Hungry For A Blessing


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:16 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 25:19
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18-42
Havdalah: 5:17 p.m.

A recent Israeli film, “Makom B’Gan Eden” (“A Place in Eden”), tells the story of a young army officer, exhausted and hungry after a military campaign, who trades his place in Heaven for a bowl of shakshuka (spicy poached eggs). The consequences of this “trade” reverberate tragically through the lives and loves of the film’s fathers and sons.

Bible readers will recognize echoes of Toldot, when Esau trades his birthright for Jacob’s lentil stew [Genesis 25:29-33]. The film’s premise is that actions we take in our youth [Jacob and Esau were 15 years old at the time of the trade] will come back to haunt us until the day of our death. In Torah terms, a price is always exacted for an unrepented moral misdeed. Even though the Bible affirms the sale, telling us Esau “scorns” the birthright [Gen. 25:33-34], we are uneasy about it.

Toldot recounts a second incident. Jacob impersonates Esau, tricking his aged, blind father, Isaac, into giving Jacob the firstborn’s blessing that Isaac intended for Esau [Gen. 27]. Afterwards, Jacob is poised to flee to his Uncle Lavan’s house to escape his brother’s wrath when our parasha ends on a cliffhanger. We are desperate to know! Does Jacob get away with deceiving his father and brother? Why does Jacob act as he does? 

The Torah gives us scant facts about the twins’ early years, but it makes a point of telling us that Isaac loves the firstborn Esau “because he has a taste for venison,” while Rebecca loves the second-born Jacob [Gen. 25:28]. Could this verse be the key? To paraphrase Tina Turner, what’s “love” got to do with Jacob’s behavior?

Quite a lot, apparently. The Kli Yakar (who lived in 17th-century Prague) notes that Isaac “loved” (vaye’ehav) Esau, while Rebecca “loves” (ohevet) Jacob. Why the asymmetrical tenses? The language indicates that Isaac’s love is conditional and situational, dependent in this case on a food ritual; while Rebecca’s love is unconditional and abiding. Also, the text is ambiguously silent about Isaac’s love for Jacob.

We already have seen with Abraham that biblical fathers favor their firstborn son. So, too, here. Second-born Jacob surely senses this paternal love-imbalance, and he experiences a deep anxiety and jealousy (as Shmuel Klitsner writes in "Wrestling Jacob"). Jacob sees that his father’s love is lavished on Esav because Esav supplies Isaac with venison, and he figures the simple calculus: Jacob equates love or blessing with food. We know this because the Torah gives us clues. The words for Esav’s venison [tzayid] and Jacob’s lentil stew [nazid] are etymologic cousins [Gen.25:28-29]. The Torah text is verbally linking the brothers’ food offerings. It is also not coincidence that the Hebrew words for birthright [bechorah] and blessing [beracha] are virtually identical. Thus is Jacob’s path set. He trades food for what he covets most: Isaac’s love, the birthright, and his blessing. 

Does Jacob get away with it?

Yes and no. In the Bible’s rubric, the blessing that Jacob receives by fraud is binding. But it is virtually certain that despite Jacob and Rebecca’s machinations, the blessing that Jacob acquires by trickery is not the important covenantal blessing passing from Abraham to Isaac! The blessing given to Jacob is superseded by the Abrahamic blessing of land and progeny knowingly bestowed on Jacob by Isaac a few verses later [Gen. 28:1-4]. It is fair to deduce that it had never been Isaac’s intention to give Abraham’s blessing to Esau. Jacob might well have defrauded his father and brother for naught!

Jacob doesn’t get away scot-free. Nechama Leibowitz writes that for the rest of his life Jacob “pays” for his behavior. Years into the future, Jacob tells Pharaoh that his life has been “hard” [Gen. 47:9]. Consider Jacob’s penalties: he is exiled from his parental home; he will never see his mother again; Jacob himself is painfully tricked when Lavan disguises the elder sister (Leah) as the younger (Rachel), with Jacob marrying Leah in lieu of Rachel, the girl he desires; Jacob lives in fear that Esau will kill him and enslave his wives and children; and years later, Jacob’s own sons deceive him with the lie that his beloved son Joseph was devoured by a wild animal.

Where does that leave our assessment of Jacob, father of our nation? For the answer we must watch Jacob closely in future Torah readings, paying particular attention as he wrestles with the “ish” the night before meeting his warrior brother Esau. God gives a mature Jacob the opportunity to transform himself from trickster into one who wrestles with God’s messenger and prevails. Jacob’s enduring blessing — the opportunity to become “Israel” — isn’t one he steals; he prays for it and struggles to earn it.

Sandra E. Rapoport is an attorney and author. Her award-winning book, “Biblical Seductions,” is now a serialized Kindle e-Book. Sandra teaches Bible at Drisha and at the Manhattan JCC.