[An introductory note: How astounding that the Torah’s text doesn’t include more about Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Eisav and the incredible sequence of events in Genesis, Chapter 27.
- Why does Jacob listen to his mother and deceive his father?
- If Jacob is cunning enough to get the birthright from Eisav, why doesn’t he exert his will here and challenge his mother?
- If there is meat close enough for Jacob and Rebecca to get, why does Eisav need to go hunting?
- If Isaac clearly knows Jacob was pretending (and it seems clear he does), then why doesn’t he end the charade?
- Which son’s blessing is truly better?
- Isn’t there enough of God’s blessing in a family (and in this world) for two beloved sons?
The Torah is a script. It is our family diary. I love it, swim in it, cry with it, rage at it, kiss it, and carry it forward. What I love most is not the artful blend of law and narrative, not the perplexing moral questions, but rather the space it contains. In between the verses of Torah, we find ourselves. What follows is my own reading of Genesis 27:1-18, a personal Midrash surrounding the original Biblical text. The bold text is the biblical original (mostly NJPS translation), and the plain font is my addition. I present what follows as a personal and fallible exercise of love. – mc]
He lay there in bed. His eyes had grown dim, but in the pale morning light creeping into the room he clearly saw his time swiftly arriving. It had been a long time since he had exerted himself to rise from his bed, and he had developed a way of signaling the member of his household whose presence was needed. This time, he signaled his elder son.
Son entered the room, removing his shoes noiselessly so as not to wake his mother, laying on the farther side of the bed. Father wanted to speak with his eldest alone, something increasingly difficult as his body continued to resist his will and his wife became his voice more and more. As father began to speak, son failed to notice his mother’s eye blink repeatedly, as if to banish the blurry image from Father’s side.
Speaking was exhausting for Isaac, but he would not be denied. He longed for his pain to end, and felt peace imminent. But before that happened, he needed to heal his child. Isaac’s pain had transferred to his children. His wounds, instead of healing, had left his children empty and angry. He desperately wanted, most of all, to show them his love. He needed to end their pain before it was too late, as it was too late for him. His father’s life ended before love could heal them both. Isaac would not let his children wait that long.
Isaac tearfully said, “My son.” And while his son Eisav thought: “Father, seeing you so weak hurts me. I wish I could ease your pain. I wish I could do something,” all that came out was, “Hineini. Here I am.”
Sensing his son’s feelings, Isaac wanted to give him what he could. Eisav had foolishly sold his claim to the prized birthright, and since that point had become increasingly empty. His elder wanted to do something? Fine. He could send him on a mission to accomplish something.
But Isaac needed to make sure his son knew what was about to happen. Wiping away his tears he told his son, “You’re a grown man now. You know I’m old, and I don’t know how soon I might die. Get your things, and go hunt some meat. Then cook it how I like it, and bring it to me to eat, so that I can give you my deepest blessing before I die.”
After solemnly accepting his mission, Eisav left before he betrayed his usually stoic demeanor by crying in front of his father. Unbeknownst to either of the men, Rebecca had been eavesdropping as Isaac spoke to his son Eisav. She had never approved of her elder son’s habits, knew to her soul that her two sons could never coexist, and certainly didn’t want her brooding, brutish Eisav to inherit the family legacy. So when Eisav left to hunt game to bring home, she slipped out from her tent and found Jacob, as usual, in the cooking area of the family tent.
Rebecca said to her son Jacob, “It has been difficult for me to witness, these months, your father lose so much of who has been. I know he’s been sharing less attention with you recently, but he’s been very different to all of us. He sees in Eisav his old strength and is about to give your older brother the family blessing, as soon as Eisav gets back with some food. I cannot permit this. Yes, Eisav is your older brother, but back when we learned about the soup and birthright trade, we knew he wasn’t the one to bear our family mantle. And when he went and married those Hittites… He just isn’t the one. The family blessing is rightfully yours.
“So listen carefully to my instructions, my son. Go fetch me two kids your father bought, and I’ll whip up a dish for your father, just how he likes it. His taste buds haven’t decreased in sensitivity – he’ll never know the difference. Then you’ll take it to your father to eat, so that he’ll bless you before he dies.”
Jacob didn’t like the idea at all. Yes, it was all too true that he hadn’t received much love from his father recently, but to lie? Not only that, but to brazenly take his brother’s blessing? Jacob had bought it with the bowl of lentils, fair and square. Why couldn’t he be honest with his father? Would Isaac not be able to endure his own son’s truth?
But Jacob didn’t know how to respond to his frenzied mother who was meanwhile gripping his arm with a fierce urgency. He blurted out, “But Eisav is such a hairy man! I’m smooth-skinned. If Father touches me, he’ll think me a trickster, forget the blessing, and curse me!”
His mother responded, “Curse?! Let your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me!”
Jacob was trapped. He could do the honorable thing, disobey Mother and lose Father’s blessing, or he could listen to Mother’s desperate plea, impersonate his older brother and steal the blessing (which was rightfully his to begin with).
He began to lose himself as he thought, “My brother Eisav is at the hunt, risking his life, and I am home, risking my soul. Where is God now? I’m losing my future, my life. Mother is going to sacrifice me the way Father’s father sacrificed his. Must I lie to save myself?”
As if in a trance, Jacob got the food and brought it to his mother to cook. (Mother had always stood over his shoulder in the kitchen. Eisav had always assured him that he was a good cook, but she was always so controlling.) As Mother prepared his father’s favorite dish, she gave Jacob Eisav’s spare dress clothes, strewn about in the house, and made Jacob put them on. With a wild look in her eyes, she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the kids, still warm and moist from the life that had filled them.
Then, as she put the food into the limp hands of her son, Jacob stepped into his father’s room and accepted his fate.