The Early Years of Twins Jacob and Esau
Place: Czarist Russia, on the road to Moscow
Speeding along the highway is a handsome carriage drawn by six snow-white stallions. Inside the carriage sits the famous Sir Moses Montefiore, a wealthy English Jew, a Member of British Parliament, and a world-renowned philanthropist.
After hearing of the government-sponsored pogroms in Russia that embittered the lives of thousands of Jews, Montefiore traveled to Moscow to personally intervene with Czar Nicolai to ease the burden on the Jews. Montefiore’s emblem, with Hebrew letters, was displayed prominently on both sides of the carriage, causing much consternation among the Russian peasants – chagrined over the fact that such a royal carriage could belong to a Jew.
As the carriage slowed down, a rock hit its side with a loud thud. A young boy at the side of the road screamed at the top of his lungs: “Zhid! Zhid! (Jew! Jew!)” and promptly ran off as fast as he could. Montefiore immediately ordered his driver to stop the carriage and catch the stone-thrower. As the chase went on, Montefiore became very emotional, since this was the first time he had ever been the target of an anti-Semitic act.
When his men caught the culprit, he was brought red-faced before a trembling Montefiore. The boy expected a good thrashing. Instead he got a little lecture translated into Russian. “My boy, I must tell you that I have been called many titles in my career. They call me Lord, Sir, Member of Parliament and distinguished gentleman. However, the title that you called me is the one I am the most proud of. So I sincerely would like to thank you.” And with that he released the shocked boy.
The wealth of Montefiore and other financially secure Jews, such as the Rothschild family, saved countless Jews from pogroms and other assorted disasters throughout our long history.
In Parshat Toldot we read of Isaac’s plan to give his son Esau the material blessings, so that he could protect and support Jacob who would spend his life in the spiritual realm of Torah study and prayer.
However, our matriarch Rebecca strongly disagreed. She had grown up with the deceitful Laban and had seen what materialism – without spiritual growth – can lead to. She understood that Jacob could not be dependent on Esau for support, but that Jacob must receive material blessings as well. Where would the Jewish people be without the Montefiores and Rothschilds, to help rescue us from difficulty?
Our Parsha is a continuation of the story of Abraham’s family: the marriage of Isaac, and the birth of Jacob and Esau. Jacob purchased the “first-bornship” (birthright) from his brother, shrewdly received the blessing from his father, and then fled for his life – as the first “wandering Jew.”
THEIR PRAYERS ANSWERED
After 20 years of marriage, Isaac and Rebecca realized that Rebecca was barren and had to pray for a child. The Sages ask, “Why were all the matriarchs barren?” (Even Leah was originally barren, although she had her prayers answered right away.) They reply: Because God, so to speak, desires the prayers of the righteous, and therefore sometimes puts them into rough situations so they will pray. Prayer is like a spaceship, capable of elevating one to endless spiritual growth.
“And Isaac prayed for Rebecca his wife, and God answered his prayers” (Genesis 25:21). The Sages comment that Isaac’s prayers were answered over Rebecca’s because he was “a righteous person the child of a righteous person,” while Rebecca was righteous but had evil parents.
Question: Isn’t a Baal Teshuva (repentant) on a higher level than someone who never sinned? Therefore shouldn’t Rebecca, having come from a specious background, deserve more credit?
Answer: On one hand, a Baal Teshuva is on a higher level as he has more temptation than one who never transgressed. On the other hand, the merit of righteous ancestors is a big plus for getting prayers answered. Another point is that the patriarchs didn’t only follow in their father’s footsteps, but each one blazed his own path to God: Abraham excelled in “kindness,” Isaac in “strength,” and Jacob in “truth.”
CONFRONTATION IN THE WOMB
When Rebecca became pregnant, she noticed conflicting feelings inside her womb. The Sages explain that whenever Rebecca passed a Yeshiva, Jacob would push toward the opening as if to say “Let me out!” Whenever she passed by the house of idolatry, Esau would push forward “Let me out!”
Rebecca was not aware that she was carrying twins, and she was concerned: Even more than the fact that her child, a grandson of Abraham, would want to go the house of idolatry, she feared that this same child would be a hypocrite – going back and forth between the study hall and the pool hall.
“She went to inquire of God” (Genesis 25:22). The Sages explain that Rebecca visited the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. The reason she didn’t ask Isaac or Abraham, who were greater prophets, was to spare them the knowledge that their son/grandson would become an idolater.
When Shem and Ever revealed that Rebecca would have twins, and that the older would become subordinate to the younger, she did not tell anyone. This, however, explains her later behavior in helping Jacob (the younger) get the blessings from Isaac.
Classical Question: According to Jewish tradition, a baby in its mother’s womb is taught the entire Torah (everything there is to know about living) by an angel, which the baby subsequently forgets right before its birth. (The purpose of this is so we can find truth within ourselves and determine if this was the message the angel taught us or not.) If so, we can understand Esau’s wanting to leave the womb, but why would Jacob want to leave that ideal environment?
Answer: One may have the most ideal setting and teacher, but if Esau is your learning partner, you want to get out!
