You know the story. Rebecca instructed Jacob to disguise himself as Esau by dressing in Esau’s garments (which were furry and made him appear hairy like Esau), present himself to his father, provide him with delicious wine and meat, and ask for the blessings that his father intended for Esau. Isaac, his father, sensed that the garments carried a fragrance from Paradise, and observed, “My son’s fragrance is like that of a Divinely blessed field.” And proceeded to bless Jacob.
This story is fraught with difficulty. (A) why did Rebecca disguise Jacob in Esau’s garments, did she not own a furry garment? (B) Why did the wicked Esau’s garments have a paradise fragrance? (C) Why did Jacob lie to his father and misrepresent himself as Esau?
To answer the first two questions, we must review the history of these garments. When Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, they came to be ashamed of their nakedness, and G-d fashioned special garments for them. These garments were cherished by Adam’s descendants and were eventually passed down to Noah. After the flood, Noah bequeathed them to his grandson Nimrod.
Nimrod didn’t cherish the garments and used them instead as hunting clothes. He quickly realized that the garments endowed him with superhuman strength rendering him a superb hunter and a mighty warrior. Years later, Esau murdered Nimrod, stole the garments, and he too became a master hunter.
The sacred garments had lost their paradise fragrance because Esau and Nimrod had abused them. When Rebeca realized that Esau had rushed out that morning without the garments, she saw her chance to salvage them and give them to Jacob. Because Jacob cherished them, their fragrance was restored.
We now know why Esau’s garments had a paradise fragrance and why Rebecca selected these furs over all others. But why did Jacob don these garments? Why did he lie and disguise himself as Esau?
For His Children
The Chasidic Masters taught that Jacob did not need to disguise himself to persuade his father to bless him. Had he spent just a few moments demonstrating his true worth to his father, Isaac would have granted him the blessings willingly. However, Jacob set out to pave the way for his future descendants. And here our Chassidic masters shared a powerful teaching.
Jacob knew that the time would come when some of his descendants would don Esau-like garments. The time would come when some Jews would adopt an Esau friendly lifestyle. They would value physical prowess over ecclesiastic worship, cherish the body over the soul, prioritize prosperity, power, and material grandeur, over transcendence, spirituality, and soulfulness. They would be Jacob’s children, but their outer demeanor, their lifestyles, and behaviors, would mirror Esau’s garments.
On the surface, they would be indistinguishable from Esau’s descendants. Both would lead lives of debauchery, indulgence, and depravity. Both would cheat, steal, and deceive. Both would worship hedonism, pleasures, and gratifications. On the surface, they would look the same. But Jacob wanted us to peer deeper.
He appeared before his father disguised as Esau so that Isaac would peer past the disguise and recognize the truth—under Esau’s garments lies a holy soul—the beating heart of a loyal Jew and the thriving spirit of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s descendant. When Isaac discerned the sacred fragrance in Esau’s garments, the die was cast forevermore. Jacob’s children might one day don Esau’s garments, but they would never become Esau.
What does this mean? How can we claim that a renegade Jew is really a rose petal from paradise?
To answer this question we must explore the magnificent complexity of the Hebrew language. The Hebrew words for garment (beged) and traitor (boged) are similar. When a similarity appears in Hebraic syntax, it implies a substantive link between the words. By covering parts of the body, the garment showcases its wearer. But if the garment covers its wearer completely or if it attracts so much attention that it causes us to overlook the wearer, the garment (beged) becomes a traitor (boged) to its wearer.
Our behavior can either be a beged and showcase our soul or be a boged and betray G-d. Our sages taught that when Isaac smelled Esau’s garments (beged) on Jacob, he discerned the traitors (bogged) who would descend from Jacob—the Jewish people who would one day don Esau’s garments and behave like him. Yet, Isaac proclaimed that these Jews were not traitors. Their behavior might sometimes be traitorous, but they are not traitors (boged). On the contrary, their garments (beged) smell like Paradise. And why?
Because no matter what garments we wear on the outside, a Jew remains true to G-d on the inside. We Jews, have an innate bond with G-d, and no matter how terribly our actions betray G-d, we can never cut away from G-d. Underneath G-d is still in us—the Jewish soul remains connected. And this bond rises to the surface when our faith is tested. That is when we realize that garments from hell become garments from paradise when they are worn by Jacob’s children.
Our sages presented a story to illustrate their point. When the Romans conquered the Temple, they wanted to enter and pillage, but they were afraid. After all, this was G-d’s house and they worried that pillaging and looting would cost them their lives. They sent a Jewish collaborator by the name of Yoseph Meshita to enter first and take something. They told him he would be permitted to keep whatever he chose to carry out. Joseph did their bidding and came out with a golden candelabra, but they took it from him saying that a lowly person like him had no business with a golden candelabra.
They told him to go in and find something else, but he refused. They levied a heavy tax on him, but he still refused. “Is it not enough that I angered my G-d once,” he asked? “I will not anger Him again,” he declared. They placed him on a woodworker’s table and tortured him, but he refused to cave. The last words to emerge from his mouth were, “Woe is to me that I angered my maker.”
Over the years, there were thousands of examples of renegade Jews who died for their faith. In 1929, as Arab rioters massacred twenty-nine Jews in Hebron, Menashe, a renegade Jew, was sitting in an Arab home with his friends. The door flew open and the rioters demanded to know whether there were Jews in the house, but Menashe’s friends replied in the negative. With this, Menashe reached his tipping point. He rose to his feet, followed the marauders down the street, and called out, “My friends were wrong, I am a Jew.” He was killed on the spot.
A Jew wears Esau’s garments only on the surface. Even he might not know that a Jewish heart continues to beat deep in his breast. But when we are called upon to confirm our identity, our true colors emerge—we discover who we truly were all along. Our outer garments are just a mirage. In truth, they carry the fragrance of paradise because inside we are Jacob.