Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Friday, 20 November 2009

Inevitable Consequences

One of the most troubling narratives in the Torah is this week's recounting of how Yaakov Avinu swiped his brother Eisav's beracha.  Many other parts of the Torah that seem bothersome to people can often be explained either with an in-depth understanding of the Midrash or an appreciation of the historical context that envelopes the story but this week's parasha is, quite simply, very difficult to explain away.
To summarize: Yitchak Avinu grows old.  He calls Eisav, the older of his twins, and tells him to go and bring him some nice venison so that he can bless him before he dies.  While Eisav is out hunting game, Rivkah Imeinu convinces Yaakov to put on Eisav's clothes and coat his hands in goat hairs and then go and pretend to be Eisav so that Yitzchak can bless him.  Yaakov does so, is successful and then slips out just as Eisav returns.  When the trickery is discovered, Eisav begs for another blessing and Yitzchak half-heartedly gives him one that doesn't seem to amount to much.  Following this generations of God haters and anti-Semites perpetuate the story that Yaakov stole the beracha from Eisav.
Yet this isn't as simple as it seems.  For one thing, there is the matter of the beginning of the parasha in which Eisav knowingly sells his firstborn status to Yaakov (Ber.5:29-33).  As if to counter the expected argument that Eisav was under duress due to his appetite and feeling starved, the Torah immediately tells us that he knew fully well what he was doing and placed no value on what he had sold. (5:34)  If anything, he thought he got the better end of the deal.
Now one flaw, if I may be so bold, in Yitchak Avinu's home was that they didn't speak much with one another.  Consider that Rivkah never tells anyone about the prophecy she received (25:23), neither Yaakov not Eisav informed Yitzchak about their personal status changes and no one ever saw fit to tell Yitzchak what Eisav's true nature was!  Thus if we flash forward several years later, it is no wonder that when it comes time to dole out the blessing to the bechor that Yitzchak calls for Eisav and tries to give it to him.
But is that really the blessing he was going to give him?  Although most people assume it is, there are a couple of problems with that notion.  For one thing, most commentators note that when a father blesses his child he generally has a separate one reserved for each.  Here, however, we are presented with the idea that there was just this one blessing and whoever got it got everything!
What's more, it really isn't the only blessing that Yitzchak had to give.  At the end of the parasha, as Yaakov is packing up to go to Charan, Yitzchak gives him another blessing (28:3-4) which is completely different in character from the previous one.  If he had this beracha in reserve, why did he initially refuse to bless Eisav after the deception was discovered?
But there is an even more obvious question that rarely gets asked.  The mastermind behind the whole kerfuffle was Rivkah.  Superficially the text suggests that she arranged for Yaakov to get the beracha because he was her favourite son.  Explanations such as how she believed he was better deserving because he was saintly while Eisav was more wicked sound like apologetics against this simplistic statement.  But how should she even have thought she would get away with it?  Even if Yaakov was successful, Eisav would still show up and discover the ruse, and then what?  Yitzchak could simply announce that he meant the beracha for Eisav, not Yaakov and then whole plot would come to nothing.  Worse than nothing really in terms of the distrust and negativity it would create in the home.  What could she possibly have been thinking?
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, doesn't let the question go and presents an incredible answer, one completely against naive understandings of the story.  In fact, he notes, Rivkah wanted the outcome to be exactly as it happened!
Remember that it is generally understood that everyone other than Yitzchak had figured out Eisav's true character while the rasha himself managed to keep his father in the dark.  It is entirely possible that at some point Rivkah tried to point this out to her husband.  This might possibly have happened when Eisav married his two shiksas which the Torah tells us was very displeasing to his parents.  Yet it seems that Yitzchak didn't listen.
According to the commentators, he had a plan for the family.  He knew Yaakov's true nature and his desire to immerse himself in knowledge of God.  He knew that the best life for Yaakov would be one divorced from the material pursuits of this world in order to concentrate on his spiritual pursuits.  He also knew quite well that Eisav was materialistic and involved in this world.  All things in the world created by God, with the possible exceptions of communism and elevator music, have the potential to be used to increase holiness.  Any person with any nature can reach higher towards God.  A famous example of this is David HaMelech, a"h who, like Eisav, had red hair and ruddy complexion but unlike Eisav used his talents to create a kingdom of Israel and set the foundations for the first Beis HaMikdash. 
Similarly, Yitzchak felt that if Eisav's materialistic energies were chanelled in the right direction, he too could achieve holiness and this direction would involve supporting and defending his brother and his descendents while they immersed themselve in Torah.  This partnership would create a viable nation in which both halves would contribute and receive Divine reward for their efforts.
According to Rav Hirsch, Rivkah, however, realized that Eisav was not only materialistic but that he was also uninterested in sacrificing his desires to entire into a partnership like that which Yitzchak envisioned.  She also realized, probably after trying to speak with Yitzchak, that no one could convince him otherwise.  So instead she set into motion her scheme to obtain the beracha for Yaakov in order to demonstrate a simple lession to Yitzchak - if Yaakov could fool Yitzchak into thinking he was an Eisav, then it is possible that Eisav had fooled Yitzchak into thinking he was a Yaakov.  And this was the reason for the great trembling that Yitzchak felt when he realized he had blessed the wrong son (27:33).  Years of gullibility fell away and in a flash he realized the truth and how close he had come to blessing his selfish son with all the materialistic boon of the world.
This then also explains why the second beracha was meant for Yaakov.  The first one was intended for Eisav in his role as Yaakov's supporter and protector.  Since he wasn't going to fill that roll, Yaakov took it from him.  However, the second beracha, which if you pay attention to the wording, is the beracha that God gave Avraham, was always meant for Yaakov.  It wasn't simply a spare blessing that Eisav might have taken because Eisav was not fit for it.
So we can understand from Rav Hirsch's insight an entirely different way of understanding the whole story in this parasha and appreciate how both blessing wound up with the appropriate son.

2 comments:

Jay3fer said...

Shkoyach! But what kind of time is 2:30 on a Friday afternoon to post parsha insights? Earlier in the week and I could have borrowed this for our Shabbos table...! :-)
(saves having to think up my own; I bake... and leave the deep spiritual insights to others)

Garnel Ironheart said...

Thanks Jay3fer. Actually, I usually post them on Sundays simply because they occur to me over Shabbos and I keep forgetting to leave my Shabbos computer on.