TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
In memory of Yakov
Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi
of Parashat Toledot
This shiur will focus on the final section of Parashat Toledot, the
blessings conferred by Yitzchak on his sons, Yaakov and Esav. This topic ranks among the most
intricate, complex and perplexing issues throughout Chumash, one which directly
involves much of the rest of Parashat Toledot. We must therefore begin with a brief
overview of this parasha in order to have before us the relevant information
that stood before the eyes of our commentators as they arrived at their
Section 1: The Birth and Development of Yaakov and Esav
infertility and eventual pregnancy; her prophecy of "two nations" in her womb,
the oldest of which will serve the younger.
and Esav's childhood and adolescence, the former growing into a "tent dweller"
while the latter works as a hunter.
sale of the birthright to Yaakov.
2: Yitzchak's Travails in Gerar (26:1-33)
resettlement in Gerar to escape the famine; Rivka's abduction and return;
Yitzchak's agricultural success, triggering jealousy from the local population
and his banishment from the city.
struggle for ownership over Avraham's wells.
treaty with the king of Gerar.
Section 3: Yitzchak's Blessings to His Sons
marriage to a Hittite girl, much to his parents' disappointment.
desire to bless Esav before his death and Yaakov's devious seizure of the
threat to kill Yaakov, prompting the latter to flee to his uncle in Charan,
where he is to marry one of his cousins, while Esav marries another cousin -
The fundamental question we will address is the same question that
troubled the great minds of our commentators throughout the centuries: what did
Yitzchak have in mind when he sought to bless Esav? This question consists of several
components, including: what did this blessing entail? What was at stake that prompted such an
extreme reaction on Esav's part?
What did Rivka see that Yitzchak did not? We will survey the various approaches
taken to these and related issues, scrutinizing and assessing each one in search
of its strengths and weaknesses. In
the process, we will encounter virtually every major factor that our
commentators undoubtedly considered as they analyzed this most difficult - and
fascinating - parasha.
as Yitzchak's Heir?
The commentators seem divided over one critical issue relating to this
incident: by conferring this blessing upon Esav, did Yitzchak express his
selection of Esav over Yaakov as heir to God's covenant to Avraham? Towards the beginning of the parasha, we
read that Yitzchak "liked" Esav (25:28).
Does this mean he preferred Esav over Yaakov as his successor, and it is
this blessing he wishes to bestow upon him?
The Ramban in fact adopts this approach, claiming that Yitzchak intends
here to appoint Esav his exclusive heir to the covenant of Avraham. For some reason, Rivka had never related
to him the prophecy she received that "the oldest will serve the youngest,"
indicating that Yaakov, the younger twin, had been granted the status of heir
apparent. The Ramban speculates
that Rivka felt that telling her husband of this prophecy would insult him. Rivka therefore resorts to a cunning and
shrewd plan to ensure the fulfillment of her prophecy.
This approach, taken as well by the Abarbanel, features one critical
advantage over many of the alternatives: it explains the tension and riveting
drama that characterizes this narrative.
At stake here is not merely a kind word of good wishes from the father,
but rather the entire family heritage and legacy of Avraham. At his mother's behest, Yaakov steals
from Esav not merely blessings of success and prosperity, but rather the
distinction and privilege of the covenant.
If an ordinary blessing is not worth killing for, perhaps, in Esav's
eyes, one's eternal legacy is.
At the same time, this theory raises many difficulties, most of which are
noted in one form or another by other commentators. Most obviously, perhaps, how could we
attribute such a grave error of potentially catastrophic consequences to our
patriarch? How could Yitzchak have
overlooked Esav's obvious grounds for disqualification, not to mention show
preference to him over his righteous, scholarly brother? What more, just prior to this narrative
we read of Esav's marriage to a Hittite woman, to which BOTH Yitzchak and Rivka
react with "bitterness of spirit" (26:35).
How startling it is, then, to find immediately thereafter Yitzchak's
appointment of Esav as his sole successor!
