in the meantime a ‘איש תם יושב אוהלים‘  – a naive/simple tent dweller.

What perhaps surprises the reader most is not necessarily that Yaakov loves Eisav most (for he is after all the firstborn) but that he loves Eisav ‘for he had venison in his mouth’. There is something about Eisav’s desire for the instant gratification of meat, the hunter within, that Yitzchak identified with. The shrewd opportunistic personality that, as Nachum Sarna points out, was highly respected in the ancient world[4] attracted Yitzchak to Eisav.

Yitzchak is the second generation.  He is the generation that comes on the heels of a revolutionary, an innovator. To be a Yitzchak or a generation after the chalutzim, is arguably harder than being the innovator.  Gevura, the trait attributed to Yitzchak, means strength and perhaps the strongest thing is to be able to hold back.   Having to be a passive actor, to remain static and stagnant, not moving place or taking initiative and waiting to see the development of a promise, takes a concerted amount of strength.  And so Yitzchak envied Eisav, he identified with his desire for instant results, for immediate findings and the fulfilment of personal passions, for that is what he was prevented from doing because of the ‘birthright’.  And though there are instances in which this side of him emerges (such as in Egypt – see below), he must suppress this desire for if not, the Divine Covenant will be null and void.     

In a telling narrative we see these elements of the boys personalities developing further:

29 And Jacob cooked pottage; and Esau came in from the field, and he was faint. 30 And Esau said to Jacob: ‘Let me swallow, I pray thee, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.’ Therefore was his name called Edom. 31 And Jacob said: ‘Sell me first your birthright.’ 32 And Esau said: ‘Behold, I am about to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?’ 33 And Jacob said: ‘Swear to me first’; and he swore to him; and he sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright. (chapter 25)

It is here that the themes of birthright and immediate gratification begin to emerge.  The birthright and blessings represent a far off destiny relevant possibly only to future generations. Thus someone who is concerned with the blessing and birthright will be motivated by a feeling of responsibility toward them and will be characterized by a willingness to pay a heavy price in the present.  This contrasts greatly to someone acting for his or her own personal benefit or for immediate results in the here and now.  Eisav, like his father Yitzchak (27:3 – “Behold I do not know the day of my death”) exposes an obsession with death.  His existence is wrapped up with the moment of his death.  Live today for tomorrow I may die.  It is a mindset, a way of life and until recently a philosophy that had deeply influenced Rivka too.  Eisav lives in the present, in the immediacy of the moment.  What self gratification can I glean from this situation?  The birthright means nothing to him for it deals in terms of the future and not the present.  Its content is one of lineage not pottage, it has no bearing on a man who is concerned only with what he is hunting today.   Thus his willingness to sell it for a bowl of food concurs with his entire weltanschauung.

Whilst Yaakov recognises the value of the birthright, the means he employs to retrieve it are not necessarily optimal both in the this episode and the deception of his father, and for this he pays a heavy price.

A famine, ‘playing’ with Rivka and digging wells:

In the middle of the story of the boys we have a strange narrative that tells of a famine in the land. Yitzchak begins a journey towards Egypt, for there resides a natural immediate water source – the Nile.  There one does not need to live with uncertainty for water and sustenance are at ones’ fingertips.  But on his way he stops in Gerrar, the land of the Philistines, and God appears to him warning him not to travel to Egypt. As part of His warning, God reiterates his promise to Avraham of blessing, progeny and national triumphs.

Could we read this episode in light of the theme we have been developing? Could it be that God understands all too well that if Yitzchak goes to Egypt, he may very well remain there.  In fact his entire life has been one that has kept him away from the threat of other influences.  Sara removes Yishamel for fear he will negatively influence Yitzchak and Avraham sends Eliezer to find a wife from far away so that Yitzchak remains just where he is, lessening exposure to outside desires or influences.  Avraham sends the children he has with Ketura away ‘from before his son Yitzchak’, seemingly again to lessen any negative exposure.  Yitzchak is apparently a personality that needs protecting from external desires or influences.  Perhaps if he travels to another land where life is easier with instant results, it will be too much to pull him back to Canaan, to a life lived for the future of the Abrahamic promise.  Hence it is no surprise that God comes again at this juncture, to remind Yitzchak why he must remain rooted and grounded, why he must continue the path his father started, for his life is not necessarily his alone to be lived, it is part of a much larger promise and destiny.  It cannot just be about fulfilling immediate personal desires but about being part of a process, a promise and a future that doesn’t belong to him alone.

