Parshat Toldot: Yaakov’s Moral Confrontation

Yitzchak – Always in a Secondary Role

Although our parsha opens with “Eleh toledot Yitzchak” (25:19), it doesn’t take long for the Torah to indicate to us that Yitzchak is not really the character who dominates our parsha. It seems – for reasons that we cannot deal with in this shiur – that Yitzchak is destined to always be overshadowed by more dominant characters. The hero of the Akeda is Avraham; we don’t know how old Yitzchak was at the time, and we have only the barest of hints as to the degree to which he was a willing participant (read 22:7-8 carefully). Yitzchak’s marriage is arranged by several dominant characters: Avraham, his servant, and Rivka. After Avraham has been removed from the stage, at the end of last week’s parsha, we expect Yitzchak finally to come into his own, to demonstrate his own character and spiritual qualities. Yet, by the fourth pasuk of the parsha (22), the Torah has already shifted the focus from Yitzchak to Rivka. Rivka goes – apparently behind her husband’s back – to seek divine guidance regarding her distressingly unusual pregnancy. She receives the prophecy which indicates to her which son is to be preferred.

By the time we get to the eleventh pasuk of the parsha (29), the Torah has already shifted the scene to the fateful rivalry between Esav and Yaakov. By the end of the parsha it will emerge that Rivka and Yaakov have accomplished their plan, and Yitzchak is relegated to acknowledging his mistake, reconfirming his blessing after the fact.

Even the stories in which Yitzchak is the dominant character – the trip to Gerar, including the divine blessing, the wife/sister confusion, the agricultural success, the quarrel over the wells, the covenant with Avimelekh – have a deja-vu quality to them (except for the agricultural success, they all parallel stories that happened to Avraham) and don’t reveal very much about Yitzchak’s character.

One can respond to the Torah’s reticence regarding Yitzchak in one of two ways. We could try to piece together, from our fragmentary knowledge, a portrayal of Yitzchak which would make sense of his character, including an explanation as to why he has a tendency to be overshadowed. For the purposes of our shiur we will follow the second approach: we will follow the Torah’s lead, relegating Yitzchak to the background – although, of course, not ignoring him – and focus on other, more dominant characters.

Who is to Be Yitzchak’s Successor?

The dominant theme of our parsha is, as already indicated by the first pasuk, the toladot of Yitzchak, namely – which of Yitzchak’s two sons will succeed him as bearer of the destiny and covenant bestowed upon Avraham? Regarding this issue, we may note a striking difference between the story of Yitzchak and the story of Avraham. The establishment of Yitzchak as Avraham’s heir was both predetermined and explained to Avraham in advance. When Hashem announces Yitzchak’s birth to Avraham, he clearly determines that he will be the heir to the covenant (17:19). When Avraham resists sending away his son, Yishmael, Hashem commands him to heed Sarah’s demand, confirming that Yitzchak is Avraham’s only true seed and referring to Yishmael as “ben ha-ama” (the son of the maidservant). Hashem clearly indicates that Hagar was never recognized as a legitimate wife and Yishmael therefore should not be regarded as a true son of Avraham.

The story of Yitzchak’s successor, however, is much more problematic. Yitzchak has only one wife and her two sons both may establish a legitimate claim to succession. Indeed, Esav, the firstborn, would seem to have the stronger claim. Even the prophecy transmitted to Rivka, that “ve-rav ya’avod tza’ir,” doesn’t settle the matter unequivocally, for several reasons:

a) There is a degree of ambiguity in this clause. Normal biblical syntax would read “rav” (the elder) as the subject and “tza’ir” as the direct object, rendering: “the elder will serve the younger.” However, biblical Hebrew also contains instances of opening the clause with the direct object and concluding with the subject (example: “avanim – shachaku mayim,” Iyov 14:19), which would render our pasuk: “the elder – the younger will serve him.” Normally, we would prefer the former reading, that the elder will serve the younger, both because that is the usual biblical usage and because this would be a departure from the normal order, in which the firstborn plays the dominant role in the family, so Hashem stresses that this set of brothers will be different. Were we to adopt the other reading, Hashem would merely be affirming that the natural order will be followed, which would seem to be superfluous. Yet, despite two logical reasons for preferring this reading, the second reading has not been rendered impossible, but only improbable. The prophecy, while inclining towards one interpretation, retains a degree of ambiguity (Abravanel, Cassuto), allowing room for human interpretation.