The Abarbanel answers that the Torah itself alludes to an explanation in
its introduction to this narrative: "When Yitzchak was old and his eyes were too
dim to see… " (27:1). Not only did
Yitzchak's eyesight begin failing him, but so did his power of judgment, which
was blinded by his affection for Esav.
As bitterly disappointed he felt over Esav's choice of a wife, he held
out hope that through a unique blessing, preceded by Esav's demonstration of
devotion and love, he can pray on his son's behalf and positively influence his
character. His emotions misled him
to believe that a blessing will suffice to render Esav worthy of founding God's
nation. Rivka, of course, had
classified information to the contrary, and thus felt compelled to
This suggestion by the Abarbanel helps resolve another difficulty, as
well. Why must Yitzchak designate a
successor through the conferral of a special blessing? His father, Avraham, never conducted
such a ritual. In fact, only after
Avraham's death did God Himself personally appear to Yitzchak and bless him
(25:11), presumably reaffirming his role as successor (Rashi's second
interpretation there). According to
the Abarbanel, Yitzchak faced an awkward predicament of sorts: his choice for
heir to the covenant is not quite deserving of this honor and
responsibility. He must therefore
bestow a special blessing upon him so that he qualifies as Yitzchak's
The notion that Yitzchak "had the wool pulled over his eyes" appears in
earlier sources, as well. The Torah
bases Yitzchak's particular fondness of Esav on the "game in his mouth"
(25:28). Rashi offers two possible
interpretations of this ambiguous clause.
He first notes the translation of Onkelos, by which Esav earned
Yitzchak's admiration by bringing him food. This would perhaps accommodate the
Abarbanel's claim: the natural sense of appreciation for his son's devotion
blinded Yitzchak to Esav's poor qualities.
Secondly, Rashi suggests (based on the Midrash) understanding "game" here
as a metaphorical reference to deceit.
Esav successfully masqueraded himself before Yitzchak in a disguise of
piety, to the point where Yitzchak mistook him for the destined bearer of
Avraham's legacy. According to both
interpretations, Yitzchak was "duped," plain and simple.
Another objection one could raise against the approach of the Ramban and
Abarbanel involves the astonishing lack of spousal communication it
presumes. Can we accept the fact
that over several decades Rivka withheld from her husband her prophecy as to the
future of their only two children?
(Note that Chazal calculate the sons' age at this point at sixty-three
years!!) Did the issue of a
successor never come up in conversation between Yitzchak and Rivka? The Ramban's suggestion that Rivka
feared the embarrassment Yitzchak might suffer, or the speculation that she
assumed Yitzchak had received a similar prophecy, do not alleviate our
astonishment at the couple's never having spoken openly regarding this issue.
The final and perhaps most troubling difficulty posed by the Ramban's
approach emerges from Yitzchak's blessing itself. Nowhere in the blessing conferred to
Yaakov (disguised as Esav) does Yitzchak make even the slightest reference to
the covenant of Avraham. He
mentions this promise only later, when he sends Yaakov away to flee from Esav:
"May Kel Sha-dai bless you… May He grant you the blessing of Avraham to you and
your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning… "
(28:3-4). Apparently, the blessing
intended for Esav served some other function and did not formally appoint Esav
his father's successor.
Rejecting the possibility that Yitzchak planned on selecting Esav over
Yaakov, several more recent writers have claimed that Yitzchak intended for both
his sons to jointly continue Avraham's legacy. Probably the earliest reference to this
theory appears in the commentary of the Malbim. The Malbim writes that as evidenced by
Yitzchak's reaction to Esav's marriage, Yitzchak never deemed him a candidate
for successor. Nevertheless, he
figured that Esav's military and logistical talent would be of great service to
his brother, who would emerge as the spiritual founder of God's nation. Yaakov, the "simpleton, a dweller of
tents" (25:27), needed a partner who would oversee the administrative and
political arrangements necessary for the cultivation of a thriving and
prosperous nation. This partnership
would allow Yaakov, the scholar, to devote his time and energy solely to the
spiritual development of this nation, unencumbered by the mundane
responsibilities otherwise cast upon his shoulders.
