Inborn Essence And Selection

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon


This lecture will be slightly different than the previous lectures in this series. In this lecture we shall focus more on scriptural analysis than on a conceptual issue. We shall present a certain understanding of the scriptural text which I believe is the correct one.

Among believing Torah students, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi's position regarding the course of the book of Bereishit is widely accepted. Ha-Levi sees the events described in the book as an account of the evolving stages of the divine influence. This is the way Ha-Levi describes the transitional stages between Avraham and the sons of Ya'akov:

The essence of Avraham passed over to Yitzchak, to the exclusion of the other sons who were all removed from the land, the special inheritance of Yitzchak. The prerogative of Yitzchak descended on Ya'akov, while Esav was sent from the land which belonged to Ya'akov. The sons of the latter were all worthy of the divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the divine spirit. This is the first instance of the divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals. (Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, Kuzari, I, 95)

Ha-Levi argues that among the descendants of Noach and Avraham, those who were chosen were those who bore the divine essence - the innate genetic ability to reach prophecy. Those who did not bear that essence were pushed aside. Many find support for Ha-Levi's position from the beginning of Parashat Lekh Lekha: No justification is offered there for God's selection of Avraham, nor is any report given about his earlier years. This proves, argue Ha-Levi supporters, that Avraham was not chosen on account of his good deeds, but because of his inborn essence.

According to Ramban, however, it was precisely this point that troubled the Sages:

Now this portion of Scripture is not completely elucidated. What reason was there that the Holy One, blessed be He, should say to Avraham, "Leave your country, and I will do you good in a completely unprecedented measure," without first stating that Avraham worshipped God or that he was a righteous and perfect man? Or it should state as a reason for his leaving the country that the very journey to another land constituted an act seeking the nearness of God...

However, the reason [for God's promising Avraham this reward] is that the people of Ur Kasdim did him much evil on account of his belief in the Holy One, blessed be He. He fled from them to go on to the land of Cana'an, tarrying for a time at Charan. God then told him to leave these places as well and to fulfill his original intention that his worship be dedicated to Him alone and that he call upon people [for the worship of] the name of God in the chosen land. There He would make his name great, and these nations would bless themselves by him. (Ramban, commentary to Bereishit 12:2)

Ramban, following the Sages, emphasizes that Avraham was not chosen arbitrarily, but rather on account of his deeds. Even according to its plain sense, Scripture emphasizes the deeds by virtue of which Avraham was chosen:

Because Avraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws. (Bereishit 26:5)

For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment. (Bereishit 18:19)

And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed My voice. (Bereishit 22:18)

Following the approach of Ramban, we shall present in this lecture a reading of the book of Bereishit that differs from that of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi. According to my understanding, God's selection of those whom He loves does not follow from any natural quality latent in them. Nor does His rejection of the others result from their lack of that quality. The chosen ones were selected on account of the deeds that they chose for themselves to do, and the rejected were pushed aside on account of the actions that they selected. Both were judged on their ways and their decisions, and not on the basis of metaphysical qualities latent in them from the moment of birth.

Our discussion here will focus on the selection of the descendants of Avraham, those who established God's nation. In my opinion, however, this principle is true with respect to the earlier generations as well.[1] Selection follows not from any natural essence, but from willful decisions, from the way of life a person adopts for himself. Throughout the book of Bereishit, the natural firstborns are pushed aside - Kayin, Yishmael, Esav, Reuven, Menashe - by their younger more deserving brothers. This is the lesson of the book of Bereishit: A person's fate is not fixed by the natural qualities with which he enters the world. It is the actions that he chooses for himself that determine how his life will play itself out. God chooses the person who demonstrates his readiness to serve Him, rather than him who embodies certain natural qualities that are not under his control.

As was stated above, this distinction appears to be true with respect to all generations. But my main argument in this lecture is that after Avraham was chosen to establish God's nation (12:1-3), the selection of his heirs rested on a very specific principle: The only ones to be pushed aside were those who set themselves apart from their family. We are no longer talking about rejection stemming from general inappropriate behavior. After Avraham was commanded about his chosen destiny, his descendants were only released from the actualization of that destiny if, with their very own hands, they cut themselves off from Avraham's family and from the realization of Avraham's vision.


