Thursday, 04 Nov 2021

Written by Anthony Lazarus Magrill

Parshat Toldot is replete with gestures backwards and forwards in Jewish history. It is a moment of narrative bifurcation in Genesis: we are transitioning between the mythic integrity of the Avraham-Yitzchak narrative, and the messier geopolitics of Yaakov, Esav, and their descendents. Here I want particularly to consider Jacob’s twin blessings – those given to ‘Esav’/Yaakov and Esav-proper – as a possibly fumbled prophecy, creating intricate problems for later interpreters.

V’Yiten L’cha HaElohim MiTal HaShamayim – May God give you from the Dew of Heaven. These are the first words of Yitzchak’s first blessing. Rashi emphasizes that this blessing – given to Yaakov in the guise of Esav – is given through the name of Elohim, that name which our Rabbis believe invokes God’s particular attribute of Justice. Rashi suggests that this blessing is not, then, one of unconditional abundance, but rather a prayer that the blessed nation should merit abundance, even through the perspective of Divine Justice. Isaac’s blessing is that the blessed should be worthy of blessing. Rashi’s reading is tied to an earlier comment on our parsha. Considering whether to sell Yaakov his birthright, Esav has complained Hineh Anokhi Holekh LaMut – ‘See, I am going to die’ – which tells, straightforwardly, that Esav is so desperately in need of food that he thinks he is starving to death. Rashi reads otherwise: here we learn that Esav has interrogated the very nature of the bechorah, the birthright. He perceives that the birthright which Isaac’s sons will receive (that is, Judaism) is one replete with ‘warning and punishment’, by which the sinner is liable to merit death (mitot talui bah). If Judaism is just a covental system short of pleasures, leading one such as himself to inevitable punishment and likely death, then Lamah-Zeh Li B’chorah? What use have I for such a birthright? These two comments of Rashi should be read together. Isaac’s blessing to his firstborn son – whosoever he thinks he is blessing – is that he and his descendents should merit an abundance of blessing; and if they do not merit, that they should be held accountable. Esav’s rejection of the bechorah is already counting himself out of this blessing.

More complex, for our commentators, is the second half this blessing: be master to your brothers, Yitzchak prays, and let your mother’s sons bow to you. We are tied in a knot – if we want Yitzchak and Yaakov to be obviously ‘worthy’ patriarchs, it might be necessary for Yitzchak to favour our forefather Yaakov. It would make too much of a nonsense of too much of our tradition for Yitzchak actually to prefer Esav – who the Rabbis always portray as something worse than a scoundrel. We find two principle resolutions to the difficulty. Firstly, there is Ibn Ezra, who parses the strange phrase Bnei Imekha – your mother’s sons (strange as Esav’s mother only has one other son) – as Esav uBanav, that is, Esav and his Sons. Radak glosses similarly: hem bnei Esav; Yitzchak is intending to bless Yaakov that he should be master over ‘the sons of Esav’. The obvious problem with this interpretation: does Yitzchak know whom he is blessing or not? Does he know that it’s really Yaakov under the goat skin? For Radak and Ibn Ezra the answer must be yes, or how else can we explain a blessing that this first-blessed son should be master over his brothers? By this resolution, we find Radak and Ibn Ezra are wedded to two principles. Firstly, that Yitzchak, whatsoever the surface meaning of the text, knows that our progenitor Yaakov truly deserves mastery over Esav. Secondly, and most interestingly, that mastery over other nations is a blessing – something which Jews should desire. The Sforno is one of few traditional commentators really to wrestle with the much harder surface meaning that Yitzchak (mistakenly) believes he is blessing Esav at this point to be master over Yaakov and his sons – that our patriarch is blessing that Esav’s descendents (which, for the Rabbis, includes Edom, Rome and Christianity) should have mastery over Yaakov’s descendents (us). Sforno’s reads Yitzchak as giving a backhanded blessing to the Jews, in the blesing of Esav’s mastery; that they should live in the Land im eizeh shibud, with a little of subservience to Edom, k’dei sh’lo yitrod nafsho me’od b’inyanei gashmiut, in order that they should not bother themselves too much with physical matters. Where Radak and Ibn Ezra see the Jews desiring mastery over the nations – Sforno bravely understands that mastery over nations is only a distraction from the true work of being Jewish. Yitzchak wishes Esav to have mastery over Yaakov so that Yaakov can found the Jewish nation -and  it is only because he fumbles the blessing that Yaakov ends up being ‘blessed’/cursed with political mastery!

We may recognize from the Passover Haggadah the verse from Joshua that ‘to Isaac I [God] gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir as his possession, while Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.’ (Joshua 24.4). This clarifies the meaning of Yitzchak’s second blessing, to Esav-proper, that his descendents’ dwelling ‘shall be from the fat of the land’ (yihyeh mishumnei ha’aretz ). Chizkuni emphasizes that, whereas the blessing given to ‘Esav’-Yaakov was contingent on HaElohim, the Divine aspect of Justice, the blessing given to Esav-proper is not so dependent. Rather, Yitzchak’s second blessing is that howsoever Esav and his descendents should conduct themselves – whether with merit, or without merit – they shall be assured ownership of Har Seir. We might bring this novel reading to bear on the second verse of Esav-proper’s blessing as well: ‘you shall serve your brother – but when you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck;’ which many of our commentators understand to be a warning to Israel, that since they are blessed-or-cursed to gain the upperhand over the Edomites, they must be wary not to over-exert their dominance, lest their vassals should ‘grow restive’ and shake off the yoke of oppression.

This has been an admittedly selective tour through some favoured Rishonim (early commentators) on the parashah – but let me attempt to string their suggestions into something like a plausible conclusion. What if the original crime of Esav – signing away his birthright for some lentil stew – was not because he was on the point of starvation after a long day’s hunting; but was instead an elective decision to reject Judaism’s covental future of strict accountability? What if Yitzchak’s all-too-knowing brachot are anything but fumbled: rather, Esav is given a blessing in full-accord with his earlier rejection of covenental responsibility. Esav is blessed with the Land of Seir, a bounty entirely detached from ethical obligations. Yaakov’s blessing is far more ambivalent: he may have the Land; and though he has connived to gain mastery over his brother’s descendents it will be an uneasy burden – Yisrael will be punished if they overexert themselves, as those they dominate grow restive and throw the yoke from off their neck. The political implications of such a blessing, today, are striking. Rather, following the Sforno, the blessing for Yisrael might have been that they should be freed from geopolitical business, freed to enter the harder, Divine work of service and ethics – inyanei ruchniut. Hence, we understand the verse of Joshua becomes both history and aspiration or prophecy: let Esav have Har Seir; that we should abdicate even our ownership of the land to go down into Egypt, meaningfully to enter the world.

Anthony Lazarus Magrill LBC student rabbi

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.