I’m going to revisit the issues I first discussed in 5762’s “Winners and Losers,” and 5763’s “Not Sticking In The Knife” and elaborate upon my thoughts on the subject.
The initial question is whether or not Yitzkhak was a knowing but quiescent partner in the “deception” in which Yaakov received Yitzkhak’s blessing. Rabbis, commentators, and scholars have a diversity of opinion on the matter. There are all the usual arguments-that Yitzchak knew that Yaakov was the better choice than Esav; that Yitzchak simply submitted to what he thought to be G”d’s will; that the text of Torah is full of clues or indications that clearly Yitzchak knew that it was Yaakov he was blessing, and not Esau.
I posited, when I first wrote about this, that this could still be construed as a somewhat misogynistic interpretation. Rebekkah conspires with Yaakov to fool Yitzchak, but Yitzchak is not fooled. So once again, the man is/the men are the true ultimate winner.
Yet again, I ask the question I did before: who is the winner in all this?
- Yitzchak, because he went along with the deception knowingly but feigning surprise, so he got the better of his wife, the better of his sons, and still got what he thought was the best end result (there we go with the teleological stuff again)?
- Rebekkah, because even though Yitzchak knew of the duplicity, she still got what she wanted?
- Yaakov? He obviously wanted very much to be the one who inherited-he stole Esau’s birthright and blessing through trickery, and got exactly what he wanted.
All of these answers have one commonality – they have Esav as the loser. A deserved loser. Esav, who thought nothing of G”d, and so little of his own birthright that he gladly sold it for a little food. I ask again, is Esav truly the loser? I sometimes wonder. Oh, he makes a great show of his displeasure of not inheriting and not getting Yitzchak’s blessing, but, in the end, perhaps he gets what he really wants- to not be stuck with the responsibility of being the head of the clan, and have the freedom to do whatever he wants. He takes the wives he wants. In an even stranger twist, knowing he has displeased Yitzchak by marrying two Hittite women, he goes and marries a first cousin, a daughter of Ishmael! Yaakov, fearing his brother’s wrath, has to run away. But Esau just gets to hang around, have fun, and not have the burden of inheritance. Dig into the mind of Esau, and we might discover that he really got what he wanted all along. Well played, Esau, well played. (If we look into the future, we may discover that he played things just as well when he and his brother were briefly reunited years later.)
Perhaps Esau got what he wanted. Now we must ask if Esau got what he deserved? It is (perhaps) true that Esav was warlike, hot-tempered, cared little for G”d, and looked for the easy way out of things. So, in some respects, Esav got what was coming to him-deprived of his birthright and his father’s blessing. On the other hand, if that is exactly what Esav really wanted in the first place, was the balance of justice preserved?
Is it possible that G”d had originally intended to have Esau be the one to carry on the lineage, but once G”d saw how Esau used the free will he had, G”d decided to punt (and then go back and rewrite the history.)
The year after I first wrote about this, I posited that perhaps Esau wasn’t such a bad guy. He resisted that all to easy temptation, that defiant, stick-out-your-tongue gesture that we all seem to derive a brief moment of pleasure from. Esau certainly seems to be the kind who might do such a thing. Having been denied the birthright and first blessing his brother stole from him, and probably upset with his father for unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly?) falling for the deception, Esau is a likely candidate to stick his tongue out at his father in a defiant gesture. Yet he resists.
The rabbis like to paint Esau as quite the negative. An earthy man, not smart like his brother. And yes, Esau does indeed threaten to kill his brother. One can hardly blame him. Yet Esau does not kill his brother Yaakov. And when Yaakov is advised to stealthily slip away lest Esau catch him and kill him, Esau does not pursue.
So there we have something to admire about Esau. He didn’t pursue his brother to revenge himself. He didn’t give in to the temptation.
And yet another–he resists the opportunity to thumb his nose at his father Yitzchak. He knew he had already displeased both his parents by marrying Judith and Beeri, both Hittite women. The text tells us that these marriages were a source of morat ruach, bitterness, to Yitzchak and Rivka. And now Esau sees his parents sending away his brother to kinsfolk with the clear intention of assuring he marries within the tribe.
However, instead of that defiant gesture, what does Esau do? The last few verses of our parasha tell us. (B’reisheet 28:6-9.) Esau realizes now how his marrying the Hittite women displeased his parents, and so he took a wife from within the tribe–sort of. He marries Ishmael’s daughter. Now, one might argue that, in so doing, Esau was still sort of sticking it to his parents, but that would be imposing our modern viewpoint on the realities of Esau’s time. Ishmael and his line were part of the clan. (You know that story of Yitzkhak going to live with Ishmael and Hagar after the akeidah I’ve always wanted to write, right? Actually, I’ve started it, finally.) At the end of Khayyei Sarah we read of Ishmael’s line, and how they dwelled alongside their kinsmen. So Esau honored his parents wishes, showed his parents the respect they deserved from him. And he did this even at a time when he could easily feel wronged by his parents. A powerful lesson indeed.
So Esau resisted the temptation. Perhaps he was learning. After all, we later discover that Esau prospers, and, despite Yaakov worst fears, revenge is not on Esau’s mind.
And so, too, can we learn. I know I’ve done it. Found a way to appear nice yet “stick it” to someone with a clever twist of words or a sharp-tongued phrase. I’m not proud of it. And I pray for the strength and wisdom to learn, as Esau did, to control that urge.
So was Esau a winner or loser? It is hard in life, at times, to really determine who the winners and losers are. (That is, if you even believe that there are winners and losers.) The Torah isn’t really clear on all this.
Are these our choices in life-to be like Yaakov or like Esau? I’m no longer sure which one to be like.
You know who the real winners are? We are-because we get to learn and benefit from these stories, from our holy Torah. To twist it and stretch it and turn it inside out and upside down in a search for meaning and understanding in our own lives. And if we learn anything from the story of Yaakov and Esau, it’s that thing are never simple, obvious, or clear cut!
©2014 (portions ©2001 and 2002) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings On This Parasha:
Tol’dot/Makhar Hodesh 5774 – Drops That Sparkle
Tol’dot 5773 – More Teleology
Tol’dot 5771 – Keeping the Bathwater
Toldot 5769 – There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Toldot 5768 – Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmistories
Toldot 5767-They Also Serve…
Toldot 5765-Purposeless Fire
Toledot 5764-What a Bother!
Toledot 5763-Not Sticking in The Knife
Toledot 5762-Winners and Losers
Toledot 5761-Is This All There Is?
Toledot 5758-Like Father, Like Son