Yitzhak and Rivka Struggle Over Esav

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzchak, Sha’ar Twenty-Four,Third Part

Last time, R. Arama took Yitzhak’s blindness as affecting more than his physical sight; he thought the verse meant the Patriarch also became less insightful than he had been.

Helping Esav Along

Less does not mean not at all, and Yitzhak saw Esav well enough to know his son would need help to get the blessinngs. He sent him on an errand, to hunt a meal for his father, to tip the scales in Esav’s favor, to put him in a position where he was acting well, fulfilling a mitzvah, as a way to “convince” Hashem Esav deserved the bekhorah, the status as first-born. [I’ll leave for some other time R. Arama’s important and too-little noticed assumption of our right and ability to try to sway Hashem, as it were, to present a case for an outcome we think Hashem does not currently want.]

Hashem takes momentary good as evidence of the possible longer-term, such as with circumcision and/or the Pesah sacrifice in Egypt. For all the Jews offering those sacrifices will soon regress (I would have said Yom Kippur, too, when we show our best selves, but often backslide), Hashem takes them as they are. Having Esav hunt for his father makes him in that moment a servant of Gd, turns him into someone whose every action, for the entire process of hunting and preparing the meal, serves Gd. (R. Arama here assumes actions done she-lo lishmah, with other than the purest intentions, can count as well.

I think he thinks (he doesn’t say it completely clearly) Yitzhak intended this to be the first of many times he would have Esav hunt and cook for him; he was going to give the blessing now, long before he passed away, and start Esav on a regular course of improvement, to be sure Esav would be worthy by the time Yitzhak’s time on earth came to an end.

He assumes Yitzhak had more than a little insight into Esav, then; the disagreement with Rivka over the blessings wasn’t about who Esav was as much as it was about who Esav could be, and whether the odds were good enough to work with him or low enough to switch them to Ya’akov.  Yitzhak thought Esav was salvageable. R. Arama seems to be saying, and sending him on the hunt was the first step in salvaging him. The idea is all the more remarkable given R. Arama’s view Yitzhak intended the blessing to be conferred through the middat ha-din, the Attribute of Justice; for R. Arama, I think, it is a matter of justice to see a person’s plausible future, to see s/he has started on the path to it, and therefore can be granted opportunities and blessings.

Sadly, R. Arama thinks Esav missed the point, failed to see the broader picture his father was trying to help him construct. When people fully obey what they are told, the verse says va-ya’as ken, the person did (exactly) thus. Bamidbar 8;3 uses the phrase about Aharon and the Menorah, and Sifrei says it is a compliment to Aharon, he did exactly as told, to R. Arama a sign he obeyed the overall goals as well as the specific details. For Esav, the verse says only he went and hunted the meat, does not describe him as obeying his father.

[Interestingly to me because of my own experiences, if R. Arama is right, the story seems to tell us limits of the approach. In the story as told in the Torah, Rivka and Ya’akov were right to take the blessing, implying Yitzhak was wrong, overestimated the possibility of Esav’s redemption. Those who lean more towards seeing the positive possibilities in current spiritual underachievers can dismiss the comparison, I suppose, because none of us meet Esavs. Perhaps everyone else does have a better future out there.]

Rivka Disagreed

The verse says Rivka heard the conversation, sounding as if she was eavesdropping. R. Arama thinks she was, because Yitzhak knew she thought Ya’akov was the one for the blessings, knew she favored him. (If he is right, their trickery is slightly less deceitful, Yitzhak aware of and alert to it.)

Rivka tells Ya’akov what to do, instead of letting him figure it out for himself, for similar reasons to Yitzhak with Esav, to give Ya’akov the extra merits of obeying his mother.

Although the verse does not say va-ya’as ken, he did as told, it does say he brought the items to his mother, to R. Arama proof he was obeying her fully [I note it because I think he’s cheating a little, in that Esav also did as told, yet R. Arama took them to miss the overall objective. To me, it’s a reminder of how easily our personal interests and assumptions can shape our reading of texts.]

