What Yitzchak Wanted, What Yitzchak Was Told to Want

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Toledot

Maybe, Not Lest

When Ya’akov objects to his mother’s plan to have him pretend to be Esav, to receive Yitzhak’s blessing, 27;12, he says ulai, maybe, my father will feel me, realize I am not Esav, I will seem like I am trying to fool him, and he will curse me. (At the end of his comment, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah points to Ramban’s reading, Ya’akov thought Yitzchak might want to hug him, as a father does, not investigate whether he was truly Esav.)

R. Mecklenburg thinks the wordulaiimplies a hoped-for result. If Ya’akov meant “I’m worried my father will feel me and detect the ruse,” he should have said pen, lest. For example, Hashem expelled Adam and Chavah from the Garden pen, lest, they eat of the Tree of Life, the people built the Tower of Bavel pen, lest, they scatter. As opposed to ulai, where Ya’akov will later send a gift in the hopes, ulai, Esav will not kill him.

R. Mecklenburg therefore infers Ya’akov wanted to get caught. He is unhappy misleading his father, wants Yitzchak to bless whomsoever he wants. He hopes his father will feel him, catch him, then decide who deserves the blessing.

The Runup to Esav’s Blessing

R. Hirsch’s creative reading of 27;2 starts with two simple textual questions. First, why would Yitzchak need food to bless Esav? While some thought it similar to Elisha’s calling for music to prepare for prophecy, II Melachim 3;15, R. Hirsch does not see how food would do that. Music soothes the soul and elevates it, but food does not seem to have the same effects.

Whatever the answer, he also wonders why Yitzchak would speak of his soul blessing Esav, rather than he blessing him. Iyov 31;20 speaks of a poor man’s loins blessing the person who gave him clothing to stay warm and Tehillim 103-04 uses the phrase barchi nafshi, let my soul praise, five times. However, in those verses, the body part that benefitted from the relationship is the one that issues the praise. How does relate to here?

Trying to Redirect

R. Hirsch thinks Yitzchak understood Esav well (where other commentators thought Esav had successfully misrepresented himself to his father), and was trying to salvage a role for him in God’s people. Until then, Esav hunted for fun and thrills, for the sense of mastery over other creatures. Yitzchak wanted to show him how his hunting talents could be used to benefit humanity, such as by feeding an ill old man, in the hopes he would convert it into a way to help the weak in general, or even–by realizing the fields he used as hunting grounds were “asher beracho Hashem, blessed by God”– turn to farming.

The kindness for his father would have Yitzchak experience Esav’s in a kinder version, bless him from within that experience. For R. Hirsch, Yitzchak hoped it would change Esav, too. Because parents cling to hope their children will find their best selves, no matter where they are right now.

Freeing Yitzchak to Be More Public

In chapter twenty-six, the first two wells Yitzchak digs are contested by the shepherds of Gerar. He digs a third, in peace, showing him the possibility he has found room to be successful. Then he moves to Beersheva, where God appears to him, verse twenty-four, reassures him he need not fear, God will be with him, bless him and multiply his descendants, as promised to Avraham.

Malbim seems to think Yitzchak’s one successful well did not give him the kind of confidence he deserved. He goes to Beersheva, where Avraham had lived and spread faith in God. Such acts imbue a place with holiness; Avraham served as a vehicle for the entry of the Divine Presence, had made God more known in the world, and it made Beersheva itself a place more prone to prophecy.

Yitzchak has not yet done that, Malbim notes, which he attributes to fear. God appearing to him the first time, leading to Yitzchak building an altar in the Name of God, and having his servants dig one more well. Visited by God for a second time this chapter, Malbim thinks he was now ready to take up his proper role, emulate his father as a force for awareness of God in the world.

What Avraham Kept

In the earlier time He spoke to Yitzchak, Hashem promised blessing, offspring, and the Land, because Avraham hearkened to Hashem, kept mitzvotai, chukkotai, ve-torotaiChazal took it to mean Avraham kept the Torah, including rabbinic law, either intuiting it all or having been told it in a nonobligatory way.

R. David Zvi Hoffman wants a simpler reading of the verse (and does not quote earlier commentators, such as Ramban, who had given such readings!). He suggests mishmarti, My Charge, refers to Avraham’s general service and fear of God, which are like mishmeret Hashem, the guarding of Hashem’s ways.

Mitzvotai refers to Hashem’s specific commands, such as for Avraham to leave his land or offer his son in sacrifice. Chukkotai are laws God made for nature as a whole and people in particular, the ways the world works, such as what Hashem says in 18;19, derech Hashem, la’asot tzedakah u-mishpat, the way of God, to do justice and righteousness.” Finally, torotai must mean (R. Hoffman says), laws Hashem revealed to those who fear Him in particular, the seven Noahide laws and the commandment of circumcision.

Avraham served Hashem in general, obeyed Hashem’s direct commands, understood what Hashem wanted out of the world and followed those dictates, and observed the mitzvot Hashem had already instituted. A merit that benefited his son Yitzchak.

Yitzchak needed more encouragement to publicize his relationship with God, though, a relationship he later tried to bring Esav to adopt, while Ya’akov wanted what his father wanted, even if he lost the main blessing.

About Gidon Rothstein

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