The Blessing of Jacob by Isaac
CORE STRUCTURAL THEMES: 1) ‘Bringing up’ Jacob in place of Esau 2) The relationship between Isaac and Rebecca 3) 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, a Tzadik, be so ‘blind’ to his elder son’s ‘unrighteous’ character? Could Jacob really have fooled Isaac?
SYNOPSIS: In moments of being tested, as set in motion by ‘Isaac,’ the opportunity is there to bring up either ‘Esau’ or ‘Jacob’ to meet the occasion; ‘Rebecca’ is the inspiration which ensures that ‘Jacob’ is put on this path.
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 [Esau] answered, “Here I am.” v.18 He [Jacob] went to his father and said, “Father.” And he [Isaac] said, “Here I am, 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. As the events unfold, Isaac remains steady in his place, a center-point, a nucleus from which actions emanate (the instructions to Esau for the offering) and to which they return (Jacob bringing the offering).
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 Rebekah, “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.”
– Isaac and Rebecca serve two distinct roles: Isaac holds the blessing and establishes the structure through which it can be obtained. Rebecca manifests the active response, an expressive element driven by love, experience and faith; in relation to Isaac, she determines what specifically ‘fills’ this structure. Together, they are a mutually dependent team comprising the essential components of the blessing process. The byproduct of this process is the ‘what’ of that which gets blessed – either the ‘Esau’ character or the ‘Jacob’ one.
– Rebecca is compelled to put Jacob in Esau’s place. She is motivated by both her tremendous depth of caring for the integrity of the blessing as well as her profound insight into the nature of Esau and Jacob’s respective characters. In her willingness to self-sacrifice regardless of consequence (…Your curse, my son, be upon me!), Rebecca resembles Abraham’s faithfulness in the Akeidah: just as Abraham did not know the outcome of his test at the start, similarly, Rebecca is willing to “not withhold” (22:12, 16) when it comes to acting upon her selfless devotion.
– The ‘unrighteous’ nature of Esau’s character is portrayed in three previous examples: (1) Immediately preceding our chapter, the two verses state, Esau… took to wife Judith… the Hittite and Basemath… the Hittite. And they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca (26:34-35). This last line – Esau’s wives as a source of bitterness for his parents – sets the scene which leads into our chapter and offers a description of the existing dynamic between the characters. (2) Another example depicting Esau’s character is the episode of him forsaking his birthright for a pot of lentils (25:29-34), a scenario which can be read as forsaking virtue and responsibility for ‘appetite’ and ‘immediate gratification.’ (3) The Torah’s characterization of Jacob and Esau as early adolescents (25:27-28), along with Rashi’s invaluable commentary, provides insight into the personality differences between these twins. Rashi states that the line of v. 27, …Esau became a man who knows trapping, is to be explained as Esau knew how “to ensnare and to deceive his father with his mouth;” that is the type of ‘trapping’ to which the verse refers. This trait of deception for personal gain is juxtaposed with the description of Jacob as wholesome (v.28), which Rashi explains, “as in his [Jacob’s] heart, so in his mouth. One who is not sharp in deceiving is called ‘wholesome.’” In these three examples, and given the typically terse language of Torah, a portrait of Esau’s character is cast and insight is provided into Rebecca’s vantage point.
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 [goat] 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. She recognizes that she has to put Jacob in Esau’s clothes in order for Jacob to emerge within the structure of the system – the context and conditions – given by Isaac. The imagery of this Jacob/Esau figure casts the outermost superficial layer as resembling Esau yet underneath its ‘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 So he [Jacob] served him [Isaac] and he ate, and he brought him wine and he drank. v. 27 And he [Isaac] smelled his [Jacob’s] 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 drinks the wine, 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 (Esau as ‘skin’ and Jacob as ‘inner essence’). To elaborate: Esau, through his demonstrations of gluttony and cynicism (25:30-34), malice (27:41) and insolence (28:8-9), is the epitome of physical and emotional excess and indulgence. 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’ – passive in their presentation to a higher perception – rather than a denial or suppression.
– In light of this metaphor of the five senses, Rebecca’s act of ‘deception’ can be seen as an act which encourages revelation: that which is perceived by the senses (demonstrated through Isaac’s perspective) may not be all that exists (the outer skin resembling Esau) and a deeper essence may be encouraged (through Rebecca’s inspiration) to emerge (Jacob bringing the offering).
– Only after Isaac’s continual investigation of sensorial perception (e.g. is what is being seen/heard/felt/tasted/smelled really what I think it is?) are the senses ‘surpassed’ and Jacob is given the blessing.
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 ‘surpassed’ 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 essential difference between Jacob and Esau is described through the context of the five senses – the ‘skin’ of Esau reflects superficiality and overindulgence and the ‘inner essence’ of Jacob reflects soulful connection and integrity. The blessing will be given regardless of whether it is Esau or Jacob; this means that the moment will happen when its time comes and the 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. Another beautiful aspect of Rebecca’s actions is that she doesn’t know the outcome yet is motivated by what she feels in her heart is right, selfless and with great care. 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 – Isaac provides the opportunity – but it is up to us to make sure that the blessing goes to Jacob; Rebecca provides the essential motivation 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 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 sanctity that is their potential. Let us bring our Jacob up in the place of Esau, with the inspiration from Rebecca (internal) in connection with blessing of eternal prosperity from Isaac (external).
v.24 He [Isaac] asked [Jacob in the guise of Esau], “Are you really my son Esau?”
– If Esau is cast as an ‘unscrupulous’ character then how could Isaac, a Tzadik, willingly wish to bestow Esau with blessing? One explanation could be that Isaac, representing a source of idealized spiritualized connection and consecrated as such due to the Akeidah, is able to see the good in Esau. Just as Hashem can see the path for all people to ‘turn back’ to Hashem’s ways, so too can Isaac see redemption and potential in Esau; the opening line of this story …and his eyes were dim could be referencing Isaac as ‘looking past’ Esau’s faults and instead 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’ (this refers to a symbolic interpretation of Isaac’s earlier activities as a well digger – he digs deep to find ‘water’).
– 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-potentially-giving-the-blessing-anyway represents a quality of Hashem that gives humankind a ‘choice’ in determining its own fate – in moments of being ‘tested’ there is a choice to bring up ‘Esau’ or ‘Jacob’ to meet the occasion. For true prosperity and sustenance to exist, the ‘Jacob’ character must 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. As tempting for Jacob as it may be to reveal his identity along the way, he must stay on the ‘path’ – in order for this process of identity/identification to complete itself, to ‘mature’. Jacob’s credit throughout this process is in his great humility in faithfully following Rebecca’s instructions. In this way, Isaac and Jacob represent two perspectives of ‘reality’ – the ‘big picture’/objective awareness vs. the subjective experience.