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The Holy Charade

In the final verses of the previous Torah portion, Parashat Chayei Sarah, we learn of the death of Abraham at the age of one-hundred seventy-five. The Oral Tradition tells how his internment resembled a state funeral in Hebron where the great and small from Canaan gathered to pay their respects. But his grandson, Esau was notably absent from the mass of mourners. Esau had gone hunting instead. Keep that in mind as we move on to Parashat Toldot and the birth of his grandsons, Esau and Jacob. Their birth presages an historical epic-long struggle that still fuels the troubles in our world, especially the current war being waged against Israel's violent enemy called Hamas. Their blood lust can be traced back to Esau who wrestled with his brother while still in their mother's womb. Rebecca was so troubled by their movements that she sought the counsel of Melchizedek, also known as Shem, the son of Noach. He told Rebecca:

“Two nations are in your womb,Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

The Torah wants us to note that Rebecca kept these words to herself, even as she witnessed Esau tumbling out of her womb first, followed by Jacob, clutching the heel of his brother. Though twins, Esau was a hairy redhead, growing into a sturdy young man who pursued game because he loved the hunt. Meanwhile, Jacob stayed close to home enjoying intellectual pursuits. According to Rashi, Esau was cunning in his speech but Jacob was plain-spoken and direct. At the beginning of this commentary, I referenced Avraham's funeral and how Esau did not even attend. It was an act borne of his bitterness as expressed in the Torah commentary MeAm Lo’ez:

“Now I see,” said Esau, “that there is no Judge or justice. Abraham was the greatest saint who ever lived. He kept God’s commandments as well as humanly possible. Still, he did not even live as long as Noah or other early generations. I therefore see that religion has no value."

The sad truth is that Esau “saw” an excuse to run amok because of the death of someone that he deeply respected. That he would decide to go hunting reveals his contaminated spiritual connection to another infamous hunter:

"He acted like Nimrod. Hence it is written, Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord." — Midrash Rabbah 37:2

The same day of Avraham's funeral, Nimrod and Esau had a fateful encounter. At that time, Nimrod’s reputation was somewhat diminished after the failure of his Tower project but he still ruled a kingdom. While hunting, Esau spied an entourage led by Nimrod and conceals himself. He had good reason to avoid the leader. Again, we turn to Me Am Lo Ez which reveals:

"And Nimrod was observing Esau all his days, for jealousy formed in the heart of Nimrod against Esau all the days."

Esau waited until Nimrod dispatched his men to the outer perimeter of the camp. He sprang from hiding, beheaded Nimrod and took his legendary cloak. This was the same garment fashioned by God and given to Adam. It was passed down to the antediluvian patriarchs but, after the Flood, it was stolen by Ham, who gave it to Cush who then bestowed it on Nimrod. When Nimrod's troops discovered the remains of their monarch, they launched a search for the unknown assassin. Esau escaped undetected. He breathlessly returned home. Here, we return to the epic narrative in Toldot that relates the following in almost terse language:

"Jacob simmered a stew, and Esau came from the field, and he was exhausted. Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into me now, some of that very red stuff for I am exhausted.” (He therefore called his name Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell, this day, your birthright to me.” Esau said, “Look, I am going to die, so of what use is a birthright?” Jacob said, “Swear to me this day;” he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, got up and left; Esau spurned his birthright. — Genesis 25:29-33

Jacob was cooking lentils, the traditional dish for those in mourning. He would have been preparing the meal for his father, following the funeral of Abraham. The Hebrew text is dense with prophetic insights that expose the nature of Esau. The stew is red, the color that stained Esau to his very core — to the degree he was given the name Edom. The soup enticed him because it reminded him of the blood he spilled in the hunt, hinting at the red banners that would fly over the armies of conquering nations that sprang from his loins, soaking the earth with the blood they would spill. Curiously, the ancient land that carries Esau's other name Edom, is located on the shores of what is known today as the Red Sea.

Esau's penchant for instant gratification is highlighted by the use of “now” rendered from the Hebrew nah, a word that can also mean raw — indicating that Esau wanted the soup when it was still undercooked. The sale is detailed with such brevity that it serves to symbolize how little regard Esau had for the birthright. Esau was convinced that the murder of Nimrod would be discovered and his death would surely follow.

The Oral Torah tells us that Esau and Jacob were only fifteen years old on that day. The age of the twins suggest that the transaction likely seen by Esau as nothing more than a joke, which explains his bewildered astonishment years later, when he discovered Jacob had the chutzpah to actually seek the blessing of the firstborn. In this episode, we see a profound and existential gulf between the brothers. Following the death of their beloved grandfather, Jacob went home and prepared a meal for the mourners, while Esau showed his lack of care for the bereaved and indulged in his favorite pastime.