When God speaks to Avraham for the first time, He informs him, "I will make of you a great nation" (Bereishit 12:2). Later, after Avraham has already arrived in the land of Israel, God goes into greater detail: "To your seed will I give this land" (verse 7). But it stands to reason that at this stage Lot was still included in this promise. The general term "your seed" might also include Lot, Avraham's blood relative who accompanied him on all his travels.[2] This also follows from what Ramban says in his commentary to Devarim. Ramban notes that the descendants of Lot were given their inheritance along the eastern bank of the Jordan, in an area that had been promised to Avraham in the Brit bein ha-betarim and that Israel had been commanded not to capture. Ramban writes as follows:

Scripture states only "Because I have given it unto the children of Lot for a possession" (verse 19), meaning that, although it was part of Avraham's inheritance, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave it to the children of Lot for Avraham's sake. (Ramban, commentary to Devarim 2:10)

It follows from Ramban's comment that even after Lot's rejection, which we shall discuss below, he still received a portion of Avraham's estate. All the more so was he entitled to such a portion before he was pushed aside.[3]

It later becomes clear to Avraham that Lot will not be his heir. This is the implication of the announcement made to Avraham concerning his seed, which is emphatically repeated "after Lot was separated from him" (13:14). Indeed, we later discover that Avraham believes that his servant Eliezer will inherit him, and not Lot (15:2-3). In the Brit bein ha-betarim Avraham is explicitly told: "Out of your own bowels shall be your heir" (15:4). This formulation clarifies that the promise he had received relates to a real son, rather than the likes of a Lot or an Eliezer.

What happened in the interim? Why did Avraham first think that Lot would inherit him, and only later did it become clear to him that Lot wounot be his heir? If from the outset Lot had never been destined to inherit Avraham, why was this not made clear to Avraham? My argument is that, indeed, Lot was meant to be Avraham's heir, or at least to be included among Avraham's primary heirs alongside his future son. Lot, however, chose to pull himself away from the family of Avraham. Chapter 13 describes the quarrel between the shepherds of Avraham and the shepherds of Lot, in the wake of which Avraham and Lot parted ways, Lot turning to the cities of the Plain. It is at this point that Lot set himself apart from the future of the family of Avraham.

In order to clarify the significance of Lot's step, we must understand the geographical context. It is generally accepted today that the cities of the Plain were situated on the eastern bank of the Jordan.[4] Y. Grossman already noted that all those who were rejected in the book of Bereishit headed east: Adam ("And He placed the keruvim at the east of the garden of Eden, and the bright blade of a revolving sword" [Bereishit 3:24]); Kayin ("And dwelt in the land of Nod, to the east of Eden" [3:16]); the sons of Ketura ("He sent them away ... eastward, to the east country" [25:6])]; Esav (who lives in "Se'ir, the country of Edom" [32:4]); and we shall see below that the same applies to Yishmael.

It must be emphasized, however, that Lot is not cast away eastward; Lot chooses of his own accord to travel eastward, and thus leave the boundaries of tiny Eretz Israel! Avraham understands that he must separate from Lot, and makes the following offer:

Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself, I pray you. If you will take the left hand, then I will go to the right. Or if you depart to the right hand, then I will go the left. (Bereishit 13:9)

As translated by Onkelos, Avraham suggests to Lot that he move "to the right [yamina]" - south (compare "on the south side southward [teimana]" [Shemot 26:18), or "to the left [semola]" - north (compare "which is on the left hand [misemol] of Damascus" (14:15). Eretz Israel, as we all know, is long and narrow. Avraham wants Lot to remain within the boundaries of western Eretz Israel, and therefore suggests to him that he move himself southward or northward. In these directions Lot can distance himself from Avraham, while still staying within the borders of Eretz Israel.

Lot, however, opts for a possibility that Avraham did not even propose, and may even have feared. He turns eastward, and crosses the borders of the heart of Eretz Israel. As if this were not enough, Lot chooses to live among the evil men of Sedom (13:12). Thus, Lot chooses to separate himself from the family of Avraham and to abandon his vision and destiny.

This, indeed, is what happens. God accepts Lot's decision. Lot is pushed to the sidelines, he is set aside from the inheritance of Avraham in western Eretz Israel, and he receives his portion on the eastern bank of the Jordan, next to Esav. As we know, the Brit bein ha-betarim only defined the northern and southern boundaries of Eretz Israel:

From the river of Mitzrayim to the great river, the river of Perat. (15:18)

The eastern border of Eretz Israel was not defined, perhaps because the eastern bank of the Jordan enjoys an intermediate status: it became the inheritance of the descendants of Lot and Esav, descendants of Avraham who separated themselves from the family and their destiny.[5] When Lot decides to leave western Eretz Israel, he decides to leave the family of Avraham. The anxious Avraham is then informed that he will be given other seed that will carry out his mission (13:14). It is at this point that Lot seals his fate to be pushed away from the family of Avraham.


