Toldos: Mitzvah Power!

Chapter 27. Yaakov wrests the brachos from Eisav. Different subplots merge into a poignant climax; a story whose drama melds irony, complexity, sarcasm, sadness and ultimate triumph, yet in the process leaves so many questions –

Consider a few:

Did Yitzchak understand Eisav’s character? Yaakov’s? Wasn’t Yitzchak aware of the prophecy that “the younger one shall rule over the older”? Granted Yaakov had to listen to his mother, but why did Rivkah do it this way? Does a blessing count if you don’t know who the recipient is? Why are the brachos so important anyway? Why did God engineer it this way?

Note the ..

.. irony of an Eisav, the master of deception and guile being duped by Yaakov.

.. sarcasm of our “lamdan” Eisav explaining the true “pshat” (meaning) of Yaakov’s name: (“Is he not rightly called Yaakov[1]? He has deceived me twice; he took my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing.”)

.. complexity of Yaakov, man of truth, engaging in apparent duplicity

.. sadness of a crying, broken Eisav:

When Eisav heard his father’s words, he wailed a most loud and bitter cry, and he said to his father, “Bless me too, my father.” .. Eisav said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father,” and Eisav raised his voice and wept.

Echoes of his cries reverberate through time:

R. Hanina said: Whoever maintains that the Holy One, blessed be He, is lax [in dispensing justice], .. He is merely longsuffering, but [ultimately] collects His due. Yaakov made Eisav break out into a cry but once, and where was he punished for it? In Shushan, the castle, as it says, And he cried with a loud and bitter cry, etc. (Est. IV, 1).

Two simple words appear three times in our chapter. Remarkably, never before and never again are they used to describe Yaakov and Eisav. The words: gadol and katan, [lit. big and small]:

1. Introduction:

Verse 1: And when Yitzchok grew old his eyesight faded and he could not see. He called Eisav, his big son, and said to him, “My son.” [Eisav] said to him, “Here I am.”

2. Rivkah implements her plan:

Verse 15: Rivkah took the garments of Eisav, her big son, [the garments] that were precious [to him] that were in her keeping in the house, and put them on Yaakov, her small son.

3. The aftermath:

Rivkah was informed about the words of Eisav, her big son, and she sent [a messenger] to call Yaakov, her small son, and she said to him .. [for Eisav intends] to kill you.

The constant refrain of gadol and katan seems obvious and extra. Our meforshim get to work:

1. To Ramban, the Torah emphasizes Rivkah’s difficult maternal task. Can one imagine a mother having to slight her child, her first born – and thus the maternal apple of her eye? Rivkah’s ability to transcend her natural instinct to recognize Yaakov as the appropriate bechora/blessings recipient is all the more remarkable given the certainty of the resulting rift. As the story concludes, gadol and katan are accentuated once again to indicate that Rivkah opts for the difficult-right over the natural- expedient.

2. Netziv and Ohr Hachaim link gadol to Eisav’s stature and strength. Because Eisav was bigger, Yaakov must wear Eisav’s clothing. Because Eisav was stronger, Yaakov the physically weaker had to escape.

3. Midrash # 1: Chanifa, inappropriate flattery has a place. When a wicked person is in control, one may (at times) pay him undue adulation. Apparently, it beats the alternative. Eisav-for now is on top of the world and thus is called gadol. Why is Yaakov called katan? Perhaps to indicate that deference (acting katan) to the powerful is the appropriate way.

4. A second Midrashic approach: (Bereishis Rabah, 45:11):

R. Eliezer ben Shimon said: This may be compared to a country that was seeking g a bodyguard for the king. Now a certain woman there had a son, a dwarf, whom she used to call ‘Tallswift’. Said she: ‘My son is tall and swift; why then do you not appoint him?’ ‘If in your eyes he is tall and swift,’ they retorted, ‘in ours he is but a dwarf.’ In like manner, his [Eisav’s] father called him great ..his mother too called him great: Said Hashem to them: ‘If in your eyes he is great, in Mine he is small,’ as it says, Behold, I make thee small among the nations (Obad. I, 2).

A sobering reminder that what is great in this world may well be absolutely insignificant in the real world!

Rav Schwab develops a final compelling notion. Gadol is not a this-worldly expression of physical prowess or power; it is a spiritual indicator.

R. Shimon son of Gamliel said: All my lifetime I attended upon my father, yet I did not do for him a hundredth part of the, service which Eisav did for his father. I used to attend upon my father in soiled garments and go out in the street in clean ones; but when Eisav attended on his father, he attended upon him in royal robes, ‘For,’ said he, ‘nought but royal robes befits my father’s honour.’

Most homes (except for ours) do not find the children donning special garments to take out the garbage. Eisav was a gadol in the realm of honoring parents, greater in spiritual stature than anyone – including Yaakov [who is katan]! Yitzchak’s desire for Eisav’s hunted game was to “taste” the incredible mitzvah sanctity resident in the food.

Rivkah understands this and quickly gets to work by commanding Yaakov to engage, against his better judgment, in an extraordinary mitzvah of kibbud eim; one that compels him to overcome his natural truth instinct. By clothing him in Eisav’s garments, those that he would wear while serving his parents, Rivkah is implicitly stating that Yaakov is now rising to Eisav’s standard of this mitzvah[2]. Yitzchak then “tastes” the same holiness in Yaakov’s food, causing him to think that he is Eisav.

The power of a sincere mitzvah, one done without agenda can not be overstated[3]. As we encounter difficult people in our orbit, (probably far less agenda oriented and more wholesome than Eisav) let us try to coax mitzvah and show them their greatness – one never knows what power they may bring into the world!

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1. Which implies a notion of underhandedness

2. This notion, says Rav Schwab also explains why the Torah [28:5 – cf. Rashi] curiously identifies Rivkah as the being the mother of Yaakov and Eisav – as if to say that in one aspect – she retained a special unique connection with her Eisav.

3. See Yeshayahu, 27:11 for an incredible Rashi that states Edom’s power till this very day is nourished by that mitzvah and only when it lapses will he suffer defeat.