Their father, Isaac, chose to ignore the dangerous flaws in Esau, but Jacob understood that Esau could never sustain the Abrahamic legacy that would one day yield a holy nation. Read what HaShem instructed Moses to do when he stood before the king of Egypt:

"You shall say to Pharaoh, 'so said HaShem, My firstborn son is Israel.”

— Exodus 4:22

It is abundantly clear that G-d chose the Jews to be the elder brother with all of the responsibilities of the firstborn, including care of the younger siblings — in essence, the rest of humanity. Esau was schooled at the knee of Isaac in the deepest secrets. One day that wisdom would be bequeathed, in the form of the Torah, to his descendants. Yet Esau did not embrace these tenets and chafed at his father’s lifestyle. He found it restrictive and unrewarding to submit to the instruction of the Creator. Esau understood the meaning of his name and saw himself as complete and needing nothing from anyone. He was a perfectionist. Everything and everyone had to conform to Esau’s standards. Thus, he lacked compassion required of a true leader.

The impact of the birthright sale will not be felt until years later when, according to Seder Ha Olam, Jacob and Esau reach the age of sixty-three. That transaction culminates in one of the most misunderstood narratives in the Torah — the so-called “stolen blessing.” This episode is set in motion in the same manner as the sale of the bechorah: Esau on the hunt and the preparation of a meal.

Isaac, feeling the aches and pains of old age and thinking he might die soon, decided it may be time to pass along the mantle of leadership to his son. Even though he was one-hundred twenty-three at this point in his life, Isaac would live to the age of one hundred-eighty (see Genesis 35:2).

What could have caused him to suddenly dwell on the transience of life? Some of the commentaries suggest that Isaac felt this way because his mother, Sarah, had died at the age of 127 and he was approaching that milestone. Another reason for his decision was because Isaac knew that it was an auspicious time for giving the blessing. That day was the anniversary of the Brit Bein HaBetarim, the Covenant Between the Pieces.

In addition to his advanced years, Isaac was blind. Hearing the voice of Esau spouting oratory prevented Isaac from seeing his son’s true nature. Isaac called out to Esau, asking him to take up his hunting gear, bring home some game and prepare his favorite food, “that he may bless him.” The Torah records that Esau replied, hineni which is usually translated as “Here am I.” Every time this phrase appears in the Torah, something crucial in the development of the Chosen People is about to take place. Rav Hirsch notes that Isaac’s promise to bless Esau for carrying out his request is not a promise of reward for doing a good deed; rather it was Isaac’s hope that Esau realize that his obvious physical skills — for that matter, any skill — can be elevated in the service of G-d by showing kindness to another.

Rebecca had overheard the entire exchange and summoned Jacob to bring two goats from their flock so that she could cook up a feast. Rebecca wanted Jacob to serve the meat to his father so that he would receive the blessing instead of Esau. When Jacob objected that such trickery could backfire, his mother assured him, “The curse be upon me.” She could speak with confidence. The reader will recall that she was informed by G-d while she carried the boys in her womb:

"…and the elder shall serve the younger." — Genesis 25:23

These prophetic words echoed in Rebecca’s ears as she dressed Jacob in the “costly garments” of Esau — the robes fashioned by G-d for Adam and very same royal finery Esau had removed from the body of Nimrod, years earlier. The masquerade was complete when Rebecca strapped the skins from the slaughtered goats onto the hands, arms and neck of Jacob. He carried the food to his father and announced his presence. It is at this point, that most translations fail to accurately convey Jacob’s conversation with his father. The English interpretation would have us believe that Jacob blatantly claimed to be Esau. According to Rashi, Jacob’s words to his father as recorded in Genesis 27:19 should be rendered:

"It is I who bring this to you. Esau is your firstborn."

In fact, the whole exchange between father and son is purposely ambiguous. Isaac, unable to discern the face of the figure before him, asked his son to come closer. Isaac had no reason to suspect it was anyone other than Esau, since it was only his eldest that he had asked to trap wild game, whip up a tasty repast and be blessed. When Jacob drew near, Isaac reacted as if something was amiss because he heard:

"... the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau. — Genesis 27:22

It was Jacob’s manner of expression — his choice of words — that set him apart from his brother.

