This week’s parashah is Toldot. It tells the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob and their early relationship. Isaac and Rebecca are divided in their affections for their two children, who are very different. Rebecca loves Jacob, but Isaac is very drawn to Esau. Jacob obtains both the birthright and the blessings that are due to the firstborn Esau, and has to flee from his brother’s wrath. Jacob obtained the blessings by an act of deception in which his mother was complicit and Esau’s deeply felt cry of anguish remains very moving.
The text offers a brief description of the contrasting characters of the two brothers (25:27). Esau is a “skilful hunter, a man of the field”, while Jacob is a “quiet man, dwelling in tents”. For the rabbis, Jacob is the archetypical religious scholar and the “tents” are places of learning established in earlier generations.
The blessings were spiritual gifts conferred on future leaders. Rebecca was convinced that Esau had neither the aptitude for such a role, nor any sense of vocation, and she was prepared to go to any lengths to prevent her wayward elder son from succeeding his father as spiritual head of their family and exemplar for future generations.
Isaac did not agree with Rebecca and was determined that Esau would receive the blessings that were his due. Why Isaac was so determined and why he was so fearful when he discovered Jacob’s deception is not made clear but one might suggest that the language of the parashah offers valuable insight, for it shows quite surprisingly that Isaac and his elder son had much in common.
Isaac, like Esau, clearly had a great love for the physicality of the natural world and he understood Esau because in Esau he recognised himself and his own spiritual life. Isaac does not disapprove of his elder son, or tell him that he should be more like his devout younger brother; on the contrary, “I am old, and I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your quiver and your bow and go out to the field and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savoury food such as I like and bring it to me to me to eat, so that I might bless you before I die” (27:3+4).
Isaac is now blind and about to take his leave of this life and his love of the natural world is almost unbearably poignant. The son whom he believes to be Esau approaches, “then his father, Isaac, said to him, ‘Come near and kiss me, my son.’ So he came near and he kissed him and he (Isaac) smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said, ‘The smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth and grain and wine. Let the peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you….” (27:26-9).
Esau, like his father, loved the physicality of the world, but unlike Isaac, he had no sense of its holiness and did not find the Divine presence in his encounters with natural life. Isaac’s blessing would have helped Esau to find the spiritual perception that was so precious for his father. When Isaac realises he has failed to give Esau this blessing, he trembles uncontrollably – vayecherad Yitzchak charadah gedolah ad me’od … Perhaps Isaac foresaw that in the distant future the consequences of their descendants’ failing to understand the holiness of creation would be very terrible.
Isaac’s understanding of Esau was not shared by later Jewish tradition, although it seems to have been a part of the pattern of his life. Last week we saw Isaac’s concern for Hagar and Ishmael and his wish to spend time at Be’er-lachai-roi where Hagar had had her vision of God, showed great respect for her spiritual attainment.
A later Midrash (rabbinic tradition) intuitively grasped that Isaac’s humanity was uniquely his own. The Midrash had God telling the Patriarchs that their children have committed grave sins: Abraham and Jacob affirm that they must be punished, but Isaac does not agree: he tells God that they are also His children and encourages a different Divine response to their shortcomings.
A second Midrash seems to echo this theme. When Jacob comes to his father in disguise for the blessing, the verse (27:27) says that Isaac smelled the fragrance of his son’s garments and he blessed him. The Hebrew word for “his garments” is begadav, but the Midrash points out that it can also be vocalised as bogdav, which means “his rebels”. (There are no vowels in the Torah, so alternative vocalisation can be significant.) The idea of a “fragrant rebel”, of a “rebellion” that is ultimately for the sake of heaven and motivated by integrity and the pursuit of truth, is very important for mutual understanding within our respective traditions.
Isaac and Rebecca saw the world very differently. I once heard from a very distinguished Rabbi that the reason Rebecca resorted to an apparently unforgiveable subterfuge was that she believed Isaac was about to make a terrible mistake, but she was unable to talk to her husband or communicate her misgivings in any other way. Isaac and Rebecca were evidently very close (26:8) but their spiritual worlds were far apart and there were certain things of great importance that they were simply unable to talk about.
Most of Jewish tradition has followed Rebecca and sees Esau as she did. Isaac’s way is very rarely expounded but it remains very precious and is particularly important in our own times.