Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 6 November 2021 / 24 Cheshvan 5782

Misleading Deception

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The blessing ruse recorded in this week’s Torah portion unsettles us with a barrage of questions.

To review the story: Yitzchak, blind in his old age, calls for his son Esav in order to bless him. He instructs Esav to prepare food according to his liking so that he may bless him. Rivka overhears the conversation and instructs Yaakov to pose as Esav. She assuages Yaakov’s concerns that he will be discovered and that the sham will only bring curse upon him, and she accepts full responsibility, including any curse. Upon Rivka’s bidding, Yaakov brings her the animals and she prepares them. She dresses him in Esav’s clothing, and adorns his neck and arms with goat skin, so that Yitzchak may perceive him as the hairy Esav.

Yaakov beats Esav to the scene and presents the dish to his father. Yitzchak is confused — his senses give him different clues: it is the voice of Yaakov, the language of Yaakov, but the hands and smell of Esav. Ultimately, he gives the blessing to the son before him, a blessing of material bounty and political strength.

Moments later, Esav returns, eager to accept his blessing. When Yitzchak realizes he was duped, a very great terror seizes him. When Esav understands what happened, he shrieks a loud and bitter cry, and begs his father for any blessing that has been reserved for him. But Yitzchak can no longer bless him — he has already blessed Yaakov to be a master over Esav with all the necessary material provisions. With more prodding, Yitzchak carves out a new blessing for Esav: he too will enjoy the fat of the land and material blessing, but gaining political advantage will depend on Yaakov’s spiritual strength and Esav’s submissive spirit. Raging with fury, Esav plots to kill Yaakov. Rivka instructs Yaakov to flee to the house of Lavan. Only then does Yitzchak bless Yaakov with the spiritual blessing of Avraham — to be a fruitful nation and inherit the Land.

Rav Hirsch prefaces his discussion with two qualifications: He does not see his role as apologetic, but will not refrain from conclusions that may appear to others as apologetic. Further, he plainly concedes that even after analysis, much may still appear unjustified, especially when measured by the nation whose name of honor — “yeshurun” — attests to the virtue of straightforward integrity.

Of the three main actors, Yaakov’s behavior is the most clear and transparent. He obeys his mother’s command. She never expects him to act for his own interest — Rivka knows that he will resist the ruse. She silences objection by taking full responsibility and appealing to his duty to obey her.

But what could Rivka have been thinking? How could a blessing won by wile bring any true benefit from the G-d of Truth? And if she had in mind some concrete benefit such as priority in inheritance, then such grant would be null and void after the deception was inevitably discovered! Moreover, the whole masquerade seems rather clumsy. Who would really be fooled by goatskins wrapped around neck and hands?

The only thing she could have hoped to achieve was the masquerade itself! She hoped, and knew, that the truth would be discovered. Esav, a “hunter with his mouth,” knew well how to disguise his true character. He had succeeded — despite his marriage to two idolatrous Hittite women — in convincing his father that he was a befitting heir to guide the House of Avraham. Until now, Rivka had stalled Yitzchak from blessing Esav, hoping to bring about his disillusionment. But when all else failed, her plan was this: Demonstrate to Yitzchak how easily he can be deceived! If even Yaakov, the wholesome one (ish tam), could pose before him as the warrior, how much easier could Esav pose before him as righteous. She succeeded. When Yitzchak understood what happened, our Sages describe his terror as seeing Gehenom open before him — he saw how his whole life he had been deceived. Now aware, he affirmed the blessing to Yaakov, “he shall be blessed.

As for Yitzchak, his intention was to bless Esav materially and Yaakov spiritually. When Esav pleads for any “reserved blessing,” he understands that two blessings were considered, and asks for the one intended for Yaakov. But this blessing for spiritual power is inappropriate for Esav, and indeed Yaakov receives this blessing as he sets off to Lavan’s house to marry. Yitzchak envisioned a partnership where Esav, with his material power, and Yaakov, with his spiritual power, would, in harmony, build the House of Avraham. But Rivka understood, from her own childhood, that material things only bring blessing when guided by the spirit of Avraham, and that the blessings must be bestowed on the one son so moved by that spirit.

Misleading Yitzchak, in fact, led to the correction of a grave deception, and ensured that material and spiritual might be entrusted to the only son capable of forming a nation which would lead the world to the service of G-d.

  • Source: Commentary, Bereishet 26:1

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