Parshat Toldot introduces our Patriarch Yaakov as well as his brother Eisav, and, from the outset, tips us off to the coming conflict between them. The Torah tells of their "struggle" within their mother's womb, and, as young adults, describes them very differently.
Eisav is "a hunter, a man of the field," while Yaakov is "ish tam", who sits in tents. These textual descriptions, Rashi and Ibn Ezra point out, indicate that Eisav is a "trickster", a man not to be trusted, while Yaakov is a "simple" or "naive" shepherd, who spends his days studying Torah.
Yet, the comments of these rishonim (which echo those of Chazal) seem to be at odds with the simple understanding of the narrative.
Consider, as events of the parshah unfold, who is the trickster and who is the victim. Even as they were being born, Yaakov grasped Eisav's ankle, trying to force his way out of the womb first.
Later, as young adults, Eisav returns from a day of hunting famished and exhausted, begging his brother for food. Yaakov demands Eisav's birthright in exchange for some soup. Then, when Rivkah proposes that Yaakov disguise himself as Eisav in order to "steal" his berachah from Yitzchak, Yaakov protests-not because of the deception involved, but because he fears getting caught and consequently cursed by his father.
Nevertheless, despite these indications of Yaakov's trickery and Eisav's victimhood, Chazal find indications of Eisav's evil. They point to his readiness to sell the bechorah as well as to the wives he took, who aggravated his mother, Rivkah. Thus it seems all the more amazing in light of Chazal's insights that Yitzchak seemed oblivious to Eisav's evil and Yaakov's good such that he sought to confer his blessing upon Eisav.
How are we to understand Yaakov's early actions, Yitzchak's plan to bless Eisav, Yaakov's theft of the berachah, and the subsequent confrontations that he faced-all in a manner that gives us insight into this Patriarch and leaves us, his children, with a message?
As noted by the Netziv, Yitzchak proposed to bless Eisav with birkas haaretz-physical plenitude and mastery over the physical world. Reserved for Yaakov, and conferred upon him by Yitzchak before he fled to Lavan's house, was birkas Avraham-the blessing that Avraham received ensuring that his descendants would be Hashem's chosen nation.
Yitzchak had no reason to think that one of his sons would be rejected; he believed they would both lead this chosen nation as partners, with Eisav as General, mastering the physical world and Yaakov as High Priest, carrying on the spiritual legacy.
However, Rivkah, the mother of these two brothers and, importantly, reared as the sister of Lavan, (as emphasized in the second verse of the parshah), knew that such a partnership was impossible. She understood that Yaakov needed both blessings-to combine spiritual strength with mastery over the physical world-in order to be the father of the Jewish nation.
Accordingly, she orchestrated the "theft" of the physical berachah in a context wherein Yaakov would be introduced to his destiny-to be a person with kol Yaakov but also with yedei Eisav.
She thus wanted Yaakov to undergo an apprenticeship with her brother, Lavan, the master trickster, so that he would know how to combine these traits. He achieved mastery over the physical world, the Keli Yakar, points out (Genesis: 31:1) when he surpasses Lavan's ability to beguile his adversaries.
After this "education," the fully developed Yaakov is commanded by Hashem to return to Canaan, whereupon he wrestles with Eisav's angel and is given a new name: Yisrael. This new name demonstrates his completed evolution, a name by which we, his descendants, are called: Benei Yisrael.
We too must struggle to achieve this synthesis, to master the physical world while remaining true to the spiritual legacy of our Patriarchs-to combine the kol Yaakov with the yedei Eisav.
Nathan J. Diament
Mr. Diament is Director of the Institute For Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union.
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OU Torah Insights 5757 Parasha Index
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