Following on from the promise Yitzchak again exposes the element of self that God wishes him to suppress, and in doing so almost has himself killed:

 And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife. 9 And Abimelech called Isaac, and said: ‘Behold, of a surety she is thy wife; and how saidst thou: ‘She is my sister’? And Isaac said unto him: ‘Because I said: Lest I die because of her.'(chapter 26)

Yitzchak’s inability to control his desire for his wife exposes himself and Rivka, and foils their plan to hide her as his sister for fear of him being killed.  Avimelech’s moral aptitude saves him, but again we see a side of Yitzchak that parallels Eisav seeping through.

Following on from this episode we are told of Yitzchak’s re-digging Avraham’s well.  The text goes into inordinate detail about this project recounting the arguments between Yitzchak’s servants and those of the Philistines, it recounts the numerous attempts to re-dig them and the failure to succeed due to the Philistines’ contests.  Finally we learn that he managed to re-dig a well at Rechovot and there it was theirs.  Again at this juncture God reveals Himself to Yitzchak and repeats the promise of earlier.

I would like to understand this episode in light of the theme we have been developing.  Yitzchak makes a grave mistake in Gerrar.  He puts his desires, the philosophy of the instant above the covenantal promise.  In doing so he almost has himself killed and everything his father, mother and wife have worked towards would have been destroyed in one instant swoop.  Almost as a tikkun– a rectification to this, Yitzchak decides to ‘re-dig’ the wells of his father.  In order to reclaim the midst of the covenant, he must dig, wait, be patient and build for the future.  The detailed description of this venture is purposeful.  The text is teaching us that Yitzchak has recognised his own moral failing and has returned to an authentic existence that entails hard work, perseverance and a continual striving for the wells of the past and the water of the future.   Thus having completed the process, having re-dug the wells of his father, God comes to reiterate his promise, that though the results may not be immediately apparent, they will reap benefits for the generations to come.

The Deception: On Hunting and birthright

After the short interlude we return to where we left off – the narrative of the brothers – and here the paradigmatical development of their personalities comes to a tragic climax.

The text tells us that Yitzchak was getting old and his eyes were dimmed/lightened ‘ וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת‘ (27:1).  Rashi here quotes the midrash that suggest the root of his blindness lies in the akeida episode.  There is no doubt that from a psychological reading, the Akeida episode haunts Yitzchak, perhaps becoming more acute in his old age.  Having seen the knife of his father resting on his head, having experienced the ‘almost death’ moment, there is an overwhelming sense of nihilism that infects his existence, perhaps expressed best in the ‘living for the moment’ lifestyle we outlined above.  Though throughout his life, he does his best to suppress its emergence, in his old age, when the lucidity and sharpness of a bigger picture slowly loses its clarity, the nihilistic sentiments begin to invade once more.  And so Yitzchak claim’s

 הִנֵּה-נָא זָקַנְתִּי; לֹא יָדַעְתִּי, יוֹם מוֹתִי – Behold I have grown old and do not know when I may die’.  

Notions of death pervade his existence and hence he surrenders to his immediate desire for meat (interestingly he lives for many years after this, making his sentiments of death a deeply subjective reckoning).

He specifically requests of the son (Eisav) that understands the terms of his desire to bring him an instant answer to his craving.  And then having satisfied his desire he announces he will bless Eisav.  First comes gratifying the instant craving, and only after the blessing.

In hearing this, Rivka recognises that the time has come to act and the whole episode of deception, blessing, crisis and despair by Yitzchak and Eisav is unveiled.   It is beyond the scope of this blog to dissect this narrative in its entirety, at some point God willing I hope to do so, however I will just make some short points connected to the above theme that will work as starting points for thinking and expounding.