THE BIRTH OF TWINS
Esau emerged first, hairy and with a ruddy complexion. The name Esau means “fully-made,” as he was born completely formed.
His brother, however, was holding tightly onto Esau’s heel and was called Jacob, which means “in the heel.” The Sages explain why Jacob held his brother’s heel: When two balls are inserted in a tube and then inverted, the one inserted last (being closer to the opening) exits first. So when Esau (who was conceived last) exited first, Jacob tried to hold him back, claiming, “I’m the real first born!”
The twins were brought up identically and received the same education. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch sees this as a criticism. King Solomon in Proverbs tells us: “Educate a child according to his own way.” This means that parents and teachers have to understand the differences of each child and respond accordingly. In their youth, Jacob and Esau shared the same bench, and studied the same subjects. As soon as they matured, each one went his own way. Had Esau been raised differently, the results might have been otherwise.
Jacob was a “straight guy,” not inclined to mislead others, and he studied diligently in Yeshiva. Esau, on the other hand, was a hunter. He stealthily stalked his prey, and then pounced on them. This was a skill he acquired in his youth while fooling everyone in Yeshiva!
“Isaac loved Esau as he hunted for his food, while Rebecca loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28). There is a concept that opposites attract. Isaac was more of an introvert, as opposed to his outgoing father, Abraham. Isaac appreciated the potential of Esau who went out and accomplished things. He hunted for his food and he “hunted” Isaac as well by fooling him about his true essence. Esau would ask pious questions like, “How does one tithe salt?” (which does not require tithing) and other seemingly “frum” questions merely to appear righteous.
Isaac took the greatness of Jacob for granted. Rebecca, however, had grown up with Laban (a bigger crook than Esau) and she wasn’t fooled for a minute. She saw right through Esau’s bluff. At the same time, Rebecca had never seen the likes of Jacob in her life: perfect character traits and complete diligence! Of course she loved her son Esau as well. But hearing the prophecy that “the younger son will be greater” certainly had an effect.
THE LENTIL SOUP
“Jacob was cooking a lentil soup” (Genesis 25:29). The Sages say that this was the day that Abraham died, and Jacob was preparing these lentils as the mourner’s meal for his father. Lentils are round, representing the cycle of life from birth to death. (The custom today is to serve eggs, which are also round.)
Esau came home exhausted from hunting. The Sages say he had dueled Nimrod for the garment of Adam – made by God, and given to Adam in the Garden of Eden.
“Just pour some of that red stuff down my throat,” exclaimed Esau.
“Sell me your first-bornship in exchange,” Jacob replied. “The first born is the leader of the family. Our grandfather Abraham died today while you were out hunting and didn’t even attend the funeral. What if Isaac were to die now and you took over – you’d change the house of Abraham into a hunting lodge! So sell me your first-bornship.”
Esau inquired about the obligations of a first-born – who is the High Priest of the Jewish people, and who enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. If the High Priest forfeits the service even by a wrong intention for one minute, or is not fitting for the position, he dies on the spot.
Esau said, “What do I need the first-bornship for? It will just cause me to die?” So Jacob bought the first-bornship from Esau for a bowl of lentil soup.
After he finished eating, Esau returned home. He didn’t argue with Jacob: “You took advantage of my hunger! I changed my mind!” Not a word. “Goodbye and good luck!” Esau belittled the first-bornship. He sold it for a mere bowl of soup.
WANDERINGS OF ISAAC
History repeats itself as another famine hits Canaan. Isaac was prepared to follow in his illustrious father’s way and go down to Egypt – but God forbade him from doing so. The Torah tells us that when one animal offering is substituted for another, they both retain their holiness. Since Isaac was designated by his father as a burnt offering (during the famous “Binding of Isaac”), even after the ram was offered in his stead, Isaac still remained holy and therefore could not leave the Land of Israel.
Isaac and Rebecca traveled to Grar, the kingdom of Avimelech (a descendent of the original Avimelech of Abraham’s times). Isaac and Rebecca also tried the “brother-sister routine,” which seemed to work until the king realized they weren’t acting in a brother-sister manner.
Avimelech rebuked Isaac for fooling him and then was forced to grant them royal protection under the penalty of death. This Torah recounts all this to teach us about the social conditions our ancestors had to face. When Isaac prospered financially, the surrounding populace banned him. When they later wanted to make a treaty with him (look how good we are for not killing you!), Isaac cooperated.
Isaac had to quarrel with people over two wells, until they granted him the third well without a fight. They told Isaac: “You dig the well and keep the dirt!“, [however] “the water is ours” (Genesis 26:20). Nachmanides sees here a reference to the three Holy Temples, two of which were destroyed and the third which will remain forever.
We see here how the neighbors regarded the different patriarchs: Abraham was a “Prince of God in their midst” (Genesis 23:6), Isaac was discriminated against, and Jacob became the “wandering Jew.”
THE BLESSINGS OF ISAAC (A STEP-BY-STEP ACCOUNT)
(1) Esau got married at age 40. (Just like Daddy!) He married Canaanite women (as if he had never heard that the Abrahamic family had an aversion to such marriages), causing his parents much consternation.
