by R. Gidon Rothstein
In a book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses, David Galenson argues some artists make their mark while young, bring a startlingly new paradigm into the world, and some build towards their eventual excellence, step by step. Kli Yakar makes a similar contrast in our parsha, only with the young side faring not nearly as well as in Galenson’s paradigm.
The verses describing the birth of Esav and Ya’akov tell Kli Yakar their differences were already clear by then. Esav comes out full of hair, his name a marker of how fully formed he left the womb (the letters of Esav can be read asu, made). To Kli Yakar, it signifies he was a man of this world, leaving nothing over for the next. He will be a person who uses his five senses, ready to go, to find ways to satisfy his material needs and urges.
Intellect takes more time to develop, an idea Kli Yakar tells us he has expressed before (2;7, suggesting it was a running theme). Esav has the advantage in the physical, but will not move on to grow in those areas, has come out as he will be.
On the other hand, Ya’akov is born holding on to Esav’s heel, showing his “hand,” his strength and control, will come only at the end. A baraita on Shabbat 152a made the point he is expressing, Torah scholars grow into and throughout their old age, develop an excellence they only achieve with time.
[Of course, some Torah scholars had very short lives, yet still managed to leave their imprint on the Torah world. For examples I remember offhand, Rema, R. Moshe Isserles, lived forty-two years, Magen Avraham forty-seven, and Shach, forty-one, although the last two lived after Kli Yakar.
I am sure he would say they would have accomplished even more, qualitatively as well as quantitatively, had they had the time. In his own life, his first major work came out when he was fifty, Kli Yakar when he was sixty-two, and he did not become the rabbi of Prague (after the very long-lived Maharal) until he was sixty-four.]
It means it is almost impossible to reward the righteous in this world, because they do their greatest work in old age, when their intellect soars to new heights, a culmination of all their years of effort [in fact the way Galenson characterized his “old masters,” a lifetime of work coming together in a lasting piece of art].
By then, their physical sides are too weakened for “this-world” reward to be meaningful, it awaits them in the next world.
[He doesn’t push it further, but I believe he is trying to tell his audience they should not be too caught up in admiring those who develop quickly, should be more aware of and rely on those who have had the time to grow into their wisdom. For the past few decades, I think we have seen a similar excessive tilt towards youth, in breaking and making new business models, that has not always been healthy, either.]
The Wells Symbolize Torah, Israel, and the World to Come
I am not well-versed in kabbalah, which may mean I will eventually bow out from sharing ideas of the Vilna Gaon’s, since he was and uses it greatly in his comments. For Toledot, he reads the three wells Yitzhak digs, esek, sitnah, and rehovot, in kabbalistic ways. The plain reading of the verses tell us the first two names signified the fighting with Plishtim over ownership of the wells, the last one, uncontested, named for the room Yitzhak had finally found to grow his place in the land.
The Gra says water symbolizes Yitzhak, as he represents the gevurah, the grand feat, of God bringing rain [an idea we find in the second blessing of our standing prayer, where Avraham is reflected in the first blessing, Yitzhak in the second, about God’s gevurah].
The Zohar refers to three aspects of God that the Gaon thinks are also found in these wells, with parallels to three gifts the Jewish people can only access through yisurim, travails (see Berachot 5), Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come. Torah is given with gevurah, for the Gaon the reason R. Ashi on Ta’anit 4a insists a Torah scholar mustbe hard like iron.
The Land of Israel was given by the divine quality of malchut, kingship, and the World to Come with binah, insight.
Parts of the World With Sitra Ahra, Parts Wihtout
Then comes the kabbalistic part I just can’t express well. Kabbalah speaks of masculine and feminine aspects of God and divine influence; the Gaon says the first of those wells comes from a masculine place, with one kind of fighting, the second a more feminine, with a different kind, the last well coming from a part of the divine over which the sitra ahra, the oppositional forces of the world, have no control.
I think it is fair to say the Gaon sees each of the wells as having brought to Yitzhak a slightly different version of God’s bounty, the first two of which are of the type God has left room for oppositional forces to attack or disrupt. By the third one—reflective of the World to Come—the oppositional forces will no longer play a role, and Yitzhak (and those of us who merit the World to Come) receives the benefits of God with no problems.
[I think he assumes R. Ashi thinks the yissurim of acquiring the World to Come actually came before, while acquiring Torah and Israel, but I am not sure.]
Helping Ya’akov Around the Problem of Fooling His Father
Rivkah urges Ya’akov to trick Yitzhak into giving him the blessings. When Ya’akov demurs, she tells him she will bear the consequences (literally, she will take whatever curse Yitzhak might place if he catches him), 27;13. Hatam Sofer makes two points: first, he suggests there would have been greater consequences than we might think.
Hullin 96b allows a blind man to live with his wife only because he recognizes her voice. Were Ya’akov able to fool his father with the sound of his voice, as Rivkah is telling him to do, she could no longer stay married! In the end, all was well, because Yitzhak did recognize his son’s voice, although Ya’akov found a way to secure the blessings anyway.
[He fudges a bit, because it would be Yitzhak who would not be allowed to stay with her; he either means Yitzhak would eventually find out and feel obligated to separate, or that she would have to divorce him so as not to put him in a situation where he unwittingly does wrong.
The whole conversation assumes the Avot were bound by halachah, a very common assumption among Torah scholars, based on a statement of Rav, Yoma 28b. Also, if Yitzhak recognized his voice, Rivkah’s assurances had stopped working, and Ya’akov was on his own, Hatam Sofer would seem to mean.]
His second idea focuses on her brushing off Ya’akov’s concerns, telling him to hearken to her voice. Hatam Sofer says she was telling him to focus on obeying her because she was his mother, and someone performing a mitzvah is protected from harm. Were he to be intent on receiving the blessings, a less mitzvah-directed focus, he could be susceptible to divine punishment. For Hatam Sofer, intent can make an action one of mitzvah, where other intentions would make it more mundane.
Go To Lavan, Don’t Come Back to Israel
Ha’amek Davar detects two pieces to Rivkah’s command to Ya’akov to flee Esav. She tells him to stay with Lavan “yamim ahadim, a few days,” 27;45, then adds to stay away until she sends for him. He points out we have two kinds of anger, an immediate burning rage, hemah, which lasts for a short period of time, under the influence of which Esav would chase after Ya’akov. For that, he needs to be with Lavan, who can protect him.
Once it dies down, Esav’s af, his continuing stewing over the wrong he perceived done to him, will last an indeterminate time, for all of which time Ya’akov cannot be in Israel, because it is too close to Esav. After that, too, settles, Rivkah will send for him.
It explains why Ya’akov told Lavan he was ready to leave, and make his own living, before he was actually going to go back to Israel. He was not yet able to return, because his mother hadn’t sent for him, but—having worked off his two wives, which took long enough for Esav’s hemah to pass– he no longer needed to be in Lavan’s house. When Lavan made him a financial offer worth accepting, he did, because he had no particular other place to be. Until Hashem came to him in a dream and said go back home (right around when Rivkah’s messenger came for him as well).
The Powers of Time
Other than Hatam Sofer, the ideas we saw for Toledot teach us about how time can foster growth and success. Kli Yakar told us Torah scholarship and righteousness are built up over time, the Vilna Gaon thought the progression of Yitzhak’s wells took him through stages of growth in engagement with God, and Ha’amek Davar thought time would let both kinds of Esav’s anger subside.
With a very different idea by Hatam Sofer, that Rivkah was risking her marriage sending Ya’akov to fool her husband, and Ya’akov had to approach the incident with the right motives or else risk being a blessings-grabber.