The twins are born with Esau having an immediate advantage of both being the first to be born as well as being more developed physically. Jacob, patiently biding his time, eventually secures one of the two advantages as his own. Sold for a song, a pot of lentils, the birthright became the possession of Jacob. Now Esau had only a physical advantage over him.
It is unclear whether Isaac was aware that Esau gave up the birthright to Jacob, or whether he disapproved. Regardless, when it came time to pass on the legacy of his father and bestow the blessings upon his son, Esau was his choice.
Esau is not the son we would intuit as the appropriate recipient of these blessings. Our tradition portrays Esau as irresponsible and brutish to say the least. According to one Midrashic account Isaac’s eyesight was dimmed due to the smoke of the incense burnt by the wives of Esau to their pagan deities. Jacob is also criticized as being a devious schemer. He took advantage of Esau when the man was helpless. That may be true but who could blame him? In a cosmic battle for the destiny of Abraham’s legacy Jacob could not sit by while Esau made a train wreck of it. On the contrary, it was Esau who ridiculed the birthright as having no value to him.
Rebecca takes Jacob’s side. She sees Jacob as the worthy heir to Abraham’s legacy. The Torah is explicit with this difference of perspective between Isaac and Rebecca. “And Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (genesis 25:28)
The Torah is upfront with this discrimination and unseemly parenting by Isaac and Rebecca. It offers no apologies, just states it as fact.
It appears that Jacob would not have assumed the blessings from his father on his own. He would not deceive his father. Rebecca became very assertive and demanded that Jacob do as she instructed. Jacob played the part of Esau and received the blessings from his father.
No less important than the blessings themselves is the exchange that occurred between our forefathers Isaac and Jacob. The sages state that the idle chatter of the great ones is rich with lessons. Isaac was unsure who was standing before him. The voice and tone were those of Jacob. He called his son to come closer so he could feel him and determine that this was indeed his son Esau. Feeling the goat skins on Jacob’s arms and neck Isaac remarked, “The voice is Jacob’s voice and the hands are the hands of Esau!” Isaac then proceeded to bless him.
How prophetic are these words! Isaac saw his two sons as partners in bringing Abraham’s legacy to fruition in later generations. He appreciated that they each had different natures and talents. Jacob was master of the voice. He would use his energies for spiritual pursuits, for study and worship. Esau was the master of the physical. With his hands he was capable of subduing both the earth and its inhabitants. Together Jacob and Esau would be a perfect union and together they would carry the torch of Abraham.
What a utopia! Isaac envisioned an ideal world, a place where all forces worked in harmony toward the common goal of furthering God’s plan. Jacob would continue in his spiritual pursuits and Esau would provide all necessary support. It was Esau, therefore, who required the blessings of prosperity and dominance. He would use these assets and share all he had with Jacob.
Rebecca was a pragmatist where Isaac was an idealist. The Kabbalists note the reason why there are three Patriarchs but four Matriarchs. A table can stand sturdily on three legs. We have numerous statements by our sages using imagery of the world resting on three pillars. These legs are the Patriarchs. However, a table will not remain steady with only three legs when there are pressures put on it, when undue weight is placed on one side or another of the table. The Matriarchs constitute a solid, four cornered base. This base remains sturdy even in turbulent times. The forefathers are the pillars of our faith, but they don’t suffice to provide stability when the going is rough. The mothers, with their pragmatism and thoughtful guidance, remain unshakable even in difficult times.
Rebecca recognized this ideal of Isaac but she also recognized that it was not realistic. It would not play out as Isaac hoped. Esau would jump ship and Jacob would be poorly equipped to carry on the task on his own without being bolstered by the blessings. The destiny of the world rested squarely on Jacob’s shoulders and she determined that he would have all necessary tools to lead the way.
As a result, Jacob was given not only the means to continue with his spiritual development and that of the world’s but he was also graced with unique physical capabilities – he now had the hands of Esau.
It is undeniable that Jacob could not naturally survive, not then and not today, without these ‘hands of Esau.’ Wherever and whenever Jacob’s descendants are defenseless that is exploited to harm them. Jews are routinely spat upon, persecuted, tortured and killed by people who dislike them simply because they are Jews. As a result Jews have come together, harnessing the ‘hands of Esau’ which they had been blessed with at one time. They put together an army which is considered among the most competitive in the world. They sacrificed a great deal to tame a wilderness of bush and swamps, converting it to lush farmland and peaceful towns. They succeeded in this where others have failed because of these hands.
Still, gaps in our security are exploited, with those who hate us using every opportunity to harm us. We learned this week that terrorists won’t hesitate to pursue us in our own sanctuaries and houses of prayer, attacking worshipers wrapped in their Talitot and Tefillin.
We would love to be able to witness a world where Isaac’s view can become reality, where sheep and wolf can graze together and tank turrets are beaten into plowshares, where Esau has our back and we are free to pursue our life mission. But Rebecca’s assertion remains vindicated in our daily lives. The ability to be independent and self sufficient, the need arm ourselves for protection and self defense remains critical today as it has ever been.