Two Parents Nominate Their Favorite Sons


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:14 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 28:10-32:3    
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:9
Havdalah: 5:14 p.m.

“Then he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, ‘Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from that which belonged to our father, he amassed all this wealth’”[Gen 21:1].

This week’s biblical portion of Vayeitze records Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) flight to Laban’s land of Aram-Naharayim, where Jacob spends 22 years with his wily and deceptive uncle. Jacob fled because his brother Esau was threatening to murder him for deceptively taking the blessings that their father, Isaac, intended for Esau.

Underlying Jacob’s fateful deception was a tug-of-war between the parents of these rival twins, in which Isaac favored the elder twin, Esau, “a man who knows the business of trapping [both aggressive hunting and deceitful ensnaring], a man of the outdoor fields”, whereas Rebecca favored the younger Jacob, “a whole-hearted, naïve man, an introspective and scholarly dweller in tents” [Gen 25:27].

The disposition of the patrimony would determine which of the two would be heir to the Abrahamic mission of spreading “ethical monotheism” throughout the world. It seems difficult to understand how Isaac could have possibly favored the aggressive Esau over the more studious Jacob. Moreover, how could Rebecca have orchestrated her son to deceive his father and her husband?

Abraham’s major discovery and legacy was ethical monotheism, the ideals of compassionate righteousness and moral justice promulgated by a God of love, morality and peace [Gen 18:18,19, Maimonides, Book of Commandments, Command 3]. The qualities involved in fostering such moral excellence and in teaching it to others were far more suited to a “wholehearted dweller in tents” than to an aggressive “master of entrapment, a hunter in the open fields.” Winning over the errant “souls of Haran” certainly did require a more extroverted personality. Nevertheless, Rebecca’s choice of Jacob for the patrimony seems far more logical than Isaac’s choice of Esau.

God’s first commandment to Abraham is to go to the land of Canaan, and the major content of God’s covenant with Abraham is the promised Land of Israel as the eternal inheritance of Abraham’s progeny [Gen 12:1,15:16-21]. Such a homeland, not indigenous to the founder of the nation, requires a strong and committed nation to conquer it and protect it. Even Abraham’s high ideals required military protection, as Abraham demonstrated when he successfully defeated the four terrorist nations who captured innocent civilians, including Lot. [Gen 14:14-16].

Isaac, more than the other patriarchs was inextricably bound up with the Land of Israel. He was the only one to never leave the land, and he alone is Biblically pictured as working the land in addition to herding sheep [Gen. 26:12]

Even when Isaac was bestowing the blessings, wishing to check if he was indeed dealing with the right son, Isaac said to Jacob, “‘come close and kiss me, my son.’ And he came close and kissed him; and [Isaac] smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him. He said, ‘behold, the fragrance of my son is as the fragrance of the fields which the Lord has blessed.’”

Isaac loved the Land of Israel, and so was naturally drawn to Esau, a man of the fields.

Isaac never challenges Avimelech, king of the Philistines, even when the king reneges on his treaty with Abraham, even when he blocks up the wells that Abraham had dug, even when he pushes Isaac and his household off of the land that is within the boundaries promised to Abraham’s descendants. He is even bullied into signing another treaty with Avimelech, who has the arrogance to say that he had only done good to Isaac since he sent him away in peace (without killing him)” [Gen. 26:15-33].

Isaac believes that the more aggressive Esau, rather than the more passive Jacob, must become the standard-bearer of God’s covenant and mission. Rebecca, on the other hand, believes that the moral qualities, so lacking in the hedonistic Esau, are really cardinal. She recognizes that physical prowess and a degree of aggressiveness are also mandatory, but she also remembers how Jacob grasped onto Esau’s heel in order to emerge from the womb. Rebecca recognizes that Jacob possesses physical strength of which Isaac is unaware. She therefore sets out to prove as much, by dressing the moral soul of Jacob in the external garb of Esau.

Rebecca, however, seems to have over-reached her goals. She did not realize that sometimes the crafty and grasping hands of Esau can totally drown out the spiritual voice of Jacob. That’s what occurs to Jacob when with Laban; he out-Labans Laban when he utilizes chicanery in an attempt to manipulate the births of spotted, speckled and striped cows.

Jacob eventually succeeds in learning the lessons of both Rebecca and Isaac, but only after Yaakov becomes Yisrael. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.