Parshat Toldot: Embracing the Boldness of Eisav

“And Eisav said to Yaakov, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished’—which is why he was named Edom” (Bereishit 25:30).

Impatient. Vulgar. Unrefined. These are the words that come to mind when I imagine Eisav imploring Yaakov to pour a pot of uncooked lentil soup down his throat. Yet we are told that Yitzchak exclusively loved Eisav, preferring him over his brother Yaakov. 

But Rivkah loved Yaakov.  And we see that she goes to great lengths to ensure that it is Yaakov, and not Eisav, who receives the coveted blessing from Yitzchak.

How could Yitzchak and Rivkah view their children so differently? 

To clarify, the implications of each of their favoritism goes well beyond their family unit. We are not only speaking about their personal preference, but rather about which son will be the true heir. Just as Avraham had two sons, one heir and one who was cast aside, so too Yitzchak will choose which one of his sons would be his heir, and which will be discarded.

So at the heart of their dispute is a bigger question: which son is fit to inherit the blessing of Avraham, including the Land of Canaan, and which son will be pushed aside? Rivkah says Yaakov, and Yitzchak says Eisav. 

Again, how could their answer to this question differ so greatly?

Let’s start by seeing how the text describes the two brothers in our story: 

“When the boys grew up, Eisav became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Yaakov was a gentle man who stayed in the camp” (Bereishit 25:27).

How would Yitzchak describe Eisav? Resourceful and clever! Eisav spends his days in the wide-open and expansive spaces, learning how to succeed against the harshness of nature, not in the narrow constraints of the four walls of the tent like Yaakov. 

Indeed, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechei Yosef Leiner, says that it is Eisav’s willingness to take a big risk that Yitzchak most appreciates abou Eisav. And here I add, that like his grandfather Avraham, Eisav would show no fear if he needed to take an unexpected dangerous journey, or if necessary, even go to war. Avraham was never afraid to take a big risk, despite the possible consequences.

But Rivkah saw Eisav as reckless, dangerous, and unpredictable, like the wild animals he chases in the field. His willingness to sell his birthright so easily shows that he lives only for the now, and has no foresight or vision. He is as coarse as the red hair that covers his body.

As far as Yaakov is concerned, Rivkah sees him as a kind and thoughtful shepherd who walks in the footsteps of his grandfather Avraham. And as evident from his purchase of the birthright, only Yaakov can delay his gratification, and put aside the pleasure of today for a greater tomorrow. 

If we look at the climax of our story,  the giving of the blessing, we can see a level deeper into Yitzchak and Rivkah’s dispute:

“May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine,” (Bereishit 27:28).

The blessing which Yitzchak gives to Yaakov is not a blessing for physical sustenance or spiritual abundance; it is for both. So the question is deeper: which son can embody both this world and the next?

Yitzchak’s claim is that we must start with the son who is physically superior, and then we must awaken his spiritual sensitivity. With time and work, thinks Yitzchak, Eisav can develop his character and channel his base passions toward spiritual goals.

But Rivkah understands that the heir of Avraham must have a strong spiritual base. Only Yaakov, who possesses a vision of the heavens, can grow to appreciate the greater significance of the field and all its sustenance. 

As the story unfolds, we see that it is Rivkah who appears to win the debate. Yitzchak gives Yaakov the blessing, and it cannot be retracted, even though it was taken with trickery. And at the very end of the parsha, Yitzchak tells Yaakov: “May He grant the blessing of Avraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Avraham” (Bereishit 28:4). Yaakov, not Eisav, will receive the blessings of the heavens and the earth. Yaakov will inherit the blessing of Avraham.

But this does not mean that Yitzhak was completely wrong, nor does it mean that the trait of boldness is totally out of bounds. There is a place for boldness in our national narrative, as well as for all of us in our personal lives. True, not every day do we need to seek out the greatest gain, no matter what the cost. There are times when we must put aside today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s future. But there are times when we must be willing to stand up and put everything on the line for the sake of this moment right now. This was the path of our father Avraham, which was passed on to Yitzchak, and then to Yaakov, and to all of us.

What do you think? When should we take the thoughtful and balanced path, and when should we take a bold and daring risk?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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