The Righteous Children of a Holy Marriage
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau and Isaac’s blessing of his sons before his death. I would like to focus on this latter story, the story of the switching of the blessings between Isaac and Esau.
Although chapter 27 begins with the description of Isaac’s old age and his failed vision, I believe the story actually begins with the previous few verses. Those verses tell of Esau’s choosing two Canaanite women as his wives, who cause bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. The final verse of the portion (Genesis 28:9) describes Esau marrying a daughter of Ishmael, “Abraham’s son.” The implication is obvious. Esau’s initial marriage to two Canaanite women upset his parents, as Abraham had ensured that his son not marry a Canaanite woman and Isaac understood and integrated this concept into his own value system. After losing the blessing to Jacob, Esau finally realizes that his parents oppose intermarriage with the Canaanites. In a belated and ineffective attempt to regain his parents’ confidence in him, he takes a wife who is a descendant of Abraham.
The issue of Esau’s marriages, therefore, forms the framework for the story that develops within – the replacement of Esau by Jacob as the heir and first-born of Isaac. It is interesting to note that Scripture, in describing Esau, never uses the word first-born, but refers to him as the older son (Genesis 27:1, 42). It is only Esau who refers to himself as the first-born (Genesis 27:32). God has made His opinion known – Esau is not Isaac’s heir.
Isaac’s vision has dimmed, a fact that serves not only to explain how Isaac would have confused his two sons, but that also provides a figurative explanation to a different sort of blindness – Isaac’s inability to discern the true character of his son Esau and the fact that it is Jacob who should be his true heir.
Interestingly though, Isaac, confusing Jacob with Esau, blesses Jacob with material wealth and dominance over his brother. But he does not give him the blessing of Abraham, the blessing of children and the Land of Israel. This blessing is held back, bestowed upon Jacob before he leaves for Haran (Genesis 28:4). Probably, Isaac intended to give this blessing to Jacob all along. Perhaps Isaac believed that his two children would share an inheritance, that Esau would have political dominance but that Jacob would be the father of God’s people and would possess God’s land.
Perhaps it is Esau’s choice of wives which enables Isaac to see, from the outset, that Esau will not receive the blessing of Abraham. At the end of the day, the people of Israel, the children which Abraham was promised by God, must descend from a man who understands the holiness of the relationship between man and woman and who marries a woman worthy of that relationship. In the previous Torah portion, we read of Abraham’s incredible efforts to select the appropriate wife for Isaac. Esau’s marriage to Hitite women enabled both Rebekah and Isaac to understand that Esau could not be Abraham’s heir.
Isaac believed, however, that Esau might still attain political dominance. He believed, wrongly, that the chosen people of God would have spiritual dominance without political dominance. Rebekah however, understood that the people of Israel would need both. But as Isaac understood later, in order to sustain both political and spiritual dominance, the Children of Jacob would need to be worthy. Isaac tells Esau: “when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck” (Genesis 27:40). Rashi, one of the most important of Jewish classical commentators, explains that this refers to Esau seeing Jacob in sin and feeling wronged by the superior blessings that Jacob has received – then, indeed, Jacob will suffer and Esau’s power will prevail.
May we indeed be worthy of attaining both spiritual and political dominance as we struggle to hold on to the Land of Israel, first promised to our forefather Abraham as an everlasting inheritance.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office
Here is a more in-depth teaching on the Torah Portion Toldot.