I am, as always, skipping a great deal [and, a propos of my previous comment, we have to worry I skip pieces in a way unfair to R. Arama’s interests; I don’t think I do, but I should worry I might]. One more point I did not want to leave out is R. Arama’s assumption Ya’akov adjusted his voice to be like Esav’s. We know they had different voices because Yitzhak eventually says ha-kol kol Ya’akov, the voice is the voice of Ya’akov, ve-hayadayim yedei Esav, but the hands are the hands of Esav. Granting Ya’akov could do a passable imitation of his twin, R. Arama assumes he gave the game away when he explained his quick return with words Esav would never say, Hashem your Gd caused the animals to appear before me.

[He does not explain why Ya’akov used those words. The two main possibilities I see are either Ya’akov slipped up, knew to wear clothing to be like Esav, knew to change the sound of his voice, and then forgot to speak with words his brother would use. A less odd, and more striking, idea would be to say Ya’akov was unwilling to change his wording to maintain the charade. Were that how R. Arama understood it (better, were that how it happened), it would make a remarkable point about the lines some people are unwilling to cross, in this case Ya’akov’s insistence on attributing good fortune to Hashem, at the possible cost of being found out, of losing the blessings he had worked hard to secure.]

Standards for Material Prosperity for Ya’akov and Esav

Yitzhak uses the Name Elokim in blessing Ya’akov because material blessings only come when subordinated to truer and more important blessings. By saying Elokim, Yitzhak was making clear the blessings were directed at purposes valuable in Elokim’s eyes, meaning truly valuable.

He made no such pretense when he later came to bless Esav, knowing Ya’akov had gotten the first ones. There, starting at 27;39, he just says Esav will benefit from the material world, a distinction R. Arama reads Shlomo HaMelekh to have adopted as well. In I Melakhim 8, when Shlomo prays for the newly built Temple to serve as a world center for pryers to Hashem, he asks for Hashem to answer Jews’ prayers according to their “ways,” meaning what they deserve; for non-Jews, he asks only Hashem do as they call for Hashem to do.

[I could have imagined Shlomo was saying the act of non-Jews praying to Hashem by way of the Bet Ha-Mikdash was itself enough of a merit to deserve a positive response; R. Arama seems to be saying something else, standards for Esav were so low, he would get his blessings just because.]

Managing Esav

Esav reacts to the incident by speaking of Yitzhak’s approaching demise. Rashi reads his words— yikrevu yeme evel avi—as “let the days of mourning for my father draw near,” to allow him to then kill Ya’akov without it bothering the deceased Yitzhak. R. Arama reads it differently (perhaps because Rivka reacts as if it is an immediate concern, arranges to send Ya’akov away right away). He thinks Esav means “I don’t care if my actions lead my father to an early grave, I’m still going to kill Ya’akov.” It takes Esav down a notch, makes him even worse than the substantially negative view Rashi already proffers.

Nor was sending Ya’akov away the whole answer. R. Arama thinks Rivka (wise in the practicalities of life) couches it as a matter of finding a wife to avoid Esav chasing him. Were Ya’akov to run away in fear, Esav would chase (none of us likes our plans to be foiled). Maneuvering to have Yitzhak tell Ya’akov to go , for a separate purpose, would rob Esav of any reason to see this as a further irritant. Too, with Ya’akov going to their joint uncle, Esav would see it as accessible, giving him no reason to feel he had to urgently catch Ya’akov right then.

To R. Arama, the verse confirms his view when it says Esav saw Yitzkhak blessed Ya’akov and sent him to Padan Aram, leading Esav to go and add wives from the Abrahamaic family as well. The topic of conversation had been changed, turning his attention away from his brother’s therft of the blessings. [It paints Esav as very mercurial, ready to kill his brother regardless of the impact on his father’s health, distracted by a ploy as simple as Ya’akov’s being sent to take a wife.]

Material blessings matter, R. Arama has argued in this sha’ar, and arranging they went to the person who deserved them was enough for Rivka and Ya’akov to violate their usual standards of conduct, because Yitzhak still thought he could find a way for Esav to be worthy. Managing Yitzhak, then managing Esav to stop him from following through on his plan to kill his brother, was Rivka’s big contribution to Parshat Toledot, and to Jewish history.

About Gidon Rothstein

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