“Diamond in the Rough” Parashat Toledot 5779

Isaac fears the end is near and he wants to bless his sons before he dies. He calls his eldest son, Esav, and tells him [Bereishit 27:3-4] “So, now, sharpen your tools, your sword [and take] your bow, go forth to the field and hunt game for me. Make for me tasty foods as I like, bring them to me and I will eat, in order that my soul will bless you before I die.” According to most of the medieval commentators, Isaac wanted “tasty foods” in order to get himself into the right mood with which to bless Esav.

That is understandable – a good steak and a glass of Cabernet can put just about anybody in a blessing kind of mood. What is problematic is Isaac’s first instruction to Esav: “Sharpen your knife, take your bow, go out and catch me a buffalo.” Why does Isaac care how Esav prepares the dish? A steak is a steak is a steak. What is important is that it tastes good. Why doesn’t Isaac tell Esav to be sure to cook the meat at 400 degrees for 60 minutes? Why doesn’t Isaac remind Esav not to become engrossed in his mobile phone so that the steak doesn’t get overcooked? Further, when Rebecca, who has overheard Isaac’s request, wants to make her own steak for Isaac, she has Jacob go to the back yard and grab her two goats. No bows, no arrows, and no knives. Why is it so important that Esav go hunting with full military gear?

Isaac’s explicit instructions muddy the water for another reason. We have frequently mentioned the opinion of the Talmud in Tractate Yoma [28b] that asserts that our forefathers kept all of the commandments in the Torah even though they had not been commanded to do so. One of the rules of kashrut states that there is only one kosher way to slaughter an animal and that is by cutting its esophagus and its trachea with a sharp object. Shooting the animal or striking it with a blunt object renders the animal irreversibly non-Kosher. Why, then, does Isaac tell Esav to bring his longbow? Some suggest that Esav was meant to use his bow and arrow to catch an animal and then to slaughter it with a knife. The problem with this hypothesis is that a sick or injured animal is also not kosher[1]. One must first wait for the animal to recover from its injury and only then to slaughter it. As Isaac wanted to eat the steak that day, Esav was not going to be able to use his longbow. So why did Isaac command him to take it with him?

These questions can be answered by addressing a much more difficult question. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 25:28] “Isaac loved Esav because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob”. While the Torah does not portray Esav in a particularly good light, the Midrash absolutely destroys him. Midrashic Esav commits every sin in the book, often committing several biggies in one sitting. It is clear that Esav is bad hombre. So what was Isaac thinking? Maybe he was a terrible judge of human character. Maybe he was uninterested. Or maybe, just maybe, Isaac knew exactly what he was doing.

One of the methods of interpreting a problematic section in the Torah is by identifying “key words”, words that seem to be overly repetitive in the section under analysis. In the Torah’s description of life and times of Esav, one key word is the word “sadeh” – “field”. For instance, Esav is described as [Bereishit 25:27] “a man who understood hunting, a man of the field”. On the day that Esav sells his birthright to Jacob, we read how [Bereishit 25:29] “Esav came from the field, and he was faint.” And as we saw earlier, Isaac sends Esav “to the field” to find an animal to kill. I suggest that Esav was best characterized by the field. Esav was an “outdoorsy” type, unencumbered by social graces. He was not book-smart but he was extremely people-smart. He knew what people wanted and he knew how to get them to give him what he wanted. He wasn’t afraid to use some physical persuasion, either. Compare this with Jacob who was [Bereishit 25:27] “a simple man who would sit in tents”. Jacob was a straight-shooter and a straight-A student. Esav was everything that Jacob was not. Isaac liked Esav precisely for this reason. Isaac was also a bit of a renegade. When Rebecca meets him, we are told [Bereishit 24:63] “Isaac went out walking in the field”. Like father like son. Isaac rubs elbows with the King of Gerar and the King of Egypt. Each time, he gets into trouble and each time, he comes out on top. According to the mystical Book of the Zohar, Isaac represented “gevurah” – “courage” or “might”. He knew exactly where Esav was coming from. Isaac believed that if he were to channel Esav’s strengths, then Esav could become a worthy successor. Recall that Isaac loved Esav “because [his] game (tzayid) was in his mouth”. These words can also be interpreted as “because he would ensnare (tzad) him with his words”. The typical understanding of this verse, the one we were taught in kindergarten, is that Esav would trick Isaac into thinking he was more religious that he actually was by asking him questions like “Do I have to pour scalding water on my braces to clean them for Pesach[2]?” My Rabbi and my teacher, Rabbi Silberman, explained the verse differently. He suggested that it was Isaac who was trying to woo Esav. Isaac saw Esav as a diamond in the rough and he took him on as a project. And so before Isaac blesses Esav, he wants Esav to go to the field. The field is where Esav belongs. The field is the reason that Isaac wants to bless Esav.

Sadly, Isaac was mistaken. The future of the Jewish nation lay not “in the field” with Esav, but “in the tents” with Jacob. While Esav goes to the field to find game, Jacob goes [Bereishit 27:9] “to the flock”. The question we must ask ourselves is what kind of world did Isaac imagine? How can a brute like Esav be chosen over a saint like Jacob? How can the field trump the tent? What kind of world would we be living in had Jacob not received the blessings that Isaac had intended on giving Esav?

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro[3] offers a thesis that can offer us a way ahead. Rabbi Shapiro is bothered by the Talmud in Tractate Avoda Zara [2b] that teaches that G-d offered the Torah to other nations before He offered it to the Jewish People. After each nation made the mistake of turning down G-d’s offer, the Jewish People, without thinking twice, said [Shemot 24:7] “We will do and we will obey”. Asks Rabbi Shapiro, what would have happened had another nation said “yes”? He answers that G-d had originally wanted the Nations of the World and the Jews to operate in a partnership, in which the Nations of the World were responsible for “the field” and the Jewish People were responsible for “the tent”[4]. Only after the Nations of the World abused their privilege was this world given over to the Jewish People.

When Isaac blesses the person he whom believes is Esav, he blesses him with [Bereishit 27:28] “the dew of the heavens and [of] the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine.” According to the original plan, these blessings were irrelevant to a person like Jacob. Jacob only appropriated Isaac’s blessings because Esav, through his behavior, had forfeited them. Esav was no diamond in the rough. He would always remain a lump of charcoal[5], full of unfulfilled potential to one day become a diamond.

Rabbi Jacob the son of Asher, writing in the “Ba’al Haturim”, suggests that when Isaac told Esav to take his weapons with him to the field, that he had something else in mind. Each weapon was referring to a future empire: “your tools” refers to Babylonia, “your sword” refers to Persia, “your bow” refers to Greece, and “the field” refers to Rome. Each of these empires were the superpower of their time, each of them ruthlessly subjugated the Jewish People, and each of them was destined to eventually disappear from the earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] An animal is considered kosher only if it could definitely survive for the next 12 months. An animal wounded by a crossbow is very likely not going to make it 12 months.

[2] See Rashi ad loc.

[3] Rabbi Shapiro lived in Jerusalem until his death in 2017. He learned with the Chazon Ish and with the Brisker Rebbe. I have only recently been introduced to his teachings.

[4] This partnership would be similar to the Midrashic partnership between the Tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun, in which Zevulun, who works on the seas, supports Yissachar, who sits in the House of Study.

[5] Diamonds are not made from compressed coal. They are formed from the same carbon that comprises coal, but that has been fused by heat and pressure into a crystalline structure.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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