Toldot: The Plot Thickens – Jacob & Esau: Two Nations

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The Next Generation

Just when you thought that the story of Ishmael is over…

He returns for a curtain call.

This week’s Torah portion concludes with Esau, elder son of Isaac, marrying the daughter of Ishmael, Machlat.

Hmmm, what does that do to the gene pool, and what are its effects today?

But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves.

Following the chronicles of Ishmael’s life at the end of last week’s portion, today’s Torah portion begins with the chronicles of Isaac: “And these are the chronicles of Isaac son of Abraham…” the story of Esau and Jacob, children of Isaac and Rebecca.

“And (these are the chronicles)” emphasizes that the chronicles of Isaac are not a separate story but an extension and continuation of Ishmael’s chronicles. In other words, the story of Ishmael and his children continues with Esau and Jacob.

What is the story of Esau and Jacob?

The Torah tells us, that Rebecca’s pregnancy was a difficult one. “The children clashed inside her.” Confused she asks of G-d: “Why is this happening to me?” G-d’s reply: “Two nations are in your womb. Two governments will separate from inside you. The upper hand will go from one nation to the other. The greater one will serve the younger.”

The twins Esau and Jacob are born – the father of these two nations. Esau is the elder of the two. The brothers are diametrically different characters. Esau is a “skilled hunter, a man of the field.” “Jacob was a wholesome man, who sat in the tents” – a scholar who dwelled in the tents of study.

The story continues: One day Esau comes home exhausted from hunting in the field. Jacob is simmering a stew, and famished Esau asks for a swallow of the ‘red stuff’ (he is therefore called ‘Edom,’ which means red). “First sell me your birthright [first born rights]” and then I will give you to eat. Esau agrees. “Here I’m about to die, what good is a birthright to me?” He sells his birthright to Jacob and in return gets his meal.

Strange story. How could honest Jacob, Jacob the scholar, manipulate his brother for the birthright? G-d decided that Esau be the first-born! Additionally, the birthright is a spiritual right; can it be sold for… a stew?!

But the story gets stranger yet.

Rebecca overhears Isaac telling Esau that he wants to bless him. When Esau goes out to the field to bring back a meal for Isaac before blessing him, Rebecca tells her son Jacob what she overheard, and she says to him that he should go to his father Isaac and pretend that he is Esau and receive the blessings. Rebecca prepares a tasty meal and dresses Jacob in Esau’s garments. She places animal skins on his arms and neck, so that when Isaac (who was blind at the time) would touch him, he would think that Jacob is Esau.

Jacob approaches his father. “Father” he says. “Yes, who are you, my son?” Isaac asks. Jacob replies: “It is I, Esau your first born. I have done as you asked. Sit up and eat the game I trapped, so that your soul will bless me.” Isaac asks Jacob to approach him. “Let me touch you, my son. Are you really Esau or not?” When Isaac touches him he says: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Isaac then proceeds to bless him with the most powerful blessings, “May G-d grant you the dew of heaven…”

Just when Isaac finishes blessing Jacob and Jacob leaves him, Esau returns only to discover that Jacob had “stolen” his blessings. “Your brother,” Isaac tells him, “came with deceit and he already took your blessing.” Esau lets out a very loud and bitter scream. “Isn’t he truly named Jacob (Yaakov). He went behind my back (akav) twice. First he took my birthright and now he took my blessing.”

This incident, documented in such detail, is absolutely bizarre. How could Rebecca and Jacob so blatantly deceive husband and father Isaac?! Can blessings be won through deceit? Even if Rebecca was convinced that Jacob deserved the blessings, why did she not attempt to communicate that to Isaac? And what was Isaac thinking; is he not a tzaddik who knew what he was doing? The questions go on and on.

The Torah portion continues with Rebecca sending Jacob away out of fear that Esau will kill him. At Rebecca and Isaac’s bidding, Jacob leaves and goes to Charan to find a wife.

Finally this week’s portion concludes with Esau following suit. Hearing that Isaac is displeased with the Canaanite girls – and therefore sent Jacob to find a wife among Abraham’s family – Esau goes to Ishmael and “marries Machlath daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael, a sister of Nebayoth” [Ishmael’s eldest son].

So what is the story?

Recall, that this entire account of Esau and Jacob are the “chronicles of Isaac son of Abraham” which is a continuation of the chronicles of Ishmael and his children.

The story begins with Abraham, man of passionate faith. He sets the tone and establishes a relationship with G-d. He educates his children Ishmael and Isaac in this spirit, and they carry on the faith that Abraham taught them, each in their own way. Ishmael is excessive and untempered chesed (passion and love). Isaac is gevurah (discipline), the antithesis of chesed, that balances and channels the love of Abraham.

Ishmael in his “wildness” wanders away, only to return years later when he does teshuvah. “On the face of all his brethren he fell” (end of last week’s portion, Chayei Sarah) – Ishmael’s excessive faith must be tempered with the appropriate measure of discipline. When Ishmael did teshuvah and was humbled (‘fell’), he is elevated (tikkun).[1] (see at length last week’s issue).

So, if Ishmael does teshuvah, why are we still having problems?

Because the forces unleashed have affected the universe and we still need to refine the world. Even after Abraham began the process of transforming the material world into a G-dly home, but that was just the beginning; even after all Abraham accomplished, the world is far from its intended purpose.

And so the story continues – ‘and these are the chronicles of Isaac.’ The next generation continues the process began by Abraham.