(2) Isaac went blind. Some say the smoke of his daughters-in-law’s incense of idolatry entered his eyes, causing blindness.
Question: What observant Jew would allow his daughters-in-law to burn incense for idolatry in his own house?
Answer: Obviously they didn’t announce that it was for idolatry; rather it was done secretly. Although Rebecca knew about idolatry from her youth, Isaac was extremely sensitive and therefore it caused a physical reaction. Rashi, however, says simply that the purpose of Isaac’s blindness was so that Jacob would receive the blessings.
(3) Isaac summoned Esau and requested venison to eat, saying that Esau will then receive the blessings before Isaac dies. Rebecca overheard and summoned Jacob. She informed him of his father’s request and ordered him to take Esau’s place. (Some say they were identical twins, the only difference being Esau’s hairy and Jacob’s smooth skin.) Obviously, “straight” Jacob did not approve and feared receiving a curse instead, but Rebecca pulled rank and he had no choice.
(4) Rebecca prepared goat meat (it tastes like venison) and put the goat skins on Jacob’s neck and arms, so he would seem hairy like Esau. Jacob entered the tent.
Question: Was Isaac really fooled by Esau’s behavior or not?
Answer: Some say he was, and really intended to give the blessings to Esau. Some say he was aware that Jacob was the one growing spiritually, yet he had a reason to give Esau the physical blessings so that he would support and protect Jacob. He intended to save the spiritual blessings for Jacob later.
(5) Jacob addressed his father in a soft tone (“Please arise”) and mentioned God’s Name. This caused Isaac to become suspicious, and he requested physical contact. He then made the far-reaching observation that “the voice is Jacob’s and the hands are Esau’s.” This means that the main weapon that keeps the Jewish people going is the power of prayer and Torah study.
(6) Isaac smelled Jacob’s garment (the original garment God made for Adam) and declared it to be “the smell of the field that God has blessed” (Genesis 27:27). The Sages explain that Isaac smelled the Garden of Eden.
(7) Isaac gave his son a blessing for materialism (believing it to be Esau): “May God give you the dew of Heaven and the fat of the Earth” (Genesis 27:28). Rebecca understood that Jacob could not be dependant on Esau for his physical existence and needed the material blessings as well.
(8) Esau finally arrived. Jacob hid behind the door. The Midrash tells us that Esau would trap a deer and tie it up, then hunt for another one; meanwhile an angel would release the first one. This was to stall for time so that Jacob could receive the blessings.
(9) Esau spoke in his usual rough tone: “Get up, Father, and eat from my venison” (Genesis 27:31). Isaac smelled the smell of Hell and actually felt it opening up before him. He immediately realized his mistake. Instead of being angry at Jacob, however, Isaac said, “May he also be blessed” (Genesis 27:33). Yet Isaac was terribly afraid of the consequences of his mistake. “What did I do? I gave material blessings to Jacob! He’s supposed to become dean of the Yeshiva, yet I made him a businessman and warrior!” But Rebecca understood better.
Question: What did Rebecca intend to accomplish with this ruse? It is obvious that the trick would be exposed sooner or later, as soon as Esau arrived. And of what value is a blessing given under false pretenses?
Answer: This was all Rebecca wanted to accomplish. Whenever she would comment to Isaac how Esau was fooling him, Isaac would retort, “You can’t fool me! I am a good judge of character.” Rebecca wanted to show Isaac that he could indeed be fooled, and not only by an Esau, but even by a straight Jacob using a few goatskins. As soon as Isaac realized this, the wool was removed from his eyes, and he realized that Esau had been fooling him for years. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)
(10) Esau cried and begged his father for a blessing. He appreciated that the blessing of Isaac was for all eternity. “At least give me the blessing that you were saving for Jacob!” he demanded. His father replied, “That is a spiritual blessing, Esau, and you have no use for that!” There was no longer a place for Esau’s personality in the house of the Jewish people.
(11) Finally, Isaac blessed Esau: “When Jacob goes down, you will be the counterbalance.” This means that whenever in history the masses of Jews will violate the Torah and ignore the consequences, Esau will utilize anti-Semitism to castigate Jacob until he repents.
(12) Esau hated Jacob for his trickery and vowed in his heart to murder him as soon as Isaac passed away. (He wouldn’t cause his father such pain in his lifetime.) Rebecca was aware, through Divine Inspiration, of Esau’s plans and begged Jacob to flee. She advised him to go to her brother Laban, whom Esau would be afraid of starting up with.
(13) Rebecca told Isaac (not “I told you so!”): “I can’t take these Canaanite women. If Jacob marries one of them, I would rather die!” Isaac understood and summoned Jacob. He ordered him not to marry a Canaanite. Isaac gave him the spiritual blessing of Abraham that he had been saving for him all along (wholeheartedly confirming that all the blessings are now Jacob’s), and told him to go marry the daughters of Laban. Jacob took his leave.
14) Esau now realized that his parents did not approve of his wives. (“How do you like that!”) So he went out and married the daughter of Ishmael, in addition to his Canaanite wives. (Of course he didn’t divorce the first ones. Don’t be too extreme!)
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