Avraham receives the news of the upcoming birth of Yitzchak (17:16) after having been commanded about the covenant of circumcision. At this time, Yishmael is already thirteen years old (16:16; 17:1). Avraham responds with skepticism regarding the prospects of Sara giving birth to a son. Immediately afterwards, Avraham asks: "O that Yishmael might live before You" (17:18). Until now Avraham saw no need for such a request, apparently because he thought that he would have no more sons, and that Yishmael would be his heir. Only now is he told: "But my covenant will I establish with Yitzchak" (17:21), and so he begins to worry about what will happen to Yishmael. At first glance this seems to undermine our central argument, for the Torah tells us nothing about Yishmael's earlier deeds, and so it is difficult to say that he had separated himself with his own two hands from the family.

In order to clarify this point, let us re-examine the account of Yishmael's birth. The Torah tells us of Sara's initiative to give her maidservant to Avraham:

Behold, now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; I pray you, go in to my maid: it may be that I may obtain children by her. (Bereishit 16:2)

Sara plans on "adopting" Hagar's son and recognizing him as her son and legal heir. Rachel will one day do the same thing when she gives her maidservant Bilha to Ya'akov in order to obtain a child through her. And, indeed, when a child is born, Rachel declares: "God has judged me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son" (30:6); it is also Rachel who gives the baby a name. Even after Rachel has children of her own, her maidservant's children remain part of the family and are eligible to receive a portion of Ya'akov's inheritance. This was also Sara's plan. But something goes wrong, and Sara finally announces:

For the son of this maidservant shall not inherit with my son. (Bereishit 21:10)

What happened in the interim? Why did Sara change her mind about recognizing Yishmael as an heir? Scripture relates what happened:

And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said to Avram, My wrong be upon you: I have given my maid into your bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and you. (Bereishit 16:4-5)

Avraham accepts Sara's complaint and hands Hagar over to her. Sara deals harshly with her and Hagar runs away. Here is the parting from Avraham's family; Yishmael is not the one who leaves, but rather his mother, Hagar. Her despising of Sara brought about that she was dealt with harshly, so that in the end she runs away from Avraham's house. The angel who instructs her to return proves that her running away was not what God had wanted. Hagar should have remained in Avraham's house so that her son would become his heir. By running away, Hagar sealed her son's fate to be severed from Avraham's family.

The angel who reveals himself to Hagar instructs her to return, but he already intimates to her that her son Yishmael will not be Avraham's heir. Many have found in the expression, "His hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him" (16:12), an allusion that the descendants of Yishmael would be nomads, without a permanent place of residence. This also accounts for the fact that we do not find in Scripture "the land of Yishmael," paralleling the lands of other tribes and nations.[6] It has also been suggested[7] that the expression, "and he shall dwell in the presence [al penei] of all his brethren," means that he will live east of his brothers, for we find that the expression "al penei" often means "east of": "upon the mount of Olives, which is before [al penei] Yerushalayim on the east" (Zekharya 14:4); "in the wilderness which is before [al penai] Moav, toward the sunrising" (Bamidbar 21:11). Already during Hagar's pregnancy, Yishmael was pushed out of Eretz Israel, and as has been stated, some understand that he was pushed eastward, toward the lands of Lot and Esav.[8]

While Yishmael did not leave the family of Avraham of his own accord, his mother Hagar did so. She provoked Sara, and it is reasonable to assume that she even tried to take over her position in the household. This led to a quarrel, which ultimately resulted in Hagar's running away from Avraham's house. While the direct responsibility for Hagar's running away falls upon Sara who dealt harshwith her (Ramban emphasizes that this was a sin), it is Hagar who was responsible for starting the whole process, and it was she who in the end chose flight over confrontation.[9]

It should be emphasized that I am not asserting that Hagar's punishment for her wrongdoing consists of her son's being pushed away from Avraham's legacy. My argument focuses on the human, rather than on the theological, level: With her own two hands, Hagar uprooted herself from the family of Avraham. Lot could have committed graver sins and still remain Avraham's heir; Hagar could have committed graver sins and still remain the mother of his heir. But they chose to sever themselves with their own very hands from their family, and so too from their destiny. God merely gave His seal of approval to their own decisions.


