Midrash Tanchuma Toledot: Isaac – Both Deceived and Prophetic

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In this parsha there seems to be an elephant in the room. The Torah states that Isaac preferred Esau over Jacob. So naturally, Isaac intended to give the blessing of worldly success to Esau. But how did Isaac come to this conclusion when there are so many clues to the contrary: 

Rebecca sought Divine assistance to explain why her twins were warring in utero. She was told that the older one (Esau) will be subservient to the younger one (Jacob). The Torah described Esau as a hunter while Jacob was more spiritual, preferring the study hall. In character with Esau, the Torah describes how he married Canaanite women which was a source of  “bitterness” to his parents. We are also told that Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentils and took an oath to that effect. 

Even if you say that Rebecca never shared the destiny of her children with Isaac, and Jacob never shared his acquisition of the birthright  with Isaac. There is still clear evidence of Esau’s character flaws. So why would Isaac favor Esau and plan to give him the blessings of material wealth?  

It’s true that Isaac was blind.

“When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see..” (Genesis 27:1) 

But his sons were vastly different in character. How could he be so blind as not to know which son was destined to follow in his footsteps and those of his father Abraham? To  continue, what Rabbi Soloveitchik called, “the Covenantal Community” that Abraham started. 

Jacob was fooled

Midrash Tanchuma solves the mystery. Esau tricked his father into thinking that he was really a spiritual person. However, the Midrash uses a harsh term to describe the deceit.  

Bribery. 

According to the Torah, when you receive a bribe it has tremendous power to augment your perception of reality. Despite evidence to the  contrary, a bribe helps convince you that the person who bribed you is really a good person. You start to ignore any negative input:

… bribes blind the wise and distorts the pleas of those who are in the right” (Exodus 23:8)

The bribe took the form of delicacies Esau prepared for his father. The Torah uses unusual language. Literally the verse says:

 “And Isaac loved Esau because the trap in his mouth.’ (Genesis 25:28).

“Trap” refers to the meat from an animal that  Esau hunted, trapped and prepared as a delicacy for his father to eat.” 

The Midrash sees a double meaning in the word “trapped:”

Esau ensnared his righteous father with great food and with the falsehoods that came out of his mouth.”

Although the Midrash describes Esau’s daily exploits which involved murder and adultery, a typical conversation started with Isaac asking:

“Where were you today, my son?’ ‘At the house of study,’ he (Esau)  would reply and he would add: “Is this not the law under certain circumstances; are not these things prohibited and these permitted?’ By such remarks, he (fooled and) entrapped his father with his words. That is why he (Isaac) loved him.”

The bribe was so effective that when Isaac got old and thought it was time to bless his children before he died, he asked Esau to prepare another fresh, gourmet meal.

“Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the field and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.” (Genesis 27: 3-4)

(Interestingly enough, it was when Esau thought he was near death (dying of hunger)  that he sold his birthright to Jacob).  

G-d was a partner in the plot to fool Isaac

Midrash Tanchuma offers another reason for Isaac’s blindness. G-d brought it about to insure that  Rebecca and Jacob would succeed in their plan to trick Isaac into giving Esau’s blessing to Jacob.

“Because it was known before G-d that Isaac intended to bless Esau. G-d therefore said ‘let his (Jacob’s) eyes become weakened so Jacob can take the blessings.” 

So because Esau tricked Isaac into (almost) getting the blessing, G-d had to trick Isaac into giving it to Jacob instead.

Isaac was simply following his prophecy

The plot thickens. Midrash Tanchuma offers yet another answer to our question of why Isaac intended to give the blessing of material wealth to Esau. This answer implies that Isaac knew exactly what he was doing:

“He called Esau his ‘oldest son’ (Genesis 27:1) … Isaac foresaw that Esau’s descendants would dominate the world,.” 

Midrash Tanchuma seems to be saying that Isaac was not tricked into giving the blessing to Esau. It was based on a prophetic vision of the world as it will be. Esau’s descendants were destined to be the great empire of Rome. So Isaac deliberately gave the material blessing to the son who would rule the world. 

This, of course, seems to directly contradict the previous statement in the Midrash – that Isaac intended to give Esau the blessing because Esau fooled him. Furthermore it presents a theological problem. Why is everyone fighting over a blessing that has no power to change Jewish destiny? Jacob and Rebecca tricked Isaac so Jacob’s descendants could get the material blessing. But the Jewish People were still subjugated by Rome. In 70 CE the Romans ransacked and destroyed the Second Temple of Jerusalem. So how did all this trickery benefit the Jewish People?

The pivotal, destiny-shaping, fine print in Esau’s blessing

G-d is in the details. When Esau screamed his bitter cry over losing his blessing, Isaac gave Esau what Esau thought was an inferior blessing. But actually he got a clause in small print that is one of the most determining factors in Jewish history. Namely, when the Jewish People have a spiritual downfall, Esau’s descendants will dominate the Jews. 

By your sword shall you (Esau) live, And you shall serve your brother (Jacob). But when he (Jacob) shall fall (spiritually) You shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27:40)

As the famous commentator, Rashi, explains:

“..when Israel will transgress the Torah then you (Esau) will have a legitimate complaint (to G-d)  with respect to the Blessings (that Jacob took from you) and you will no longer be subjugated (by the Jews).”  

Prophesy vs history

Perhaps there is no contradiction between the various statements of the Midrash. The point of this whole story is that the Jewish people were indeed subjugated by the Romans. So it was natural for Isaac to give his son Esau the tools to play his role in world history. 

But it didn’t have to be that way. 

G-d compensated Jacob for the fact that Isaac was fooled by Esau. Which, in effect, means that G-d gave us the potential to subjugate Esau’s descendants instead of being subjugated. The divine message that Rebecca got about her fighting fetuses was correct. The younger one (Jacob) had the potential to rule over the older one (Esau). But, as Rashi explained, we didn’t keep the Torah. So a small clause in Esau’s blessing was activated and Esau’s descendants could now dominate over Jacob’s descendants

G-d turned a curse into a blessing

The Midrash provides a dramatic episode to show just how much G-d intervened on behalf of Jacob. When Isaac discovered that Jacob tricked him in order to get the blessing meant for Esau, Isaac was about to curse Jacob. G-d intervened and Isaac’s words came out instead to say that although the blessing was acquired through deceit, Jacob remained blessed. Jacob retained the potential to dominate over Esau. 

Why didn’t we live up to our potential

Could it be that the Jewish People are lured by lies and luxuries, just as Jacob was when Esau brought him fine delicacies and tall tales. Throughout Jewish history, whenever Jews were blessed with prosperity and acceptance into society, assimilation and intermarriage were soon to follow. Could this wealth and prestige have influenced Jewish communities in the same way Esau’s bribe influenced Isaac – by allowing ourselves to embrace the questionable values and morality of the societies we lived in? 

Moses predicted this exact pattern of the Jewish People amassing wealth and forsaking the Torah in this famous statement near  the end of the Deuteronomy:

“And the Jewish People grew fat and kicked..” (Deuteronomy 32:19)

Bottom line, we, ultimately, are the authors of Jewish history. Despite G-d’s efforts to insure our ascendancy over Esau, we still have free choice. The Jewish People ended up being  oppressed and dominated because of the collective, moral (free) choices that we made. 

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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