In the reading we saw above, Rivka was being taught a vital lesson by God.  Rivka has the ability to change the future. Whilst Yitzchak and Eisav live in a world dominated by a deep melancholy that turns them, and specifically Eisav, towards a life of hedonism, Rivka recognises the need to shape the future.  The opposite of hedonism is purpose, the ability to postpone instant satisfaction for the sake of a greater good.  This is what Rivka has learnt and possesses.  It is what encourages her to deceive her husband and send away her beloved son.  Rivka recognises in the prophecy a call to act, to be innovative and creative in fulfilling the destiny of her decedents.  She also understands in a deeply disturbing and terribly tragic way, that Yitzchak cannot or will not appreciate her perspective of reality, and hence she must act alone.  And this she does, driven by an almost overwhelming desire to be the opposite of Yitzchak and Eisav she realises that in order to attain the blessing Yaakov must don the clothes of Eisav.

The deception here has two purposes.  The first is to trick Yitzchak into giving the blessing to Yaakov.  But the second, and perhaps more poignant reason, is that in order for Yaakov to survive, for him to become the leader, the one whom the ‘younger’ will be subservient to, he has to learn the way of the elder.  To be a tent dweller, to be a person that only ever experiences the higher call, the spiritual plane, the end goal, is not enough.  As Rivka knows well, a true, really deeply authentic existence must encompass all things: it must be a life exposed to duality, to conflicting voices, to two nations quarrelling in the womb.  Yaakov cannot become Yisrael, without the experience of becoming Eisav.[5]

There is nothing ‘simple’ in our existence.  There is nowhere that simplicity, smoothness and naiveté dwell.  The minute Yaakov puts on the hair of Eisav, his entire existence becomes entangled, like the hair, with complexity and the disintegration of self.  In his desire for the blessing he becomes entangled in the lifestyle and actions of his adversary.   The life of instant satisfaction, of quick results, of immediate gratification plays out in Yaakov’s deception.   He receives the blessing, but the quick result, comes at the expense of a lifetime of pain, suffering and inner struggle.  The smooth, innocent tent dweller is no longer recognisable.

The text does not shy away from the morally reprehensible means of Yaakov – the very great cry that Eisav expresses is stressed in the text in order to heighten the reader’s ear to the pain caused to Eisav.  There are no actions without consequences, and the consequences  of Yaakov’s morally questionable actions haunt him throughout his life.    Yaakov is named by Chazal as ‘Ish Haemet’ – as we have discussed many times before, truth is not something that is revealed as black and white in this world.  Truth is something that requires patience, time, process and development.  The ‘ish tam yoshev ohalim’, would presumably be the ‘ish emet’, but this is not so, because truth is complex.  The complexity of Yaakov’s existence only begins when he deceives. It takes him a lifetime to retain a sense of self, to understand the development of his life as a call of destiny and to see that truth is not simple or black and white especially in this world.

As a result of the deception the Torah tells us ‘And Yitzchak trembled a very great trembling'(27:33).  The trembling here is the final nail in the coffin, the final recognition that once again he has put his needs for self gratification before the need for due process.  It is the trembling of a man who loves both his sons, but has ultimately re-enacted his father’s actions: sacrificing (the blessing of) his beloved son, whilst exiling the other.

And so I return to the start – what can I possibly teach my young children about the actions of the characters in this week’s parsha?  The answer is not simple, but neither is the question.  For inherent in the question is the presumption that we must teach our children that everything is black and white, simple, non negotiable.  Perhaps this is what we must therefore recount to them.  That in the end Yaakov and Rivka represent a mindset that makes space for the greater good,  that they understand that nothing authentic and true comes from a lifestyle of hedonistic opportunism.  But equally not every good end justifies morally questionable means.  We can teach them that life sometimes throws at us impossible situations and we must make the decision we believe to be the best and the most desirable in God’s eyes, but that sometimes, that decision will mean that others suffer and we will live with the question of whether we did the ‘right’ thing for the rest of our lives.  We can teach them that not every ‘bad’ person is all bad, and not every ‘good’ person is all good but most importantly we must never dim our eyes to the reality of our existence and to those around us, for if we do the results can be truly devastating.

