Bereishit Ch. 27: The blessing of Jacob by Isaac
Please read the text at the above link before reading the commentary.
CORE STRUCTURAL THEMES: ‘Bringing up’ Jacob in place of Esau – The relationship between Isaac and Rebecca – The role of the five senses
INCIDENTS OF PARADOX: How could Rebecca willingly deceive Isaac in a matter of such importance? How could Isaac, as a righteous person, be so ‘blind’ to his elder son’s blatant immoral character? Could Jacob really have fooled Isaac?
v.1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.” v.18 He [Jacob] went to his father and said, “Father.” And he [Isaac] said, “Yes, which of my sons are you?”
– In his role in the story, Isaac is the catalyst setting the initial events in motion with the intention of bestowing blessing; he is the one in possession of the ‘lineage blessing’ (due to the events of the Akeidah) and the moment has now come to pass this blessing to one of his sons, Esau or Jacob. Both sons are drawn to Isaac, each under his own circumstances and at his own time, for this reason of receiving blessing. As the events unfold, Isaac remains steady in his place, a center-point, a nucleus from which actions emanate and return.
v.6-8 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game, and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with Hashem’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you. . .” v. 11-13 Jacob answered his mother Rebeckah, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”
– For Rebecca, to have Esau be the recipient of the blessing would be a travesty. As a result, she feels a deep responsibility to replace Esau with Jacob. She is guided by her intuition in rightly knowing Esau’s ‘true’ character and is motivated by her profound love for the wellbeing of her family and the ‘future’. These feelings of inspiration, intuition and love emerge independently of her given ‘contextual structure’ – that is, the circumstances established by Isaac. Rebecca is determined to work within ‘the system’ to change the ‘situation’ and make it ‘right’. Additionally, In her willingness to self-sacrifice regardless of consequence, Rebecca resembles Abraham’s faithfulness in the Akediah: Abraham’s virtue was in “not withholding” when it came to the test of following Hashem’s command. Abraham did not know the outcome of the test at the start, only the steps that were to be taken. Similarly, Rebecca is willing to “not withhold” when it comes to acting upon her selfless devotion. (An exegesis on the Akeida dealing with this topic is at http://www.chasebrian.com/akeidah/)
– In these characterizations, Isaac and Rebecca represent two distinct aspects of spiritual observance: Rebecca, as the active doer, manifests the expressive side of experience and faith; Isaac, as the one who initiates events while remaining completely ‘still’ as they unfold, reflects a characteristic of spirituality that is unchanging throughout time and place.
v.15-17 Rebekah then took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Jacob put them on; and she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids. Then she put in the hands of her son Jacob the dish and the bread that she had prepared.
– Rebecca dresses Jacob to resemble Esau for the purpose of bringing up Jacob in the place of Esau. The imagery of this Jacob/Esau figure casts the outermost superficial layer as resembling Esau yet underneath the ‘skin’ is the person of Jacob. Isaac is expecting Esau to be the one to approach but now it will be Jacob in disguise.
v.1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see . . . v. 22 So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” v. 25 he [Isaac] said, “Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.” So he served him and he ate, and he brought him wine and he drank. v. 27 And he smelled his clothes and he blessed him.
– The process of Jacob drawing closer to Isaac is described in terms of the five senses from Isaac’s point of view: ‘sight’ is addressed at the beginning of the chapter, ‘hearing’ is in Isaac recognizing Jacob’s voice, ‘touch’ is when Isaac feels Jacobs hands, ‘taste’ is when Isaac eats the meal offering and libation, and ‘smell’ comes at the end when Isaac smells the garment. Symbolically, the senses – faculties which process and cognize the elements of the physical world – serve as a thematic platform expressing the fundamental character differences between Jacob and Esau which are metaphorically conveyed in the Jacob/Esau hybrid figure. Through his demonstrations of gluttony and cynicism (25:30-34), malice (27:41) and insolence (28:8-9), Esau is the epitome of indulgence and gratification; he portrays someone consumed by sensory stimulation and temptations of the physical – ‘outside’ – world. Jacob, on the other hand, as someone spiritually minded (27:20), scrupulous (31:38-42) and worthy of carrying Hashem’s blessing (28:13-15), portrays the opposite of Esau in relation to the senses; in Jacob’s character is a moral, intellectual and spiritual essence that serves as the foundation ‘underneath’ a perception of the physical world. Only after the senses have been ‘tested’ does Isaac then give the blessing to Jacob – the culmination of bringing up Jacob in the place of Esau. And, in our story, why are the senses conveyed from the perspective of Isaac and not Jacob? This is to teach that one’s relationship to the senses is meant to be like that of an ‘offering’ as made by the humble Jacob rather than a denial or suppression.
v.24 He [Isaac] asked [Jacob in the guise of Esau], “Are you really my son Esau?”