Many explanations have been offered for the transfer of the birthright from Esav to Ya'akov. There are three main elements in the process of that transfer: 1) Rivka's prophecy "And the elder shall serve the younger" (25:23); 2) the sale of the birthright (25:29-34); 3) Yitzchak's blessing (chap. 27). In the end, Ya'akov receives Avraham's blessing from Yitzchak. For our purposes, this is the most significant element in the story in that it determines the continuation of the house of Avraham (28:4). Among the three stages that we have mentioned, which is the most important in the determination of the heir of Avraham's blessing? Or perhaps, none of them are relevant? How does this process of selection of the heir of the house of Avraham fit in with our general argument that those who were rejected from continuing the legacy of Avraham pushed themselves aside with their own very hands?

Let us begin with an examination of the three main elements mentioned above. First, let us study Rivka's prophecy, "And the elder shall serve the younger" (25:23). This prophecy does not appear to mark the point at which it was determined that Ya'akov would continue the Avrahamic line and not Esav. This is true for several reasons:

1) We are dealing here with a prophecy that merely announces what will happen in the future, and not a decree that determines the two brothers' relative rank. This is evident from the fact that this prophecy was only given in response to Rivka's question. God does not take the initiative to declare who will be Avraham's heir, but merely answers Rivka's question as to what will occur in the future.

2) As was noted by Radak [10], the wording of the prophecy is unclear, so that it can be interpreted one way or the other. It is not clear who is the subject and who the object ("The elder shall serve the younger" or "the elder – the younger shall serve him"). [Compare Iyov 14:19: "Avanim shachaku mayim": "The stones - the waters wear them."]

3) The prophecy does not relate in any way to the blessing of Avraham and the continuation of his line, but rather to the aggressive reciprocal relationship between the two brothers. Avraham's blessing does not mention material domination, and similarly the prophecy of Rivka makes no mention of the blessing regarding seed and the land.

It would seem reasonable to suggest that the central factor in the determination of the heir to Avraham's blessing is Esav's sale of the birthright. The meaning of the birthright here might be the continuation of the house of Yitzchak and receipt of the blessing of Avraham. The firstborn is not necessarily the sole heir, but it may be argued that he was supposed to lead the realization of Avraham's vision and head the family.[11] Esav treated the birthright lightly and sold it for a bowl of lentils, thus demonstrating in the sharpest way his contempt for the legacy of Avraham and his derision of the noble mission borne by Avraham's descendants. In accordance with our general argument, here too Esav removed himself from the family; God merely gave His consent to that removal. It is in this vein that the Rabbis wrote that following the sale "the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed... and established the birthright for Ya'akov" (Bereishit Rabba 63:13). The plain implication is that prior to the sale, the birthright - including its spiritual components - did not belong to Ya'akov. Chazal also make this point in a more explicit fashion:

Esav was worthy to bring forth kings, and Ya'akov was worthy to bring forth priests... Le'ah and Zilpa were fit for Esav, and Rachel and Bilha were fit for Ya'akov. All these gifts were taken from him. He sold his birthright to Ya'akov, and immediately it was said about him: "Behold, I will make you small among the nations: you are greatly despised" (Ovadya 2). (Midrash Zuta Shir Ha-Shirim, 1[15])

We see from this midrash that Esav was fit to continue the Avrahamic line alongside Ya'akov, but was pushed aside on account of his sale of the birthright. Some have asked how can it be that this strange commercial sale could have determined whom God would choose as heir to Avraham's legacy.[12] As we understand the matter, the determining factor is not the legal validity of the sale, but rather the fact that through the sale, Esav demonstrated his severance from the spiritual missions of the house of Avraham. Esav sees no value in the perpetuation of Avraham's legacy: "Thus Esav despised the birthright" (25:34).

Upon further examination, however, it appears that this proposal should be rejected, though there are no absolutes in this matter. It seems that the birthright is relevant only to the material dimensions of the relationship between the brothers. The description of the relationships between the sons of Ya'akov implies that the birthright has no relevance regarding spiritual leadership or the determination of a sole heir; it merely determines priority in matters of inheritance. Scripture states (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 5:1-2) that the birthright among the sons of Ya'akov passed to Yosef. As we know, Yosef's birthright expressed itself in the fact that he received a double portion of inheritance - Menashe and Efrayim, and in his national leadership alongside the tribe of Yehuda. There is no proof from the Divrei ha-Yamim passage to Chazal's understanding that the birthright was of primary spiritual significance at this stage in the history of the patriarchs.