Shabbat Shalom

A final thought: ‘הנני  Hinneni’

It is fascinating that throughout the narrative of Yitzchak’s life the phrase ‘hinnei’ comes up three times.  The first is at the akeida when Yitzchak says to Avraham ‘Father’, Avraham responds ‘Hinneni Beni – I am here my son’ (22:7), when we know that he in fact chooses the hinneni to God over the hinneni to his son (see the blog on Parshat Vayera).  In reality that hinneni contains a deep sense of deception – a deception that invades the entire inner life of Yitzchak from that moment forth.

The second is when Yitzchak calls to Eisav (27:2) the text says ‘ויאמר אליו בני, ויאמר אליו הנני’ – The hinneni call comes from Eisav to his father, it is the opposite of the dialogue from son to father at the akeida. Here it is from father to son and in this case the son comes to deceive the father. Eisav makes Yitzchak believe he is something he is not, he forces him to uncover his deep desires to be like him, to make him attached to the hinneni of Eisav and not Avraham.

Then there is the final hinneni:

וַיָּבֹא אֶל-אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי; וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי, מִי אַתָּה בְּנִי. יט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ–עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי–בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ. 

And he came unto his father, and said: ‘My father’; and he said: ‘Here am I; who art thou, my son?’ 19 And Jacob said unto his father: ‘I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou badest me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.’ 

Again the order here is reversed. This time we revert back to the akeida narrative where the son says ‘father’, and the father responds with ‘Hinneni’ – I am here.  But this time unlike the akedia, it is the son that deceives the father, not the father deceiving the son.  This time, when Yaakov calls to his father he is perhaps giving him a final chance to redeem himself, to recognise his younger son, and the appeal he has, to see that in Yaakov there is an element of his father and himself, there is a young boy, innocent, naive simple – the boy before the akeida, the boy standing by his father hoping waiting, praying, dreaming of a better tomorrow – the boy before the sacrifice.

But Yitzchak can see that boy no more, for it is too painful, too raw, too agonising to look at who he was before he wasn’t.  And so instead, he asks ‘Who are you my son?’ and with that Yaakov must deceive – he must sacrifice an element of self to become someone new.  Through that sacrifice he loses his simplicity, his clear straightforward black and white existence and enters into the realm of ‘hinneni’ – a world where nothing is what it seems, where complexity reigns and the only way to return to self is through a long arduous and painful journey.

[1] I particularly recommend reading the classic commentaries of the Rashbam and Ramban who see the moral dilemma as solved through an explicit prophecy to Rivka and hence her actions being morally acceptable as means to a truly Divine end.  The midrashim on this episode (specifically Bereshit Raba) provide some profound homiletical understandings, relating to Yitzchak’s blindness as being more spiritual than physical – an idea that I will touch upon.   In addition there are a multitude of modern commentaries that make for some fascinating and novel reading: Shmuel Klitsner: Wrestling Jacob, Nachum Sarna: Understanding Genesis, Leon Kass: The beginning of Wisdom and Avivah Zornberg: The Beginning of Desire. Al of these use modern philosophical, political and psychological ideas to help develop the themes and ideas inherent in the parsha.

[2] As we shall see later with his need for meat, food, his loving of Eisav the hunter etc

[3] We can develop this idea by looking at the other barren mothers – Sara, Rachel, Chana – all of whom come to a realisation that their desire for a child is far more than a personal one and far more a national all encompassing dream.

[4] Understanding Genesis p188

[5] N.B The bracha Yaakov receives in the end is not the Abrahamic blessing – it is rather one that addresses material and political needs (27:28-29) This blessing is in fact ill suited to Yaakov and fits in much better with the more hedonistic mindset of Eisav.  This explains perhaps in part Eisav’s absolute anguish at losing out to his brother.  Whilst he had no qualms in selling his birthright, for that addressed only sometime in the future that had no bearing on his immediate existence, this blessing in fact is centred on immediate materialistic needs and prosperity.   The irony is thus implicit in the text.  The son that seeks simplicity and ‘spiritual’ goals receives the blessing of the son who is concerned only with the instant life of prosperity, power and immediate blessing.  The son to whom the greater good and the building of a nation has no interest is devoid of any blessing at all.  In fact it is only at the end before Yaakov runs away that Yitzchak gives him the Abrahamic blessing[5] (28:3), perhaps Rivka knew this, perhaps she recognised the need for Yaakov to possess both elements of the blessing – the voice of Yaakov and the hands of Eisav.

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