The watershed moment in Jacob’s life — the repercussions of which surface in every subsequent generation of Jewish history — is the act deceiving his father, Isaac, in order to wrest the blessings of geopolitical family leadership apparently intended for Esau. What led the otherwise wholehearted Jacob, the studious dweller of tents, to conspire in this act of trickery, posing as his twin brother in disguise?
We cannot really understand the drama of our Torah reading, Toldot, without considering the emptiness in Jacob’s heart, the aching angst with which only a child who feels unloved and rejected by a parent can truly identify.
From the very first verses in in the reading, the stage is set for the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau. It is important to take careful note of how the Torah testifies that Isaac loved Esau “because the hunt (or entrapment) was in his mouth”.
Based on the Torah’s phrasing, our Sages note that Isaac did not know that Esau’s entrapment skills extended to interpersonal manipulation. Esau knew how to deceive Isaac with his words, misleading the patriarch to assume incorrectly that his son was scrupulous in his observance of the commandments [Midrash Tanchuma, Toldot 8].
In contrast, although Isaac undoubtedly had feelings for his other son Jacob, the Torah is deafeningly silent on the matter. Every child yearns for — and deserves — unconditional love from his or her parents. After all, a child does not ask to be born into the world. The most potent armor he or she can receive as protection against the forces of both environment and society is protective, unconditional love from concerned, committed parents.
Jacob especially yearned for the warm embrace of his father. Tragically, he did not receive it. As a result, he felt unloved and rejected, by his father, who explicitly loved Esau. Understandably, Jacob craved this love, even if but for a brief period.
But how could he receive it? By supplying Isaac’s requested venison meat [ibid., 27:3-4] and expressing the words, “I am Esau your firstborn,” perhaps Isaac would love him just as Isaac loved Esau of the venison; just as he loved Esau of the mellifluous verbal entrapment.
Feeling Isaac’s love and blessing was a crucial necessity in Jacob’s development, even if it entailed deceiving his father to achieve it.
Permit me to conclude with a fascinating anecdote about a beloved family friend, a survivor of the Holocaust, a beautiful and intelligent woman blessed with a strong sterling character, a stunningly frank but generous disposition, and a rare ability to express herself in prose and poetry.
During one of our many conversations in which she would reminisce about her childhood, she revealed that, paradoxically, one of the happiest recollections of her life was the day in which she was forcibly removed from her family and taken by the Nazis to an extermination camp.
Responding to our shocked expressions, she described a family situation in which her older sister was the favored, “frum” (religious) daughter and she was the rejected, rebellious one. If there was one pat of butter and one pat of margarine, her sister would get the butter and she would get the margarine.
What was even more difficult for her to bear was her mother’s complaint whenever she was angered by her younger daughter’s conduct: “You probably aren’t my biological daughter! Your sister was born at home, whereas you were born in a ‘clinic.’ The doctors probably exchanged my real daughter with you.”
Obviously, this was not a usual refrain spoken by the mother, but was only engendered by our friend’s occasional rebellion. But as the Yiddish proverb goes “A slap departs; a word still smarts” (A patsch dergeht; A vort bashteht).
The Nazis came to her hometown of Bendine and rounded up the children. Only she and her parents were at home. Her father tried to steady his trembling hands by writing a kvittel (petition) to the Gerer Rebbe; her mother threw herself at the feet of the Nazi beasts, begging them to take her and spare the life of her precious child.
But our friend said she felt absolutely no fear, even when they loaded her onto the cattle car; she could feel only joy, joy in the knowledge that her mother truly loved her after all, joy in the confirmation that she was indeed her parent’s own and beloved daughter, joy in the discovery that she was at last accepted and not rejected. It was such a moment for which the young Jacob desperately yearned.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.