The third element which must be considered is the blessing of Yitzchak. This element is the easiest to reject, and indeed it would appear that Yitzchak's blessing does not deal at all with the establishment of an heir to the house of Avraham. This is for various reasons:

1) The Midrash as well as the commentators understand that Ya'akov sinned when he deceived his father and took the blessing; he was even punished for this behavior.[13] Already in the words of Yitzchak we hear a veiled criticism of Ya'akov's action: "Your brother has come with cunning" (27:35). It is difficult to assume that Avraham's heir was chosen by virtue of such a sin.

2) It is very difficult to say that a father's blessing can dictate to God whom to choose among two brothers. Malbim raised this argument (27:1), and among modern biblical scholars, this point was emphasized primarily by Cassuto, who vigorously argued that according to the Torah, a blessing is merely a prayer, void of any magical powers.[14] The biblical characters may have attached power and influence to blessings; it is clear, however, that God was not influenced by them. The bottom line is that in determining an heir for the house of Avraham and one who will establish the people of Israel, God reserves for Himself the last word.

3) Moreover, many have already noted that Yitzchak's blessing deals exclusively with material matters. It does not include a blessing regarding the land and the seed, which is "Avraham's blessing." It is only later that Avraham's blessing is given to Ya'akov (28:4), after Yitzchak learns that Esav had sold his birthright (27:36) and after Rivka reminds him about Esav's Hittite wives (27:46). Only then does Ya'akov receive the blessing promising him that he will continue the line of Avraham – he and not his brother:

And may God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of people; and give the blessing of Avraham, to you, and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land in which you are a sojourner, and which god gave to Avraham. (Bereishit 28:3-4)

It stands to reason that had Esav not cut himself off from the house of Avraham, the two sons of Yitzchak would have received Avraham's blessing and continued his work together.

Thus we see that all three elements described above constitute a single continuum that describes the balance of material powers between the two brothers, but does not determine who will continue the Avrahamic line. But if this is so, then why was Ya'akov chosen to continue the legacy of Avraham? Is this another example of an unreasoned divine decree?

It seems that we should relate to a particular step taken by Esav, one that is no less important than those discussed above:

And he took to wife Yehudit the daughter of Be'eri the Chittite, and Basemat the daughter of Elon the Chittite; and they were a grief of mind to Yitzchak and to Rivka. (Bereishit 26:34-35)

This step testifies to a conscious break from the house of Avraham and his legacy. Esav was surely aware of Avraham's determination not to marry off his son Yitzchak to one of the daughters of the land (24:3). Intermingling with the local Cana'anites severs Esav from the heritage of the house of Avraham. Nechama Leibowitz relates to this aspect of Esav's marriages, arguing that it was because he married the Cana'anite women that Esav was denied the blessing of Avraham (Iyunim Chadashi be-Sefer Bereishit, p. 195).

The passing of Avraham's blessing from Esav to Ya'akov is closely associated with the mention made of the Chittite women whom Esav married, and to the command directed at Ya'akov not to marry such a woman:

And Rivka said to Yitzchak, I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Chet; if Ya'akov take a wife of the daughters of Chet, such as these, of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life be to me? And Yitzchak called Ya'akov, and blessed him, and charged him, and said to him, You shall not take a wife of the daughters of Cana'an. Arise, go to Padan Aram to the house of Betu'el your mother's father, and take you a wife from there of the daughters of Lavan, your mother's brother. And may God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a multitude of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham, to you and your seed with you; that you may inherit the land in which you are a sojourner, and which God gave to Avraham. (Bereishit 27:46-28:4)

Esav himself recognizes - too late - that the blessing of Avraham which had been withheld from him is connected to the issue of taking strange wives:

And Esav saw that Yitzchak had blessed Ya'akov, and sent him away to Padan Aram to take him a wife from there; and that as he blessed him he gave him a charge, saying, You shall not take a wife of the daughters of Cana'an. (Bereishit 28:6)

The root b-r-kh (bless) which appears twice in the verse is clearly connected here to the prohibition against marrying Cana'anite women.

