Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledot 5763/ November 9, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Toledot 5763/ November 9, 2002

The Blessing of Coalitions

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow
Bar-Ilan University Midrasha Lebanot

The passage about Jacob stealing the blessing from Isaac (Genesis 27) makes the reader feel somewhat uneasy. Ostensibly it appears that Israel was chosen to continue the heritage of our patriarch Isaac by deceit: had Jacob not given in to his mother and agreed to risk being cursed by Isaac, or had Isaac known what his son had done prior to blessing him, he would not have blessed Jacob but rather Esau, and Esau would have become recipient of the land of Israel and the Torah, and would have become the Lord's chosen people.

The discomfort which this passage evokes stems from two questions: first, what was the moral significance of Isaac's remark, "Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing" (Gen. 27:35)? Isaac apparently was attesting that there had been an act of deceit and that he had been forced to accept the situation, since a blessing, even if given conditionally, cannot be undone. The second question relates to the notion of chosenness itself: How can one speak of the people of Israel being uniquely chosen if the origin of the choice lay in Jacob's act? How can one speak of the Jewish people being special from their very roots and seed, as Rabbi Judah Halevi and the Maharal did, if the choice came about after the fact, and not as a result of Isaac's deliberate first intention?

In principle the response to this question can take any of three directions. The first challenges the facts and maintains that Jacob's act was in no way morally reprehensible, neither as regards the truth nor as regards Jacob's relationship to Isaac.

As far as the truth is concerned, Jacob rightly merited the blessings, for that was what Rebekah had heard when she went to inquire of the Lord: "And the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). G-d's prophecy told her that from the outset Jacob was worthy of being chosen as the one through whom the nation would continue, thus Rebekah did not make her suggestion to Jacob merely because she favored him, but because she viewed that as the fulfillment of the Lord's word when the twins were struggling in her womb. Jacob also legally acquired the right to the blessings when Esau willingly accepted the lentil stew in exchange and even spurned his birthright. By this transaction Esau gave up his rights and therefore was not entitled to claim that he had been supplanted twice. According to the Midrash, Isaac had been deceived by Esau, who had asked him how to tithe salt. Had he known the truth about Esau, he would not have made a mistake; essentially, we are dealing with a case similar to that of a person who steals something from a thief. It was Jacob who was truly worthy of receiving the blessing, also since he was a mild man who stayed in camp, personifying for the Sages a person who devotes his life to study of the Torah and hence merits receiving it (cf., for example, Genesis Rabbah 63.10 and Sifre on Deuteronomy 312.9).

Another claim is made in Genesis Rabbah 52, namely that Jacob did not treat Isaac with guile, but said to him: "It is I; Esau is your first-born," as two separate statements. Nor did Isaac demur, since the Hebrew expression be-mirmah, which could mean deceitfully, does not necessarily imply a moral shortcoming, but could also have the meaning of "with guile," as rendered in the New JPS Translation and as indicated in the Targum, "be-hokhmata."

These and other responses share in common a notion of the utter perfection and morality of Jacob's act, and this removes any justification for our feeling of malaise. Nor was any wrong done to Isaac; for he himself confirmed what he had said, asserting, "now he must remain blessed [JPS]" [or, with a different emphasis, "and blessed shall he be"] (27:33). Some people explain that in saying this Isaac was disclosing a mistake which could have led him to make the wrong choice: he had thought that Jacob was incapable of receiving the blessing, even though in terms of his person he was the most suited to this blessing. Once he realized that Jacob was indeed capable of standing up to difficult trials in a complex situation, he was glad to have discovered his mistake and blessed Jacob absolutely.

The second response tries to cope with the significance of the facts. Even if Jacob attained the blessing by circuitous means - and the translation of mirmah is not guile, but deceit, plain and simple - that does not discredit the accomplishment. That is the way of the world, and that is how things are done in a world which not a world of truth. In this sort of world we are commanded to be wise with the crafty and brothers in deceit with those who treat us in that way. Even the Lord of the Universe did so, sending Moses to Pharaoh with instructions to say, "So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness" (Ex. 8:23), even though the aim of the exodus from Egypt was to come to the Land of Israel and there to build the Temple. Similarly, when Samuel was sent to anoint David in Bethlehem, he said on advice from the Lord that he had come to the city to sacrifice to G-d, in order to save himself from fear and to mislead Saul (I Sam. 16:1-5). These and other illustrations which could be cited show that reality is complex and full of "altruistic transgressions," which often receive affirmation after the fact. Lot slept with his two daughters, and Judah with his daughter-in-law, etc.; and these acts became purified and sweetened, creating a positive situation from the outset.