– If Esau is cast as an ‘evil’ character (the verse immediately preceding this episode sets this tone with Esau having chosen wives that “were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebeccaka.” [26:35]) then how could Isaac, a tzadik, willingly wish to bestow Esau with blessing? Isaac, in his central position of ‘stillness’ and as possessor of Hashem’s lineage blessing, represents a source of idealized spiritual connection (perhaps somewhat ‘zen’ in its ‘detached’ quality). From this lofty position he is able to see the good in Esau. This is how his relationship with Esau is different than Rebecca’s (25:28). Just as Hashem can see the path for all people to ‘turn back’ to Hashem’s ways, so too can Isaac see redemption in Esau; the opening line of this story ‘…and his eyes were dim’ could be referencing Isaac as ‘looking past’ Esau’s faults to his ‘good’ essential nature – he was ‘blind’ to obvious appearances. From Isaac’s perspective, he is not giving the blessing to an undeserving son but rather his firstborn as is custom who has the ability to ‘turn back’. Isaac sets this blessing process in motion yet it is Rebecca, the one responsible for and dealing with ‘reality’, who takes action to make the circumstances ‘right’ – to make sure it is the Jacob character, the one truly worthy of inheriting the blessing, that emerges in place of ‘Esau’. Isaac and Rebecca are a team representing two essential components of this blessing process.
– Isaac’s question to ‘Esau’ in v.24 reflects an inquiry of sensorial perception: is what is being seen/heard/felt/tasted/smelled really what I think it is? It is only after this questioning and investigation that the senses are ‘surpassed’ and Jacob is given the blessing. Jacob’s mission during his ‘ascent’ to Isaac is to faithfully follow his mother’s instructions, as well as his father’s inquiries, otherwise his ‘cover’ will be ‘exposed’. As tempting for Jacob as it may be to reveal his identity along the way, he must stay on the ‘path’ – that which originates from his mother and culminates at his father – in order for this process of identity/identification to complete itself, to ‘mature’. Jacob’s credit thought this process is in his great humility.
– And, what if Isaac gave Esau the blessing? This could’ve been a likely outcome if Rebecca wasn’t there or didn’t have the gumption to intercede. This teaches that Isaac would’ve given the blessing anyway, and it is up to the Rebecca character to ensure that what is blessed is good and virtuous, i.e. worthy of the blessing. Too often in human affairs it is the Esau character that ends up being blessed and, hence, suffering results. The condition of Isaac-giving-the-blessing-anyway represents a quality of Hashem that gives humankind a ‘choice’ in determining its own fate – in moments of being ‘tased’ there is a choice to bring up ‘Esau’ or ‘Jacob’ to meet the occasion. For there to be true prosperity and sustenance it is important that ‘Jacob’ be the recipient of the lineage blessing.
– Isaac’s questioning throughout the ‘ascent’ of Jacob has, perhaps, a twist of comedy. Isaac may very well know it is indeed Jacob in Esau’s clothing yet ‘plays the game’ anyway (Isaac’s suspicion is conveyed in 27:22, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” See Rashi’s comments on this verse as well.) If Isaac does know that it is Jacob in disguise then what could explain Isaac’s behavior in ‘humoring’ Jacob? Isaac doesn’t attempt to ‘change’ Jacob in his presentation as Esau – instead, Isaac allows Jacob to come to him as he is and it is from going through this process that the Jacob character eventually meets Isaac in his place and receives the blessing. For Jacob – the one who is subjectively experiencing the ‘test’ – the situation is very real and perhaps tense and scary. In this way, Isaac and Jacob represent two perspectives of ‘reality’ – the ‘big picture’ context vs. the subjective experience.
v.28 “May God give you Of the dew of heaven . . .”
– The moment of Jacob receiving the blessing signifies the merging and unification of all four central characters: in this idealized scenario, Isaac’s blessing (of sustenance, prosperity and lineage) goes to Jacob who, due to Rebecca’s initiative, is brought up in place of Esau. During the ‘ascent’ to Isaac, the ‘skin’ of Esau is gradually ‘shed’ to reveal the inner ‘essence’ of Jacob, comparable to ‘soul’ or purity of heart. In applying this model and its structure to daily life, let us imagine that Isaac, at particular moments, calls to each of us. Let us regard these moments, for example, as particular challenges which require us to ‘step up’. Additionally, these moments, as they often do, are happening whether we are ready or not. What do we ‘bring up’ to meet these moments? Is it of Esau – tempestuous and stubborn – or of Jacob – spiritually minded and wise? The blessing will be given regardless of whether it is Esau or Isaac; this means that the moment will happen when its time comes and its outcome will be largely based on what was brought to meet it. The most important element that has us caring about how the moment is handled is Rebecca. It is Rebecca’s insight and determination that fills the process with love and virtue. Isaac and Rebecca at their two opposite poles of this model are the key sources of inspiration. We want the blessing of goodness from Isaac for our lives but it is up to us to make sure that the blessing goes to Jacob; Rebecca provides the essential motivation and inspiration that will establish that Jacob is the one put on the path. It is up to us to identify with Jacob – Jacob in the guise of Esau – as we go through the ‘test.’ Eventually we will reach Isaac, in our form as Esau or Jacob, and there will be a blessing and continuation of the story. In the structure of this model, why does Isaac call initially for Esau instead of Jacob? Aside from the various reasons mentioned above, let us say take a liberty to say that life’s moments are often chaotic and unformed and that it is up to us as individuals to create and imbue these moments with the holiness and sanctity that is their potential.