b) One son is granted a superior position, but that doesn’t tell us what role the other son may play in the covenantal destiny of Avraham and Yitzchak. Rivka is told that “two nations will separate,” but we don’t know how total the separation will be, nor do we know whether the covenant is destined for one or both of them.

c) Rivka, for unspecified reasons (see Ramban to 27:4), apparently does not tell Yitzchak about this prophecy, so Yitzchak has no way of knowing which son has been destined by Hashem for His purposes. Nor can we place the entire burden for Yitzchak’s ignorance upon Rivka. Had Hashem thought it necessary for Yitzchak to know His will in this matter, He surely would have intervened – just as He did when Avraham resisted sending Yishmael away. Whatever the reason may be, Hashem seems to want Yitzchak to raise his children without being aware of the prophecy. Hashem does send Rivka a hint, in the form of rambunctious fetal activity (“va-yitrotzetzu ha-banim be-kirbah” – 25:22), that she needs to inquire what Hashem has in mind for her offspring. But, as we have seen, His response to her inquiry is suggestive, but not fully conclusive.

In the absence of a clear divine directive, it is not surprising that the parents see the situation differently (although their failure to communicate with one another remains puzzling). Yitzchak, whose love of the simple and natural pleasures emerges at several points in his career (see 24:63, 25:11, 26:12, 26:22, 27:27), loves his “nature boy,” Esav, the hunter who prepares delicious venison (25:27, 27:4) and who also has a weakness for tasty food (25:30 ff.). Rivka, besides knowing the prophecy which (apparently) grants primacy to Yaakov, also has an emotional affinity towards him. The stage is set for the struggle over the blessing.

Selling of the Birthright

Lentil SoupThe struggle for primacy in the family focuses on two incidents, in both of which Yaakov’s behavior raises serious moral issues. In the first incident, the youthful Yaakov exploits his brother’s ravenous appetite and impulsive nature to wheedle him into selling the birthright. Abravanel expresses the discomfort felt by many readers when he asks:

“If Yaakov was a simple and honest man, how did he have the nerve to ask his older brother to sell him the birthright for a mess of pottage? It is not worthy for a God-fearing man who distances himself from evil to set his eyes on that which is not his, and all the more so – to cheat him by purchasing his birthright with a disgraceful price, such as a mess of pottage.”

Not that Esav comes out of this encounter smelling like roses!
The Torah goes out of its way to stress his frivolous attitude towards a serious matter: he doesn’t merely agree to Yaakov’s conditions, but he justifies his action – “Here I’m about to die (from hunger?), so what do I need the birthright for” (25:32) – and follows the meal by getting up and walking out without a hint of a second thought (note the rapid progression of 5 verbs of action in 2:34), and moreover: “and Esav despised the birthright.”

Esav’s foolishness is further underscored by the fact that this so-readily sold and despised birthright comes back to haunt him later, after the theft of the blessings, when he angrily blames Yaakov for having tricked him out of the birthright (27:36). In fact, Yaakov has not, strictly speaking, tricked or cheated him, and Esav’s selective memory does not redound to his credit. But even if Esav richly deserves to be exploited, we may still ponder whether Yaakov is justified in doing so. Is this not a form of “lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol?” Perhaps Esav’s angry recollection, while covering up his own culpability, at the same time underscores Yaakov’s insensitivity – he may not have tricked Esav, from a formalistic point of view, but from a moral standpoint, he has maneuvered his brother into doing something that he is bound to regret later on. In the view of the modern commentator to Bereishit, I.M. Immanueli (p. 348), “both brothers are depicted in a negative light, even though there is a case for the defence to be made for both of them.”

Yaakov’s Theft of the Berakhot

The second incident, the theft of the berakhot in chapter 27, raises even more disturbing moral question marks. Here he acts behind his brother’s back, and, worse yet, he actively and methodically sets out to deceive his innocent and unsuspecting father. Even though there is no explicit statement by the Torah, either justifying Yaakov’s act (compare: 22:12, 16) or condemning it (compare: 38:10), the Torah hints in many ways its awareness of the problematic nature of Yaakov’s behavior, and indeed our story can serve as a textbook study of how the Torah indicates moral judgment. Let’s read through the story, noting along the way the hints that the Torah drops as to how to judge Yaakov’s theft of the berakhot.

We open our examination two pesukim before chapter 27 opens. Esav, at the age of 40, emulates his father (see 25:20) and marries. However, unlike his father, who could marry only a non-Canaanite woman, and preferably from his father’s homeland and family (24:2-3, 38-41), Esav takes Hittite women, who cause anguish to his parents – including his doting father. Juxtaposing this event to the story of the berakhot might be meaningful – is the Torah hinting that Esav has disqualified himself from the berakhot, and moreover, that Yitzchak should have realized this himself?