The most obvious proof to this approach lies within the text of
Yitzchak's blessing. As noted, this
blessing makes no mention of God's promise to Avraham. Instead, it speaks of economic
prosperity ("May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth… ")
and military might ("Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you"). It concludes with the prayer that Esav
become "master over your brothers," which we may easily interpret as a reference
to governmental authority, rather than subjugation. This blessing, then, wishes upon Esav
economic, military and political success - the three primary responsibilities
charged upon a national government, which Esav is to form.
Rav Menachem Leibtag emphasizes a critical point relevant to this
approach. Due to hindsight, we tend
to take the selection of one of Yitzchak's sons over the other as a self-evident
presumption. Rabbi Leibtag suggests
that we change our entire mindset with regard to the process of transmission of
Avraham's covenant. God had
explicitly told Avraham that only one of his two sons - Yitzchak - will carry
his legacy (17:21, 21:12). We find
no recorded prophecy to this effect regarding Yitzchak's sons. Yitzchak thus had no reason to believe
that either of his sons would be expelled from the covenant as his uncle
Yishmael had been. He likely
assumed that both Yaakov and Esav would share equally the patriarchal status
vis-a-vis God's nation.
Rivka, of course, knew better.
Unlike Yitzchak, she received an explicit prophecy that in her womb grew
"two nations," with the younger of the sons overpowering the older. She understood that Yaakov alone was
destined to establish God's nation, while Esav would remain outside the
covenantal legacy of Avraham.
Of course, this analysis falls short of resolving the difficulty we
encountered when studying the Ramban's position: why did Rivka never inform
Yitzchak of her prophecy? How could
she withhold such critical information from her husband?
However, this approach lends itself to a possible solution, one which
requires us to slightly adjust our presentation of this position. In a VBM shiur several years ago, Rav
Ezra Bick elaborated on the direction taken to this issue by Nava Gutman, in the
Hebrew journal, Megadim (vol.21), which upholds the "shared legacy"
theory while arguing that Yitzchak had full knowledge of Rivka's prophecy. God had told Rivka, "Two nations are in
your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body" (25:23). Yitzchak may have understood these "two
nations" as two tribes within the same nation. While both sons will participate equally
in the formation and establishment of this nation, they will play different
roles towards that end. As the
twins grew and exhibited diametrically opposed interests and personalities,
Yitzchak understood (so he thought) exactly how these two "sub-nations" would
take shape: Esav's practicality would ensure the safety, security and stability
of this nation, while Yaakov's wisdom and piety would lend the nation its unique
spiritual character. We may add
that Yitzchak himself personally experienced this need for the complementary
cooperation between spiritual ideals and practicality. Chazal describe Esav as an "ola temima,"
a sacrifice that is burnt entirely on the altar and not eaten by humans. The common explanation of this metaphor
is that Yitzchak lived a purely spiritual existence, to some extent detached
from the mundane realities of the world.
This likely accounts for the crises he encounters in Gerar in the middle
section of our parasha. When his
mother, Sara, is abducted by the king of Gerar in a parallel incident, Avraham
earns the respect and admiration of the local populace and the king offers him
land for residence (20:15).
Yitzchak, by contrast, is eventually banished from the city (26:16) and
sees his wells stolen by the local inhabitants (26:17-21). He suffered from his inability to
individually balance the ideal and the pragmatic. He therefore advocated a system of
division of labor, or "two nations," by which one son manages state affairs
leaving the other to engage undisturbed in spiritual
however, understood the prophecy differently. The mundane and the sublime cannot be so
drastically wedged apart. Leaving
all practical state affairs in Esav's wicked hands would undermine Yaakov's
efforts in shaping the nation's spiritual quality. Instead, Yaakov himself must don "the
hands of Esav," he must mold the nation's character by working from within,
rather than from without.