Following the struggles between chesed and gevurah in Abraham’s times, the new chapter carries this over to the next level. Just like Abraham’s chesed becomes excessive in Ishmael, the gevurah (severity, discipline) of Isaac becomes excessive in Esau. Esau is a warrior, a man of the field. As Isaac tells him: “You shall live by your sword.”[2] Jacob, on the other hand is a man of “peace,” a wholesome scholar dwelling in the tents of study.

The stage is set for another confrontation. Esau and Jacob are “two nations” that initially cannot co-exist in peace. They represent two forces in each of our lives and in the world as a whole. Esau symbolizes the body, the material world, whose untamed elements need to be conquered. Jacob symbolizes the soul, the spiritual world. Initially these two worlds do not co-exist. Matter and spirit are at war with each other. “When one rises the other falls.” Yet they need each other – they are ‘twins.’ The vulnerable soul without an aggressive body would not be able to survive in this harsh world. Each of us needs to have a “warrior” dimension to protect and defend against the difficult forces of material existence. But the body must have a soul within, and the soul must be the directing force in life. “The greater one – the powerful body – will serve the younger [gentler] soul.” Your body has to be a vehicle for your soul not the other way around. If the body and material drives are in control then the gevurah of the “warrior” becomes excessive.

How do you reconcile and integrate body and soul, matter and spirit – G-d and the universe? The soul must train and teach the body to sublimate itself so that together they can both serve and fulfill their purpose on Earth. The only way to relieve the tension between them, without compromising either, is to spiritualize the material.

But the body has its own agenda; it is not ready to ‘listen’ to the soul’s wisdom. It’s busy hunting, surviving in the best way it knows how. The solution is that the soul must satisfy and nourish the body on its (the body’s) terms and slowly direct and align it to a higher goal. The soul feeds the body with “stew” and gratifies the body’s immediate needs, with the intention to harness and channel the body’s powerful spirit (birthright) toward its Divine calling.

The soul must dress itself up in the “garments” of the material world in order to refine the world and channel the hidden blessings and strengths of the material world. Thus Jacob dresses in Esau’s garments to receive the blessings. The soul is not taking the blessings away from the body; it only protects them so that the body not destroy them, and the soul uses them to help train and refine the body until the time when the body can co-exist peacefully with the soul, as one seamless harmony[3] – “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Isaac looking into the depths of Esau’s soul, felt that Esau might be ready. But Rebecca, his mother, saw that the time had not yet arrived. The world (Esau) was not yet refined, and she realized that Jacob would have to harness these blessings.

 Jacob introduces the third dimension called Tiferet, beauty, compassion. Following the chesed (love) of Abraham and Ishmael’s excess of chesed, and Isaac’s gevurah and Esau’s excess of gevurah, comes Jacob – the third and central pillar, that synthesizes and fuses the two in a healthy balance.

Esau in his own way tries to balance his excessive aggression (gevurah) by marrying the daughter of Ishmael (chesed). Machalot is her name, which means forgiveness, signifying the forgiving of sins upon marriage.[4]

The implications of these chronicles today are quite evident.

Following the confrontations between Ishmael and Isaac, Ishmael’s banishment and ultimately his teshuvah, the next stage begins with Esau and Jacob joining the scene. We now have before us Abraham, father of all nations, Ishmael father of the Arab/Muslim world, Esau, father of the Roman/Christian/Western world and Jacob, father of the Jewish world.

Though Ishmael does teshuvah, the world is not yet refined. Thus we need to go through the Esau-Jacob battle – the war of two nations – to achieve balance and harmony between G-d and the universe. The Romans destroying the Holy Temple, and then the wars of Christianity against Judaism – imposing their religion ‘by the sword’ – are all manifestations of Esau’s gevurah approach in his battles with the world.

While this battle gets under way, Esau attempts to join forces with Ishmael, only to backfire. The Midrash tells us that Esau’s intentions in marrying Ishmael’s daughter was to then to ensnare Ishmael in the following plot:

“You – Esau said to Ishmael – kill your brother Isaac. I will kill my brother Jacob. Then we will become one nation, remaining sole heirs to all of Abraham’s legacy and property! Ishmael refused: ‘Am I then like Cain who killed his brother?! No, I will not do as you suggest.” Esau’s intention was to then kill Ishmael, and he would be left the sole heir.[5]

What a wedding it must have been!

Though Esau and Ishmael join hands,[6] this marriage is far from simple. Ishmael refuses to participate in Esau’s plot against Isaac and Jacob. This sets the stage for later wars to come between Ishmael and Esau.

Ultimately the only healthy way to refine Ishmael and Esau (excessive chesed and gevurah) is through the balance of Jacob’s tiferet, which is driven by humility and selflessness. Chesed and gevurah as great as they can be, are driven by their own particular personality features. Tiferet is connected to bittul. Tiferet is the middle pillar, that runs up and down from ketter to malchut, and thus, like the spine holds up the entire structure. Tiferet is dedication and commitment to G-d and His will, and that is what allows it to transcend and unite the opposing personalities of love and aggression (chesed and gevurah).

So just when you thought that it was safe to go back into the water… Ishmael returns for a curtain call.

Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob – all the players and characters are in place. The question is: Are we?


[1] See Klei Yokor at the end of last week’s portion.

[2] This week’s portion, Genesis 27:40.

[3] See Rashi Vayishlach, Genesis 33:14.

[4] Talmud Yerushalmi Bikkurim 3:3. Bereishis Rabba 67:13.

[5] Midrash Or Ha’afeilah at the end of our portion (cited in Torat Shleimah note 27). See also Bereishis Rabba 67: 8. Midrash Tehillim 14:2.

[6] See Abarbanel, Mayonei Yeshua (intro to Daniel), 2:3.

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