As the story opens, we are informed that Yitzchak is blind. This, of course, is crucial for understanding the future unfolding of the narrative – had Yitzchak not been blind, he could not have been duped. Does this indicate divine complicity in the theft of the berakhot (Rashi)? Furthermore, some commentators feel that the Torah’s depiction of blindness is meant metaphorically, as well. Comparing Yitzchak’s blindness to the weak eyes of two other biblical characters, we find one, Yaakov, who seems to be spiritually keen-sighted, even if physically blind, when he blesses Ephraim preferentially over Menasheh (48:17-19); on the other hand we find a second, Eli, whose physical blindness seems to be accompanied by spiritual short-sightedness as well (Shmuel 1, 3:2). Which model does the Yitzchak story follow? Do we have a clear idea as to whether Esav is worthy or unworthy of the berakhot which Yitzchak plans to give him? Related to this is an issue that we cannot address here: the differences among the different berakhot which Yitzchak gives in our parsha, and the reasons for the differences. We may sum up our investigation up to this point as follows: despite the Torah’s indication that Esav is unworthy of the berakhot (namely, his marriage to Hittite women), Yitzchak refuses to take the hint, and this might – or might not – indicate spiritual blindness on his part. Now let’s continue searching for further clues regarding the Torah’s judgment of Yaakov’s behavior.

Man's hairy armUpon hearing his mother’s command, Yaakov immediately reacts: “Perhaps my father will feel me and I shall seem to him as one who misleads, and I shall bring upon myself a curse rather than a blessing” (27:12). Is Yaakov here expressing a moral judgment? On the surface, he appears to be protesting only on pragmatic grounds – he fears that the plan will misfire. Moreover, he implies that there is only apparent, not real, trickery involved – “I shall SEEM to him AS one who misleads.”

But one may argue – I believe, correctly – that Yaakov is insinuating more than he says, and for a good reason: he loves and respects his mother too much to say to her face: how dare you ask me to deceive my father? He couches his profound moral discomfort in euphemistic terms, alluding to the dishonesty involved, while blunting the force of the accusation with the implication that only Yitzchak is liable to perceive deceitfulness. He cloaks the whole argument in a pragmatic garb, as though to say: even if dishonesty were justifiable, it doesn’t work. In support of this reading, we may note another instance in which Yaakov originally condemns an action – Shimon and Levi’s slaughter of the populace of Shekhem – on pragmatic grounds (34:30), but later voices a powerful moral condemnation of the same act (49:5-7).

If this reading is correct, then Yaakov has himself uttered the negative moral judgment that the theft of the berakhot deserves. Why, then, does Yaakov carry out the mission? Rivka’s response (27:13), at best, can guard him against the plan’s misfiring and bringing upon him a curse, but can she take upon herself the moral culpability for the act? Don’t we accept the principle that “ein shaliach li-devar aveira?” Is this simply moral weakness on Yaakov’s part – or does his mother’s determination perhaps convince him that perhaps there is a moral case to be made for his mother’s project as well?

Yaakov’s discomfort, as he carries out the deception, is palpable. When Yitzchak declares that “the voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav,” he is clearly referring to the speaking style (after all, both Rivka and Yaakov know very well that if Yaakov’s and Esav’s voices sound acoustically different, then there is no chance the plan will succeed). Even a cursory glance at Yaakov’s opening statement to his father (“I am Esav your firstborn, I have done as you have spoken to me, kindly sit up and eat…” – 27:19), as opposed to Esav’s parallel statement (27:31: “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s…”) will immediately reveal the difference between Yaakov’s refined and respectful diction and Esav’s coarseness. Is Yaakov unaware of the difference (unlikely), incapable of dissembling in this fashion, or too uncomfortable to make a professional attempt at deception? Perhaps he secretly wishes for the deception to fail? In any event, the Torah clearly indicates that Yaakov is operating in a theater in which he is neither comfortable nor adept. Does this ameliorate his guilt, or exacerbate it – or both?

