Synthesizing The Physical And The Spiritual

Rather than dividing the spiritual and physical blessings between Jacob and Esau, Rebekah saw the need for Jacob to receive both.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations. The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

Parashat Toldot introduces our Patriarch Jacob as well as his brother Esau, and, from the outset, tips us off to the coming conflict between them. The Torah tells of their "struggle" within their mother's womb, and, as young adults, describes them very differently.

Esau is "a hunter, a man of the field," while Jacob is "ish tam," (a simple/whole man) who sits in tents. These textual descriptions, Rashi and Ibn Ezra point out, indicate that Esau is a "trickster," a man not to be trusted, while Jacob is a "simple" or "naive" shepherd, who spends his days studying Torah.

Who is the Victim?

Yet, the comments of these rishonim (medieval sages), which echo those of Chazal (rabbinic sages) seem to be at odds with the simple understanding of the narrative.

Consider, as events of the parashah unfold, who is the trickster and who is the victim. Even as they were being born, Jacob grasped Esau's ankle, trying to force his way out of the womb first.

Later, as young adults, Esau returns from a day of hunting famished and exhausted, begging his brother for food. Jacob demands Esau's birthright in exchange for some soup. Then, when Rebekah proposes that Jacob disguise himself as Esau in order to "steal" his berachah (blessing) from Isaac, Jacob protests--not because of the deception involved, but because he fears getting caught and consequently cursed by his father.

jacob and esau fightingNevertheless, despite these indications of Jacob's trickery and Esau's victimhood, Chazal find indications of Esau's evil. They point to his readiness to sell the bechorah (birthright) as well as to the wives he took, who aggravated his mother, Rebekah. Thus it seems all the more amazing in light of Chazal's insights that Isaac seemed oblivious to Esau's evil and Jacob's good such that he sought to confer his blessing upon Esau.

Understanding Blessings

How are we to understand Jacob's early actions, Isaac's plan to bless Esau, Jacob's theft of the berachah, and the subsequent confrontations that he faced--all in a manner that gives us insight into this Patriarch and leaves us, his children, with a message?

As noted by the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century commentator), Isaac proposed to bless Esau with birkas haaretz (the blessing of the land)--physical plenitude and mastery over the physical world. Reserved for Jacob, and conferred upon him by Isaac before he fled to Laban's house, was birkas Avraham (the blessing of Abraham)--the blessing that Abraham received ensuring that his descendants would be God's chosen nation.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Nathan J. Diament

Nathan J. Diament is the Director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. He is an honors graduate of Yeshiva University and the Harvard Law School and the co-editor of Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Law and Thought and the author of many essays on issues of public policy from the Orthodox perspective.