Earlier, we proposed that it was Esav himself who cut himself off from his family, when he despised the birthright and sold it for a bowl of lentils. It seems, however, that the birthright is not connected whatsoever to the legacy of Avraham and the perpetuation of his house. According to this understanding, the emphasis should be placed on Esav's second deed - his marrying the Chittite women. As stated above, Avraham was most careful not to mix with the people of the land, and to find a wife for his son from among his own family. Esav did not marry a woman from Avraham's house; he chooses his wives from among the people of the land. This is a clear act of cutting himself off from the house of Avraham.[15]


According to what we have said thus far, we must deal with another difficulty. Why were all the sons of Ya'akov chosen to continue the legacy of the house of Avraham, none of them being pushed aside by the others?

According to our proposal, it is quite understandable why the great sin of the sons of Ya'akov – the sale of Yosef - did not disqualify them from continued membership in the family or from taking part in establishing the nation of Israel. According to our argument, regular sins do not influence the choice of Avraham's heirs. Only an initiated severance from the family can have this effect. After Avraham had already been chosen, by virtue of his deeds and his beliefs, his sons continue his way and his mission, unless they explicitly waive them. The sin of the selling of Yosef was indeed very grave, but it did not constitute an initiated severance of the brothers from the family and its heritage.

Nevertheless, we are left with a very acute problem. According to the plain sense of the text, the sons of Ya'akov seem to have married Cana'anite women, for no mention is made of a trip to Charan to find suitable matches, similar to the journeys of Eliezer and Ya'akov. This question is subject to a Tannaitic dispute: According to Rabbi Yehuda, the twelve sons were each born with a twin sister, whom they later took as their wives. According to Rabbi Nechemya, they married Cana'anite women.[16] Ramban suggests a third alternative: The twelve sons of Ya'akov married strange women, but not from Cana'an. They married Egyptian, Amonite, and Moabite women (Ramban, Bereishit 38:2). At the very least, however, it is explicitly stated about Shimon, according to the plain sense of the text, that he married a Cana'anite woman (46:10).[17]

If we reject the assertion that at least some of the sons of Ya'akov married Cana'anite women, there is no problem. If, however, we accept it, we are faced with a very serious difficulty: Earlier we argued that it was precisely because of this sin that Esav was rejected from participating in the perpetuation of the house of Avraham and from receiving the blessing of Avraham. Why then weren't the sons of Ya'akov similarly pushed aside?[18]

We are forced to the conclusion that following the selection of Ya'akov and the rejection of Esav, we enter a new stage in the history of the house of Avraham. After Avraham was chosen, only those descendants who demonstrated scorn and waiver were pushed aside from his legacy and blessing. Following the selection of Ya'akov, however, we see a fuller application of the principle, "Even if he sinned, he is still part of Israel" (Sanhedrin 44a). After Ya'akov, all of his sons continued the house of Avraham, regardless of their actions, and even if those actions involved a waiver of their mission as heirs of Avraham. The same applies today when, according to Jewish law, a Jewish apostate remains a Jew. The sons of Ya'akov were no longer a band of individuals who carried the vision of Avraham, but rather a nation. From that point on, they no longer had the power to waive their eternal destiny.[19]

This does not contradict the basic approach that we have proposed. Our main argument is that when one party is chosen and another rejected, the rejection does not stem from inborn metaphysical qualities, but from the personal decision of the rejected party. At no point did we argue that there must be such a rejection. God does not arbitrarily discriminate between one person and the next, but He may at times choose not to discriminate, even when such discrimination would be justified. Ya'akov was chosen to be the direct father of the nation. It is for this reason that Ya'akov's descendants have no way to avoid the eternal destiny cast upon them. Here the destiny begins to be realized; we are no longer dealing with an individual whose heart begins to form a vision of the future, but with an entire family, the kernel of the Jewish people.


[1] The Torah alludes to the reason that Kayin was rejected and Hevel selected – Hevel brought a more appropriate offering: "And Hevel also brought from the firstlings of his flock and of the fat parts thereof" (Bereishit 4:4). And therefore: "And the Lord had respect to Hevel and to his offering" (ibid.). As we have seen, this is true of Avraham as well.

[2] It is characteristic of Scripture to waive precision whendescribing family relationships. Thus, for example, the sons of Ya'akov refer to Dina as "our daughter" (Bereishit 34:17). See also Bereishit 31:23, and Rashi, ad loc.

[3] See Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun's article in Megadim XVII, p. 37.

