A Blessing on Your Head?

Context:

As Yitzchak ages and develops blindness, he arranges to bless his older and favored son, Esav. Rivka, upon overhearing her husband’s plans, instructs her favorite, Yaakov, to masquerade as his older brother in order to receive his father’s blessing.
Yaakov complies with his mother’s instructions and is successful in deceiving his father and obtaining the blessing.
When Esav returns and discovers his brother’s actions, he threatens Yaakov’s life. In response, Rivka instructs Yaakov to return to her homeland, both for his own protection and to find a wife. Yaakov leaves for Padan Aram with his father’s agreement and further blessings.

Questions:

A number of difficult and fundamental questions can be raised as we take a new look at this familiar, yet strange, biblical narrative. These questions strike to the very core of the tale and to the basic issues that it raises.

First, and foremost, how do we understand the concept of interpersonal berachot (blessings bestowed by man) within Jewish tradition? What, exactly, is the nature of man’s power to bless? What strength do the blessings that we recite on behalf of others, such as prayers for those who are ill, really have?

Are interpersonal blessings so magical that if they are recited in error they are, nonetheless, effective? Specifically, if Yitzchak bestows a blessing upon Yaakov believing that he is really blessing Esav, does Yaakov nonetheless receive the blessing because he is standing there?

How does God fit into the picture? What is Rivka so terribly frightened of? If Esav had been blessed by his father couldn’t God have countermanded that blessing? Doesn’t God ultimately bless the individual who is most deserving?

Why is the entire struggle for the blessing necessary? Couldn’t Yitzchak have blessed each of his children? Esav’s objection upon discovering Yaakov’s deceit, “Have you only one blessing, my father?” seems to make a great deal of sense.

How could Yitzchak have been so unaware as to believe that Esav, and not Yaakov, should be the heir to the spiritual legacy of the family?

Approaches:

A. Due to space limitations, we will only discuss one approach which is suggested, with minor differences, by a number of scholars. This approach is based upon evidence within the text that, all along, Yitzchak intended to bestow two separate and very different blessings upon his children: one upon Esav, and one upon Yaakov.

The key to this approach lies at the core of the story, in the blessing that serves as the source of contention. The blessing, ultimately bestowed upon Yaakov disguised as Esav, reads as follows:

“Behold the scent of my son is as the scent of a field which God has blessed – And may God give to you of the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land, and abundant grain and wine. Nations will serve you and regimes will bow down to you; those who curse you will be cursed and those who bless you will be blessed.” (Bereishit 27:27-29)

One can’t help but be disappointed upon reading this text. Is this what the fuss is all about? Strikingly absent in this passage is any spiritual component. The blessing is totally physical in nature. Where is the spiritual heritage that is meant to lie at the center of the patriarchal legacy?

You could easily miss it, but a second blessing is found at the end of the narrative. This blessing is bestowed by Yitzchak upon Yaakov as the latter prepares to leave for Padan Aram. This time, however, Yitzchak knows to whom he is speaking:

“May Keyl Shakkai (the Lord) bless you, make you fruitful and numerous, and may you be a congregation of nations. May He grant you the blessing of Avraham, to you and to your children with you, to inherit the land upon which you have dwelt, which God gave to Avraham.” (Bereishit 28:3-4)

Here, then, is the missing content – the reference to the spiritual legacy of Avraham. This legacy appears only in the blessing given deliberately by Yitzchak to Yaakov and not in the bracha originally intended for Esav.

The critical differences between the two blessings lead some scholars to maintain that the text clearly reflects Yitzchak’s original intention to bless each of his children differently. Contrary to popular assumption, the patriarch never intended to choose one child at the expense of the other. Instead, he planned to maximize the strengths of each. Esav, whose power lay in the physical world, would be blessed with material bounty, while Yaakov, the mild-mannered student, would be encouraged towards success in the spiritual realm. Some commentaries even suggest that Yitzchak intended that there be an unequal partnership between his two sons.

Esav would rule over Yaakov and provide for his physical needs. In this way, Yaakov would be free to pursue his study of Torah.

At face value, it would seem that Yitzchak, far from showing favoritism, is actually applying proper parenting skills. He recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each of his children and encourages each child to pursue the lifestyle most appropriate for him.

Rivka, however, knows better. She recognizes the painful truth that Yaakov can neither live in partnership with nor be dependent on the likes of his brother, Esav. She also realizes something much deeper. Yaakov and his descendents will survive and thrive only if her younger son receives both blessings. Yaakov must learn to succeed not only in the tent of study but on the battlefield of life. Rivka, therefore, does the one thing she can do. She pushes Yaakov out of the tent and into the arena of struggle for the physical blessing.

Rivka knows that the third patriarch cannot afford to be an innocent student who avoids the challenges of life. She also recognizes in her younger son hidden abilities of which even he is unaware. Her intuition is proven correct as, from this point on, Yaakov faces challenge after challenge, in the house of Lavan and beyond. When the patriarch successfully rises to meet those challenges, he demonstrates life skills essential not only to his own survival but to the perpetuation of his legacy across the ages.

Once again, the actions of a matriarch, in difficult circumstances at the dawn of our history, lay the groundwork for our nation’s survival and success.

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.