Several factors likely prompted other commentators to dissociate this
blessing entirely from the covenantal legacy of Avraham, viewing it as serving a
purpose unrelated to the question of Yitzchak's successor. This group rejects the notion of
Yitzchak entertaining the possibility of including Esav in the covenant. Influenced primarily by the Torah's
record of Yitzchak's disgust at Esav's intermarriage, coupled with a rich
tradition of rabbinic literature portraying Esav in the most contemptuous light,
these commentators see Esav's exclusion as a foregone conclusion. Other issues we have encountered,
including the prophecy to Rivka and Yitzchak's omission of any mention of the
covenant in his blessing, also likely contributed to these authors' line of
So, what kind of blessing is this?
If Yitzchak does not intend here to bestow Avraham's blessing upon Esav,
then what does he plan to do?
Two general alternatives are raised within this group of
commentators. Rav David Kimchi (the
"Radak") argues that Yitzchak felt compelled to bless Esav specifically because
of his unworthiness. Lacking
sufficient merits on his own right, Esav faced the prospect of severe divine
retribution, which Yitzchak, the loving father, wished to avoid through the
conferral of a blessing. Rivka,
however, misunderstood Yitzchak's intention as a plan to divert the birthright
from Yaakov back to Esav, and thus felt required to intervene on Yaakov's
behalf. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda
Berlin (the "Netziv"), explains differently, that Yitzchak wished to bestow upon
his beloved son a special blessing of material success and prosperity. The Netziv likens this blessing to
Noach's blessings to his sons, which, though certainly intended for the
children's progeny, did not involve a specific historical process or destiny
such as the transmission of the covenant.
Rivka, however, wished even this blessing to be conferred upon her
favorite son, Yaakov.
One immediate disadvantage such an approach would face relates to Esav's
rage and fury over the loss of his blessing. If this blessing did not involve the
issues of birthright or inheritance, why should Esav react with such
vengeance? Additionally, Yitzchak
at first cannot find a blessing for Esav after he had mistakenly blessed Yaakov
(27:37). If this blessing did not
involve a specific selection or designation of one son, why did Yitzchak
hesitate before bestowing another blessing upon Esav?
One may suggest that one element in particular irked Esav: "Be master
over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow down to you… " (27:29). Beyond prosperity, this blessing also
included the recipient's superiority and dominion over his brother. The loss of this mastery of Yaakov
likely fueled Esav's resentment and forced Yitzchak to somehow pacify his eldest
son with some alternate blessing.
In conclusion, we have seen three general approaches towards the meaning
and significance of these blessings.
Yitzchak had either intended to name Esav the exclusive heir to Avraham's
covenant, to charge Esav with the political and administrative responsibilities
of the special nation he and Yaakov will jointly build, or to confer an
independent blessing upon his beloved son, unrelated to the covenant of
discussion serves as perhaps a classic representation of traditional exegesis
surrounding a particularly difficult and complex issue. After reviewing the various approaches
one finds that virtually no single explanation resolves every difficulty to
perfect satisfaction. Commentators
must carefully select which problems appear less troubling and can be left
without total resolution, and which demand a satisfactory response.
possibility of Yitzchak's mistaken judgment of Esav directly relates to the
broader issue of questioning or criticizing our patriarchs' conduct. Different scholars throughout the years
have exhibited varying attitudes in analyzing the actions of our spiritual
heroes. Not surprisingly, the
Ramban, who refers to Avraham's relocation in Egypt a "grave sin" (12:10), is
the one who portrays Yitzchak in the most negative light in our context,
claiming that he misread Esav as his destined successor. Other commentators refused to attribute
an error of this gravity to Yitzchak.
Interestingly, though, Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, in his commentary to
our parasha, sharply criticizes Yitzchak and Rivka for their educational
mishandling of Esav. He claims that
they raised him as if he were of the same emotional and behavioral makeup as his
twin, an error that resulted in Esav's corrupt character as an
the possibility suggested that Yitzchak understood Rivka's prophecy of "two
nations" in her womb as referring actually to two tribes within the same
nation. Such a notion depends on
the likelihood of defining the Hebrew terms "goy" and "le'om" employed in this
context to mean "tribes." This
reflects the substantial interplay that exists between precise word definition
and the broader, contextual understanding of the text. Very often, how one understands an
entire section in Chumash can depend on technical nuances related to grammar and