Toldot: Finding the Neshama Tehora

hero image
Russian Nesting Dolls Opened
19 Nov 2009

Here’s a strange question. Did Yitzchak love Yaakov?

Read this pasuk carefully and you’ll understand my problem.

“Vaye’ehav Yitzchak et Eisav ki tzayid b’fiv v’Rivka ohevet et Yaakov”

Yitzchak loved Eisav because he placed game in his mouth and Rivkah loves Yaakov.

Much is notable in the verse. Witness the rationale for Yitzchak’s love and none for Rivkah’s; observe the differing verb tenses (loved vs. loves) that distinguishes the quality of Yitzchak’s love from Rivkah’s. Most remarkably (for me) is the absence of Rivkah’s love for Eisav and the absence of Yitzchak’s love for Yaakov.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (Italy, 1470-1550) relieves my anxiety, somewhat. From his perspective, the obvious need not be stated (although most wives would readily agree it’s still a good idea when instructing their husbands). Yitzchak loved Yaakov and recognized his revealed spiritual nature. Eisav was not the tent dweller or the Torah learner that Yaakov was. Nevertheless, Yitzchak also loved Eisav. The novelty here is that Yitzchak felt a great deal of affection for Eisav as well.

Was there a particular aspect of Eisav that greatly excited Yitzchak? The text is cryptic on this point.

Chasam Sofer suggests that Yaakov’s brand of avodas Hashem (Divine service), intense Torah study, was de rigueur in Avraham’s home. Yitzchak himself was a Torah scholar of great magnitude (cf. Avodah Zarah 14b). Yitzchak’s perception of Eisav as the man of the field and the man of God was a novelty for him. The idea that cultivating deep spirituality need not be the monopoly of the tent dweller deeply excited Yitzchak 1.

Was Eisav able to deceive Yitzchak, i.e. did Yitzchak think that his Eisav was a tzadikel?

It appears that for Chasam Sofer the answer seems to be yes (for a time). Rivkah, however, was a woman of experience. While allowing for the theoretical Eisav model, her past (Lavan and Besuel) yielded enough experience to sniff out the charlatans. She saw right through Eisav. One can only wonder how difficult it must have been for Rivkah to overcome her natural maternal love for Eisav in order to disengage from him. I can not begin to imagine.

Our opening Seforno, (in contrast to Chasam Sofer) implies that Yitzchak understood how flawed his Eisav was, and yet Yitzchak still loved him!

And if we go with Seforno, we arrive at a point of fascination. Heilige Yitzchak, a man who had the halachic status of an olah temimah – a living sacrifice, the embodiment of absolute Divine strength and judgment; how did he manage to tolerate, nay, embrace Eisav?

For my rebbe, Rav Sholom Tendler, this was precisely his nisayon (test). Would the man who lived personally with absolute judgment (din) overcome his natural tendencies to find room in his tent for an Eisav who so obviously didn’t? In much the same manner, Avraham, the quintessential ba’al chesed, is summoned to quash that very midah in akeidas Yitzchak. God, Rav Sholom says, has a mean curveball and rarely tests us in our comfort zones.

In direct contrast, Shem Mishmuel understands Yitzchak’s loving approach as flowing davka from the unique Yitzchak personality. Yitzchak was a lot soul and a little body. More than anyone (even Rivkah), he understood what Eisav could become. He looked beyond the external crudeness to peer at Eisav’s inner greatness, one that yielded the prophet Ovadiah and the holy Tannaim Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon. To a neshama aficionado, a bit of crusted surface dirt is insignificant in the journey to uncover the brilliant diamond that is a soul. How ironic and yet precise it is that Yitzchak whose eyes were dim had such keen insight! Ultimately, Eisav was a tragic failure, but that was Eisav’s choice.

I humbly submit that the Yitzchak ability to find the neshama tehora amidst the garbage, and to convey that reality to its possessor, is the challenge of every teacher, parent, friend (and sometimes even child). It is a challenge we dare not fail.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1 Indeed, according to Rabbi Yishmael (Brachos 35b), this serves as an ideal model for a typical Jew.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.