Isaac dispensed with further questions. Even so, he may still have had doubts. When the meal was finished, Isaac asked his son to come close so that he could kiss him. Isaac breathed in the odor of the garments worn by Jacob:

He approached and kissed him. Isaac smelled the fragrance of his garments, and blessed him. He said, “See, my son's fragrance is like the perfume of a field blessed by G-d. May G-d grant you the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, much grain and wine. Nations will serve you; governments will bow down to you. You shall be like a lord over your brother; your mother's children will prostrate themselves to you. Those who curse you are cursed and those who bless you are blessed.” — Genesis 27:27-29

At this point, many of us are shaking our heads wondering how Isaac could have been so easily duped. He was in denial. In the previous chapter, the Torah relates a seemingly normal event. Years earlier, at the age of 40, Esau married two Hittite women, Judith and Basemath, described in the Oral Tradition as idol worshippers. It had a profound effect on his parents:

"Esau’s wives became a source of spiritual bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca."

— Genesis 26:34-35

The very next chapter is the story of the blessing of Jacob. It begins with a description of Isaac as aged and blind. The juxtaposition of the verses is signifies that Isaac was in denial — he chose to not see Esau’s ways. No one was more aware of this than his wife Rebecca. Her ruse reads like a poor charade because that’s what it was. Rebecca, in her wisdom, was accomplishing twin goals in putting on what Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch describes as a clumsy comedy. He is not casting aspersions, and goes on to remind us of Rebecca’s greatness; he points out that Rebecca was well aware that a sizzling pot roast and hairy gloves would never deceive her husband. Her costumed sham demonstrated that Esau’s sanctimonious façade was just as clumsy. But could there have been an additional motive?

I would like to suggest that she may have used this bit of theater to prevent Esau from taking the blessing while providing Isaac an out — allowing him to make a “mistake” and bestowing the blessing on Jacob. This might explain why Isaac seemed to play along, especially after hearing such obvious evasions from his younger son, Jacob. Referencing the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau draws attention to the distinctive persona of each brother and teaches a compelling, vibrant lesson to the Jewish people: The mission of Israel and the key to their survival requires that they take on external qualities such as strength, daring and boldness — positive attributes of Esau. At the same time, they must always speak with the voice of Jacob, which means speaking words of Torah. Israel is Jacob, the inner man of G-d, motivated by a holy mission but clothed in the physical power necessary to establish a holy nation and, ultimately be a shining example to all other nations on the earth.

There, in that quiet warmth of Isaac’s room in Beersheba, on the 15th day of the month we now call Nissan, something monumental had just taken place. We know this because of a curious phrase in the blessing by Isaac when described “a field blessed by G-d.” The consensus among Jewish commentators is that this as an allusion to Gan Eden. It is no mere coincidence that the words appear at this point in the Biblical narrative. This remarkable reference is a portal that sends the reader hurtling back through the centuries to the first estate of humanity. The Torah is directing our attention to Adam and Eve. There is a direct association between their fall and the blessing given to Jacob. Both events share common elements but with very different outcomes.

Adam and Eve were told by the G-d that they must not eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil. The words of the nachash led Eve to doubt the words of the Creator. She took the forbidden fruit and convinced Adam to do the same. Their eyes were opened. They were expelled from the Garden but, to protect them, the Creator fashioned garments of skin. G-d told Eve she would experience pain in childbirth. This reference to painful pregnancy directly links her to Rebecca. And, like Eve, she delivered twins.

The Torah is telling us these two women are spiritual twins.

Instead of being deceived, Rebecca deceived her husband and “opens his eyes” to see his error. She accomplished this with a masquerade utilizing garments of skin.

The effect of this holy charade was that the plan of G-d took a quantum leap forward.

While Eve doubted the Creator, Rebecca held His words in her heart — determined the spiritual mantle would pass to the worthy son. Jacob, too, is recognized for joining his mother in rectifying the sin of Adam and Eve. He conquered the serpent by means of deception, middah kenegged middah because it used deception to bring curses upon the world.

When Esau returns and discovers that the blessing of the first-born was already given, he wails in despair, falsely accusing his brother of stealing the birthright, ignoring the fact that is Esau himself sold it for a bowl of soup. We see this in the spiritual heirs of Esau's grandson, Amalek, who dispute the birthright claim of the Jewish people on the land of Israel. A lie that fueled the grotesque violent hatred visited on the innocent people of Israel on October 7th, 2023.

Thank G-d, Jacob was given the name Israel and called firstborn by the Creator because the blessing bestowed upon on him was no less than a re-birth.

"Nations will serve you; governments will bow down to you. You shall be like a lord over your brother; your mother's children will prostrate themselves to you. Those who curse you are cursed, and those who bless you are blessed. " — Genesis 27:29

By accepting this noble calling, Jacob restored the plan that started in Gan Eden — the plan for a priesthood, serving the Creator and humanity, here on earth.


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