Yitzchak’s reaction, when he discovers the deception, is fascinating and puzzling. On the one hand, his violent trembling (27:33), accompanied by the accusatory question – “who, then, was the one who…” – seem to indicate clear condemnation. In 27:35 he declares plainly: “your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” Yet, in 27:33, in the same breath which accused he also affirms: “he will indeed be blessed.” Why did Yitzchak reaffirm the blessing? Did the shock awaken him from his mistaken appraisal of the relative merits of his two sons? Did Yitzchak sense that, inasmuch as the berakha had been divinely inspired, clearly Hashem approved it (compare Ramban)? Or is it merely a rueful acknowledgement that the berakha is irrevocable? Yitzchak subsequently calls Yaakov and bestows upon him, and him alone, the berakha of Avraham (28:1-3), including the injunction not to marry Canaanite women. By this stage, clearly Yitzchak seems to have realized that Yaakov is the legitimate recipient of his berakhot.

Finally, we may examine the consequences of stealing the berakha. Soon after departing from his home, bound for Aram Naharayim, Yaakov is vouchsafed a divine vision, promising him protection and the fulfillment of Hashem’s promises to Avraham and Yitzchak. Hashem seems to be reaffirming the giving of the berakhot to Yaakov. On the other hand, Yaakov suffers, in next week’s parsha, a long litany of tribulations, which repeatedly seem to echo the theft of the berakhot. Most strikingly, when Lavan substitutes the elder daughter for the younger, Yaakov demands: “lama rimitani” (why have you deceived me – 29:25), echoing Yitzchak’s assertion to Esav: “ba achikha be-mirma…” (your brother came deceitfully…). Lavan responds: “It is not so done IN OUR PLACE, to give the younger one before the older” (30:26) – as though to say: perhaps in your place it is customary to place the younger before the elder, but not in our place. As Nechama Leibowitz notes, the Torah seems here to imply that Yaakov receives his just desserts for his deceitfulness – he is sent to spend twenty years, of exploitation and travail, with a master deceiver.

The story continues into Vayishlach (and further…), where Yaakov again meets Esav and where the berakhot are reconfirmed. But we will break off at this point, and attempt to sum up our findings and draw the appropriate conclusions from them. The Torah has supplied us with numerous clues to enable us to evaluate Yaakov’s theft of the berakhot. The clues include the following:

  • Indications that Esav does not possess the character which would qualify him for the berakhot
  • Indications that Yaakov himself recognizes the immorality of his mother’s project and that he carries it out half-heartedly and unprofessionally
  • Yitzchak’s simultaneous horror at being tricked and recognition that the berakhot have been properly bestowed
  • Hashem’s explicit reaffirmation of the berakhot
  • Hashem’s implicit punishment of Yaakov, by imposing upon him a lengthy exile with tribulations reminiscent of his act of trickery

Does all of this add up to a coherent picture? It would appear that we are given conflicting signals. We might try to harmonize the signals and iron out the conflicts (note especially the items of evidence which were accompanied by questions and multiple possibilities). However, there is another way to accommodate the seemingly contradictory evidence. Perhaps the Torah justifies the consequences of Yaakov’s action, without justifying the action itself. The end does not necessarily justify the means. We can truly appreciate Yaakov’s – and Rivka’s – predicament. They know that he is destined to be the spiritual heir of Yitzchak. But Hashem seems to have stacked the deck against him. All his jostling in the womb and his seizing Esav’s heel at birth do not enable him to emerge first from the womb. Yaakov searches desperately for ways to achieve the birthright that he knows he deserves and that Esav doesn’t. When opportunities of dubious morality present themselves, Yaakov is torn between his basic righteousness and honesty, on the one hand, and his firm conviction that bestowing the birthright and berakhot upon Esav would be a tragedy of historic proportions, on the other. Hashem doesn’t appear to right the wrongs or to guide the parties to the proper course of action.

Yaakov is destined by Hashem to struggle with moral ambiguities, in which both courses of action appear to be flawed. Yaakov, first on his own initiative and later prodded by his mother, chooses an activist course, in which he selects morally dubious means in order to achieve righteous ends. Hashem divides His response into two: He affirms the berakhot, which by right indeed ought to go to Yaakov. At the same time, He doesn’t allow a morally questionable act to pass by without consequences. Yaakov will achieve his destined greatness, but he will pay a price for the dubious means by which the berakha was achieved. This pattern of Yaakov grappling with moral ambiguities and making choices which seem problematic repeats itself later on, but that’s already another story.

This D’var Torah originally appeared at The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and is published here with permission.

Rav Dr. Avraham Walfish
Rav Dr. Avraham Walfish, a member of Beit Hillel, is a recipient of the Israeli Ministry of Education Prize for Creative Work in Jewish Culture (2005). An instructor at Bar-Ilan University, he has taught in many institutions of Jewish learning, including Herzog College, Drisha, Pardes, Matan, and the Hesder Yeshiva in Tekoa. 


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