Toldot: Mitzvah Power!

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Power Lines
26 Nov 2008

Chapter 27 is a most dramatic chapter, where different subplots merge into a most unbelievable climax; a story whose conclusion still leaves so many unanswered questions – yet whose drama melds irony, complexity, sarcasm, sadness and ultimately yields triumph.

Consider some of the questions:

Consider the

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.

It is hard not to feel sad for Eisav – whose cries reverberate throughout the ages:

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 that are enmeshed in our text never before and never again appear in the description of our two main personalities Yaakov and Eisav, and yet appear three times in our chapter. They are the words gadol and katan, literally big and small respectively:

The introductory verse:

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

As 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.

In the aftermath of it all:

Rivkah was informed about the words of Eisov, 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.

We certainly know that Eisav was older and Yaakov younger. Even if it is contextually critical, why mention it more than once?

1. To Ramban, the message is that even as Eisav was the first born and the maternal apple of Rivkah’s eye, she overcame her natural instinct to recognize that Yaakov was the fit recipient of the bechora (birthright) and the blessings. Rivkah’s sacrifice is heightened by the resultant rift that would surely happen. Thus as the story concludes, once again gadol and katan are accentuated – indicating that the right and the expedient don’t always merge – nor does one’s natural love always point to the correct conclusion.

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

3. Two midrashic approaches: Chanifa, inappropriate flattery has its place. When a wicked person is in control – one may at times give him undue adulation. Apparently, it beats the alternative. Thus Eisav, who is on top of the world, is called gadol. Why Yaakov is called katan is not treated by the midrash – but apparently it is to teach that deference (acting katan) to the powerful has its place as well.

4. A second more uplifting approach appears in several midrashic sources (Bereishis Rabah, 45:11):

R. Eliezer ben Shimon said: This may be compared to a country that was levying 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).

Most compelling for me is the notion that Rav Schwab develops. Gadol is not a this-worldly expression of physical prowess or power. It is a spiritual indicator. A famous Midrash teaches:

And Rivkah took the choicest garments of Eisav her big son. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel 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.’

I don’t know of many homes where the children put on special garments to take out the garbage (except for our home). In the realm of honoring parents, Eisav was gadol – greater in spiritual stature than anyone – including Yaakov!

Rav Schwab explains that Yitzchak’s desire for Eisav’s hunt game was to “taste” the incredible mitzvah sanctity resident in the food. Rivkah understands this. She commands Yaakov in a manner that compels him to overcome his natural truth instinct. Against Yaakov’s better judgment, Rivkah thrusts Yaakov into an extraordinary mitzvah of kibbud eim. She clothes him in Eisav’s garments, the very garments that he would normally don while serving his parents – as if to say that now Yaakov is rising to Eisav’s standard in this mitzvah (2). Since Yitzchak tastes the same holiness in Yaakov’s food, he is sure that it is Eisav.

What’s the message? The power of a sincere mitzvah, one done without an agenda, cannot be overstated nor should it be underestimated (3). As we encounter difficult people in our orbit, probably far less agenda oriented and more wholesome than Eisav, let us try to coax out a mitzvah or find their greatness – one never knows what power they may bring into the world!

Good Shabbos – Asher Brander


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.

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.