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The Blessings to Yaakov and Esav

  • Harav Yehuda Amital





Parashat TOLDOT




The Blessings to Yaakov and Esav

Summarized by Benjamin Frankel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha requires us to deal with matters which cause us some discomfort. We read about Yaakov stealing the blessings meant for Esav, and it disturbs us. But beyond our own feelings – as Yaakov’s descendants – about this episode, we need to examine how God views it.


Yitzchak, mistakenly thinking that he is addressing Esav, gives the following blessing to Yaakov:


“May God give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth, and much grain and wine. May peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Be a lord unto your brethren, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed are those who curse you, and blessed are those who bless you.” (Bereishit 27:28-29)


However, as Yaakov’s life-story unfolds, we discover that the reality is very different. He is forced to flee with nothing; he prays to God for his most basic necessities - “bread to eat and a garment to wear.” Instead of Yaakov being “a lord unto your brethren,” it seems that Esav is in the stronger position. What happened to Yaakov’s blessing?


In addition, Yaakov deceived Yitzchak, and we find that in the years that follow, Yaakov is deceived by his own sons. For twenty years they pretend that Yosef is dead, and they deceive him also concerning Shekhem. We cannot avoid drawing a connection between these deceptions and Yaakov’s deception of his father.


Another episode that we find troubling is the sale of the birthright. Does God recognize the sale? It would appear that He does not. When Avraham dies, we read: “Yitzchak and Yishmael, his sons, buried him” (25:9) – with Yitzchak preceding Yishmael, even though he is younger, because he is Avraham’s heir. When Yitzchak dies, the Torah records, “Esav and Yaakov, his sons, buried him” (35:29). We would have expected Yaakov to be listed first, since he is Yitzchak’s heir. But the Holy One, blessed be He, apparently does not recognize the sale of the birthright; Esav is Yitzchak’s firstborn.


In short, we can ascertain God’s attitude towards these events by means of the future developments in the story.


Yitzchak’s position – separation of “be a lord” from “the blessing of Avraham”


Thus, the Torah reveals to us, indirectly, God’s view of Yaakov’s deception of Yitzchak. What did the other protagonists of the story think? Rivka’s view is clear: she fears what will happen if it is Esav who continues Yitzchak’s legacy; she fears for the fate of Am Yisrael, and therefore deceives Yitzchak. What remains unclear is what Yitzchak himself thinks of the deception.


Rivka fears that Esav will receive “the blessing of Avraham.” However, we see that Yitzchak does not include that blessing in what he conveys to the son he believes to be Esav. In other words, he had intended all along to give “the blessing of Avraham” to Yaakov. The blessing Esav had been meant to receive included “be a lord unto your brethren,” while Yaakov was supposed to receive Eretz Yisrael.


The Seforno (27:29) offers the following insight:


“‘Be a lord unto your brethren’ – for he [Yitzchak] thought that it would be better for Yaakov, that the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael would suffice for him, and that he would live there with some form of subservience in order not to trouble himself with matters of governance and unworthy vanities, as happened to his descendants later on, as it is written: ‘I abhor the pride of Yaakov’ (Amos 6:8). He thought that it would be better for him to be subjugated to his brother than to be subjugated to other nations.”


According to this view, Yitzchak wanted to separate the blessing of Eretz Yisrael from the matter of dominion. We may imagine an arrangement along the lines of the British Mandate, when Jews lived in Eretz Yisrael under a foreign sovereign power. Yitzchak feared that if Yaakov had to engage in the business of ruling, he would become tainted with corruption – as indeed happened, and continues to happen. Yitzchak sought to avoid this scenario.


Blessing of “May God give you” – a comparison of Yaakov and Esav


Another question that we must ask concerns the difference between the first part of Yaakov’s blessing (27:29) and the first part of Esav’s blessing (27:39), since both mention “the dew of the heavens” and “the fat places of the earth.”  (In other words, Yitzchak gives this blessing to Yaakov thinking that he is Esav, and after the deception is revealed he gives this blessing to the real Esav.)


Rashi comments on the blessing to Yaakov: “’May God give you…’ – May He give, and continue to give.”


I heard an explanation of this once when I met the director of an old age home in Florida. Let us imagine a person who places his elderly father in a retirement home. Once a month he sends a check to cover his father’s residence there. Every so often he also sends along a letter. The father receives the checks and takes them to the office of the institution to pay. He knows that his son is thinking about him. In contrast, there is a son who pays for his father with a standing payment order through the bank. The father has no contact with his son, the son has no contact with his father, and the father does not even know whether his son remembers him.


The same idea applies here. The blessing to Esav is once and for all: “Behold, your dwelling place shall be of the fat places of the land.” You will always be provided for. Yaakov, on the other hand, receives his blessing in measured doses, such that he must always pray for the blessing to continue. The ongoing relationship with God is what is important.



(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Toldot 5769 [2008].)