Hence, what Jacob did, as well, should not be deemed wrong, rather it should be viewed as a sort of "altruistic transgression." Through complex vagaries the chosen is revealed; and even if selection is achieved by means of the darkest plots, it is not invalid nor should these circumstances cause one to feel ill at ease; for that is the way of the world. Of course one must be careful when it comes to the operative consequences of such an interpretation, for some of the greatest wrongs in history have been committed in the name of "altruistic wrongdoings." Nevertheless, this danger does not undermine the chosenness of the Jewish people, since it is not immoral when it concerns an "altruistic transgression," nor does it reveal anything about the fact of being chosen.

The answers given by both of the previous approaches assume that the issue raised by the episode of the blessing concerns the continuation of the covenant between G-d and Isaac's sons, and hence they seek to explain how it could be that this covenant was continued by "deceit." However, it is far from clear that this was the crux of the issue under discussion in the story of the blessing.

We are well-acquainted with the format of the covenant between G-d and Abraham that was passed on to his offspring through blessings. The format of these blessings includes two elements: the covenant concerning the land ("I will assign this land to your offspring," Gen. 12:7), and the covenant concerning progeny ("I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth," Gen. 13:16). Sometimes it also includes the covenant with G-d, as we see in the narrative on Abraham's circumcision (ch. 17). None of these elements is mentioned in the words of blessing that Isaac bestowed on Jacob, believing him to be Esau. That blessing only spoke of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, of abundance of new grain and wine; of the relationship with other nations and of his being master over his brothers; but the land and his progeny were not mentioned at all. The blessing of the patriarchs was passed on to Jacob for the first time at the end of this week's reading, when Isaac blessed his son prior to the latter's departure for Haran, saying to him explicitly: "May El Shaddai bless you, ... May he grant the blessing of Abraham to you" (Gen. 28:3-4). Hence we conclude that in the story of the blessings the chosenness of the people of Israel was not at issue.

Accordingly, we must ask, what was at issue in this story?

The subjects that came up when Isaac spoke to Jacob, thinking he was Esau, are very similar to what Jacob himself later said to Joseph in Parashat Va-Yehi. In the blessing Jacob gave Joseph he spoke to him of the blessing of heaven above and the blessings of the deep that couches below, adding: "The blessing of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors" (Gen. 49:25-26), which perhaps was an allusion to our episode about the blessings.

It seems we are dealing with a trend that all the patriarchs tried to realize. Abraham suggested to Lot, "if you go north, I will go south" (Gen. 13:9), thereby expressing his willingness to partition the land of Israel in two, Lot taking either the north or the south, and Abraham taking the other part. The border was to run through the place which, in years to come, would be the boundary between the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Ephraim, between Beit El and Ai. Had Lot accepted the proposal, continued line of the Israelites would have focused around two figures: Abraham and Lot. This would have been the essential structure within which the Israelite nation would have had to develop, joining the two poles to one. Later, Abraham himself asked that he not be compelled to choose between Isaac and Ishmael, and the latter's banishment was something that he perceived as evil, until the Lord came and commanded him to do so.

Jacob himself built his home around a dual structure of leadership. In the wake of Reuben's sin, Scripture says: "The sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel (He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so he is not reckoned as a first-born in the genealogy; though Judah became more powerful than his brothers and a leader came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph)" (I Chron. 5:1-2). A distinction is clearly drawn in these verses between having the birthright and being the leader. Whatever the significance of bearing these titles might be, the foundation of duality continued in later development of the Jewish nation. Thus, one could argue that Isaac wished to fulfill the dream of Abraham and bring about what would come to pass in the time of his son, building then and there a structure of leadership in pairs: giving Esau what was later called the "birthright," while conferring on Jacob the "leadership." Perhaps Isaac had different content in mind when he considered this pairing; yet the idea of the pairing itself took shape at that time.

Eventually the idea of pairs of leaders became one of the foundations of Jewish nationhood; according to the Jerusalem Talmud this was apparently what David had been about to offer Jonathan when they made a pact founded on unconditional love. It was a matter of joint leadership, David at the helm as King of Israel, and Jonathan taking a leadership role whose nature is far from sufficiently clear. In this way both parts of the nation would be united, and King David would not head an alliance of the sons of Leah alone, but would be king over all of Israel, uniting the entire nation under his rule. Ezekiel's prophecy, which speaks of uniting the trees in days to come makes the same point - the two trees would be united in a common structure, and in view of our interpretation, this means a structure of united national leadership in which, on one hand, Jacob's promise that the "scepter shall not depart from Judah" is fulfilled, and on the other, Joseph's rights as first-born are realized as well.