[4] See Atlas Da'at Mikra, p. 72, and Encyclopedia Mikra'it, vol. VII, s.v. tzo'ar, pp. 690-695. Even Rabbi Y. Bin Nun, who disagrees with the accepted identification of the cities of the Plain, locates them on the east bank of the Jordan. See his article in "Shomrom u-Binyamin, II (Jerusalem, 1991).

[5] See Devarim 2:1-19. As we know, Moshe was also not pleased with the request of the tribes of Re'uven and Gad to take their portion on the east bank of the Jordan. "And why do you dishearten the children of Israel from going over into the land which the Lord had given them" (Bamidbar 32:7). His words imply that the east bank of the Jordan is not included in "the land which the Lord had given them." Regarding the special status of the east bank, see Rabbi Y. Ben Nun's article (cited in note 3), and the bibliography found there.

[6] So suggested Y. Kil, in Da'at Mikra, ad loc.; so too Y. M. Emanueli, Sefer Bereishit, p. 244, in the name of M. Ben Yashar.

[7] Da'at Mikra, ad loc.

[8] Y. Grosman, in his article in Megadim XXIX, argues that Yishmael himself moved south to the wilderness of Paran (Bereishit 21:21). Scripture, however, testifies about the descendants of Yishmael: "And they dwelt from Chavila to Shur, that is before Egypt, as you go toward Ashur; and he dwelt in the presence of all his brethren" (Bereishit 25:18). In other words, the descendants of Yishmael dwelt in the entire expanse east of Eretz Israel, and lived a nomadic life throughout.

[9] It should be noted that even if Yishmael's rejection does not fit the model presented here, this would not surprise us. For Yishmael was the son of a maidservant, and it could be argued that he was never accepted into the family, as is the case with the sons of Ketura. God's words in chap. 17, however, imply that Yishmael has an intermediate status, and that in any event he is Avraham's seed. The reason seems to be that Sarah had promised to recognize him as Avraham's legal heir. It was Hagar who separated herself from the family when she ran away, separating her son Yishmael along with her.

[10] And in his wake, Cassuto (Sefer Bereishit u-Mivneihu, p. 195).

[11] Chazal (Bereishit Rabba 63, 13) emphasize the spiritual significance of the birthright. Rashi, Seforno, Chizkuni, and Abravanel followed in their wake. See in the context, G. Brin, Sugyot be-Mikra u-be-Megilot, pp. 60-62, and notes, ad loc.

[12] See Brin, above note 13; and more recently, A. Weinberg, Mikhlol XVI (1998), p. 7.

[13] See Nechama Leibowitz, Iyunim Chadashim be-Sefer Bereishit, pp. 185-188.

[14] Sefer Bereishit u-Mivneihu, pp. 196-197; Encyclopedia Mikra'it, vol. II, s.v. berakha, p. 357.

[15] a. The connection between Esav's marriage to the daughters of Chet and his rejection from the Avrahamic house was emphasized by Nechama Leibowitz, Iyunim Chadashim be-Sefer Bereishit, p. 195; E. Shochet, "Magamot Politiyot be-Sippurei he-Avot," Tarbitz XXIV (3) (1955), p. 253; Rabbi M. Breuer, Pirkei Bereishit, II, p. 506.

b. Needless to say, Esav himself chose to leave Eretz Cana'an (Bereishit 36:6-8), and his departure is described in terms that parallel the description of Lot's departure from the land. Esav, however, leaves the land only after it becomes clear that he has not received the blessing of Avraham.

[16] See Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 143, and Rashi on Bereishit 37:35.

[17] This also seems to be true with respect to the first wife of Yehuda (Bereishit 38:2), though this depends on the various interpretations given to the passage. In any event, the emphasis with respect to one of the sons of Shimon may imply that the rest of his children and the children of his brothers were not of Cana'anite descent. At the very least, however, the problem still remains with respect to Shimon himself.

[18] See the article of Rabbi Y. Medan, Daf Kesher Letalmidei Yeshivat Har Etzion, vol. III, pp. 454-456; compare with M. Zeichel, "Hanas'u Benei Ya'akov Nashim Kena'aniyot," Shema'atin XXII (1985), pp. 10-15.

[19] The Maharal, in dealing with this problem, noted the essential difference resulting from the transition from individuals to a nation, but in a different direction. The Maharal explains (Gur Arye, Bereishit 38:2) that since we are dealing with a nation and not individuals, marrying Cana'anite women is no longer severely prohibited, because now they can become assimilated into the Jewish people.

(Translated by David Strauss)