When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried a great and very bitter cry; and he said to his father: “Bless me, too, my father!”
And [Isaac] said [to Esau]: “Your brother came, with cunning, and took your blessings.”
Jacob, as the Torah attests, was “a guileless man, a dweller of the tents [of learning]”—in contrast to his twin-brother Esau, who is described as “an adept trapper, a man of the [hunting] field.” Thus we can appreciate the depth of Esau’s rage when Jacob bested him at his own game, gaining the blessings for “The dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” through cunning and stealth.
The story of the stolen blessings is often understood as a contest between the two brothers for the legacy of Abraham and Isaac, with Isaac mistakenly taking Esau to be the worthy heir, while Rebecca, knowing the true nature of her elder son, devising the plan that would place Jacob at Isaac’s bedside at the crucial moment. However, a closer reading of the Torah’s account indicates that Isaac was well aware of the difference between his two children, and that the blessing which he intended to grant to Esau was not the spiritual heritage of Abraham.
A most revealing passage is where Esau discovers that Jacob has received the blessings, and begs Isaac, “Bless me, too, my father!” “But I have made him your master,” says Isaac, “I have given him [the blessings of] grain and wine. What can I do for you now, my son?” “Have you only one blessing, my father?!” sobs Esau. “Bless me too, my father!” Finally, Isaac blesses Esau that “Of the fatness of the land shall be your dwelling, and of the dew of heaven above” (the fat of the land and the dew of heaven themselves having already been granted to Jacob), and promises him that should the descendants of Jacob sin and become unworthy of their blessings, they will forfeit their mastery over Esau’s descendants in material affairs. But in the very next chapter we read how Isaac summons Jacob to him, and… blesses him. “May G-d Almighty bless you,” says Isaac, “make you fruitful, and multiply you, and you shall become a populous nation. And may He grant you the blessing of Abraham, to you and your descendants, that you may inherit the land of your dwelling, which G-d has given to Abraham.”
So Isaac never intended to make Esau the father of the people of Israel, never thought to bequeath the Holy Land to him, never considered him heir to “the blessing of Abraham.” There were two distinct blessings in Isaac all along (Esau seems to have sensed this when he cried, “Have you only one blessing, my father?!”), intended for his two sons: Jacob was to be given the spiritual legacy of Abraham, while Esau was to be granted the blessings of the material world.
In light of this, Jacob’s behavior seems all the more out of character. Not only did he resort to connivance and trickery to receive his father’s blessing, but he did so for wholly material gifts, tailor-made for his material brother, while a second, spiritual set of blessings had been reserved for him all along. Why did not Jacob reconcile himself to this division of roles and resources? Why did this “guileless man” dress himself in Esau’s clothes, cover his smooth skin with goatskins to feel like his hairy brother to his blind father’s touch, and deceive Isaac into granting him the material world as well?
Candor and Deceit: A History
Originally, “G-d made man straight” and placed him in a forthright world: good was good and evil was evil, and Eden was a place on earth with clearly defined boundaries. There was no shame in this world, nor doubt, nor any of the other attendants of ambiguity.
One serpentine creature inhabited this rectilinear world. “The snake… the most cunning among all the animals of the field that G-d created,”induced the first man and woman to taste of the fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” so that they might “be, like G-d, knowers of good and evil.” But what in G-d is the ultimate sublimation is bedlam in mortal man. In G-d, the “knowledge of good and evil” is the knowledge of their singular essence, of the divine goodness that pervades the realm of good and hides behind the façade of evil; in man, to attempt to know both good and evil is to commingle the two, so that good becomes lost in evil and evil infiltrates good.
Adam’s sin compelled his banishment from the Garden of Eden, the sanctum of unadulterated good reserved for original man. It also spelled the collapse of the original structure of creation. No longer were “good” and “evil” the absolute demarcations they were before man tasted of the knowledge of evil. The purest and holiest things became susceptible to the baseness and selfishness of man’s animal self, while sparks of holiness were scattered throughout the realm of the profane.
From that point on, the material world has been both prison and lifeline for the soul of man, both quagmire and treasure trove. Materiality, with its brutishness, temporality and self-absorption, is the coarsest of veils to obscure the divine truth and distance the soul from its source; but it is also home to the “sparks of holiness” that had fallen and become embedded within it when the primordial serpent made our world a mishmash of good and evil. Externally, the material world opposes and counteracts all things spiritual; but trapped within it are the most lofty of spiritual potentials.
Jacob and Adam
“The visage of Jacob,” the Talmud tells us, “resembled the visage of Adam.” For Jacob’s mission in life was to rectify the sin of Adam, restore the cosmic order it disrupted, and free the sparks of holiness from their corporeal imprisonment.
So Jacob could not content himself with the spiritual blessings which Isaac had reserved for him. It was imperative that he gain the dew of heaven and the fat of the land, that he receive the blessings of grain and wine. It was essential that he, not his material brother, be made master over the material world.
Originally, Esau was to be Jacob’s partner in the endeavor to redeem the “sparks of holiness.” Esau’s craftiness and hunting skills were to be employed in the task of outmaneuvering the primordial serpent and diverting the material resources of the earth to support Jacob’s spiritual endeavors, thereby exploiting their holy potential toward holy ends.But Esau failed in his mission. He entered the field of worldly endeavor and became a material hunter rather than a hunter of the material. So Jacob had to assume both roles. He had to become both trapper and sublimater, both the crafty procurer of material things and the guileless tzaddik who utilizes them solely to serve G-d.
To gain the material blessings that Isaac had designated for Esau, Jacob had to garb himself in Esau’s clothes and assume Esau’s furtive manner. His own forthright nature could not have wrested the material domain from the serpent’s clutches any more than a straight-flying arrow can penetrate to the heart of a convoluted labyrinth. “With the pure be pure,” advises the Psalmist, “and with the devious be circuitous.”
Such is the Jew’s approach to the material. This is a world which recognizes no master or authority, which relates no function or purpose to itself other than its own perseverance and growth. So he who enters this world—and enter it one must, by decree of He who invested our souls in a material body and environment—must master the Esauian artifices of duplicity and entrapment. He eats and drinks, ostensibly to nourish his physical life; he engages in business, ostensibly to increase his material wealth; he builds a career and a position in the community, ostensibly to amass prestige and power. For all intents and purposes, he is a full-fledged participant in the give and take of material life. But it’s only the “take” that he’s after; when it comes to the “give,” he’s unwilling to pay the price. Here he’s a shameless manipulator, claiming materialdom’s choicest bits for himself but refusing to relate to the material on its, the material’s, terms: refusing to care, refusing to become involved, refusing to pursue it for its own sake.
The Jew dresses in Esau’s clothes, but he refuses to allow the clothes to make the man. He disguises himself as a material being, but this is but a connivance, a ruse by which to ensnare the physical and exploit it toward a G-dly end.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shevat 13, 5711 (January 20, 1951)
. Genesis 25:27.
. Genesis ch. 27.
. See Rashi on Genesis 27:1, 4, 21 and 22.
. Genesis 27:34-40.
. Ibid. 28:1-4.
. See Sforno’s commentary on Genesis 27:29; Shelah on Parashat Toldot (289b-290b).
. Ecclesiastes 7:29.
. Genesis 3:1.
. Ibid. v. 5.
. Talmud, Bava Batra 58a.
. Cf. the holy partnership between Issachar, the tribe of Torah scholars, and Zebulun, the tribe of seafaring merchants who supported the Issacharites’ studies (Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:18).
. Psalms 18:27.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. I, pp. 55-56.