"And Yitzchak Loved Esav"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"And Yitzchak Loved Esav"

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"And the boys grew up, and Esav became a cunning hunter, a man of the field, while Yaakov was a simple man who dwelled in tents" (25:27). The Ibn Ezra explains the contrast between Yaakov and Esav as follows: Esav was full of cunning, for it is impossible to hunt animals without deceiving them (by means of traps, etc.). Yaakov, on the other hand, was a "simple" (tam) man – he was full of innocence and completely without deceit. Rashi offers a similar explanation: Esav deceived his father, asking him how to tithe salt in order that his father would believe that he was punctilious in his observance of mitzvot, while Yaakov had no idea how to deceive: "He spoke only what was in his heart. Someone who is not a deceiver is called 'simple' (tam)."

"And Yitzchak loved Esav, for the hunt was in his mouth." Why did Yitzchak love Esav and his cunning?

In order to answer this question, let us first examine the personality of one of the most outstanding Tana'im, R. Meir. The Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) narrates,

"It is revealed and known to 'the One who spoke and the world was created' that there was no one in R. Meir's generation who was like him (in greatness). And why was the halakha not established in accordance with his opinion? Because his colleagues could not fully fathom his reasoning. He would say of something impure that it was pure, and provide proof, and he would say of something pure that it was impure, and provide proof. We have learned: His name was not R. Meir but rather R. Nehorai. Why, then, was he called R. Meir? Because he would enlighten (me'ir) the eyes of the Sages in halakha... Rabbi said: I am sharper than my colleagues because I merited seeing R. Meir from behind (Rashi: I sat in the row immediately behind him when I was his student); but had I seen him from the front, I would be yet sharper."

R. Meir was as great as he was because of his boldness. He was prepared to prove that something that appeared impure was really pure, and vice versa. He was prepared to argue with the seemingly clear and simple understanding. In R. Meir's Torah, next to the verse, "And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good (tov me'od)" (1:31), there appeared the gloss, "Death is 'good' (tov mavet)" (Bereishit Rabba 3:2). He saw beyond the simple and literal. Concerning the verse, "And ýthe Lord God made Adam and his wife garments of leather ('or' spelled with an 'ayin')" (3:21), he glossed: "garments of light ('or' spelled with an 'aleph')" – the garments were not something external, like leather, but rather internal, like light (Bereishit Rabba 20:12). "You are children to Hashem your God" (Devarim 14:1) – R. Meir taught, "When you behave like His children then you are called His children; when you do not behave like His children, you are not called so" (Kiddushin 36a).

R. Meir was ready to deviate from the literal understanding, to supply seemingly far-fetched explanations. He discerned the inner essence of things, and was willing to take risks. The Gemara (Chagiga 15a-b) recounts how R. Meir learned from Elisha ben Avuya ('Acher') even after the latter's turn to heresy, since he knew how to select the worthy things that he had to say. "R. Meir found a pomegranate (referring to Acher); he ate the inside and threw away the peel." R. Meir's boldness therefore caused him to be greater in Torah than anyone else in his generation.

The forefathers of our nation had an important role to play in the world – to sanctify God's Name and to serve as a light to the nations. Avraham was extremely successful in this task – he was the "father of many nations," and his greatness was universally recognized. Yitzchak, on the other hand, was much more passive. A well-known Gemara (Pesachim 85a) compares Avraham to a mountain and Yitzchak to a field: Avraham stood out and could be seen from afar; he was recognized everywhere. Yitzchak was like a field – introverted and not visible from afar. "And all the wells which the servants of his father had dug in the days of Avraham were blocked by the Philistines and filled with earth" (26:15) – Kabbala teaches that the converts taught by Avraham also returned to their former pagan ways in the days of Yitzchak. Yitzchak's era is thus characterized by a regression in all aspects of activity among the nations.

Yitzchak recognized this failure on his part and wanted the situation to improve in the next generation. Therefore he chose Esav over Yaakov. Yaakov was admittedly a "dweller of tents" – a student of Torah, but study was not the trait that was necessary to act among the nations and inspire them. The fourteen years that Yaakov spent in the Beit Midrash (study hall) of Shem and Ever certainly made him wise and knowledgeable, but they would not necessarily help him to sanctify God's name in the world. Yitzchak saw Esav as better equipped for this task. Esav was cunning and daring. He would be able to improve things and to make things happen. Esav was a man of the world, a man of courage and boldness, and Yitzchak thus saw him as the successor of Avraham.

Rivka loved Yaakov because she knew, through her sense of prophecy, that God had chosen him ("the elder shall serve the younger"). God Himself declares, "I love Yaakov, but I hate Esav" (Malakhi 1:2-3). The Zohar, however, has an intersting understanding of just what God hates about Esav, and this too may help us appreciate why Yitzchak preferred him.

The Zohar alludes to the gemara (Sota 13a) which narrates how, when the time came to bury Yaakov in Me'arat Ha-makhpela, Esav arrived and claimed that he, rather than Yaakov, had the right to be buried there. Naftali was dispatched to Egypt to bring proof that the place rightfully belonged to Yaakov. Meanwhile, Chushim – the son of Dan – arose and killed Esav, beheading him with a sword. Esav's head rolled into Me'arat Ha-machpela and remained there, while the rest of him was buried elsewhere. In keeping with this tradition, the Zohar interprets God's declaration, "I love Yaakov, but I hate Esav" to mean that "I hate that which secondary in Esav, but I love that in him which is primary (figuratively, his head)."

Esav's primary characteristic was his boldness, and God (as well as Yitzchak) loved this characteristic. However, while Yitzchak thought this was sufficient reason for Esav to be his successor, God thought that Esav's negative secondary characteristics disqualified him (as He informed Rivka). Nevertheless, God could not afford to have this important quality disappear from among His chosen people. It was R. Meir - a descendant of Esav! - who reinstated the quality of boldness in Bnei Yisrael.


(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Toldot 5756 [1995].)


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