In Parshat Toledot, there are two central questions: what made Isaac doubt his son? And, what ultimately set his mind at ease?
Recall: An aging Isaac sends his eldest son, Esau, to prepare a meal, at which he (Isaac) plans to bless him (Esau). Objecting to this plan, Rebecca sends Jacob instead to prepare the same meal, disguise himself as his brother, and take the blessing for himself. In the ensuing interaction, Isaac and Jacob face off, the former trying to uncover his son’s identity, and the latter trying to disguise it. The whole process, ostensibly one of doubt and deception, reveals a great deal about character, integrity, and hope.
Here is the scene:
After Jacob calls to his father, the latter asks: “Who are you, my son?” although the answer should presumably be obvious. So Jacob answers: “I am Esau your firstborn. I did as you have asked; please sit up and eat, so that you may bless me.” Isaac persists: “How did you get here so fast?” Jacob answers: “God has helped me.”
At this point, Isaac demands physical proof: “Come close so I can feel you — to see if you are Esau or not.”
After Jacob approaches, Isaac utters one of the most famous lines of this episode: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Despite the evidence on both sides, the physical evidence seems to win, for the text now says: “He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like Esau’s, and he blessed him.”
But not before one final, often ignored line: “atah zeh beni Esav.” This is usually read as a question: “Are you my son, Esau?” Jacob responds, “I am,” and Isaac goes ahead with the blessing.
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From a straightforward reading of the text, it seems that Isaac’s doubt came from the sound of Jacob’s voice. Isaac, expecting Esau’s return, but not yet, is startled to hear his son. He therefore asks a number of questions, and ultimately is persuaded with physical proof.
The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that it was not the sound of Jacob’s voice that threw Isaac. Indeed, as Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) points out, Jacob’s voice likely sounded a lot like Esau’s — after all, they were twins! Instead, Isaac’s doubt sprang from Jacob’s word choice. When Jacob invites his father to sit up and eat, he says “please,” a word that Esau would not have used. And again, when explaining how he — as Esau — had managed to arrive home so quickly, Jacob invokes the name of God, also something his brother would not have done.
What startled Isaac was Jacob’s instinctive manner: to act with kindness, to relate to God. Jacob could not mask these habits; he certainly could not hide them from his father. According to this read, what Isaac means when he says, “The voice is the voice of Jacob” is that the behavior is the behavior of Jacob. The twin brothers’ voices may very well have been identical. Their essences were not.
Which is one important lesson from this story: people invariably demonstrate their true character. Even when they are physically disguised. Even when they are specifically pretending to be someone else. Jacob had cultivated integrity and a relationship with God — and it came through. His character guided him, and there it was, even in the midst of deception, unmistakable.
We must consider the inner core we’d like to cultivate. For in those moments when we’re not thinking about it at all, it will make itself known.
But if Jacob could not mask himself, what made Isaac go ahead with the blessing anyway? Why would this father, who knows his son so well, deny his instincts with so much at stake?
To answer this question, we turn to Esau, Isaac’s other son. Although Esau may not have been a full-blown villain at this point in his life, we do know some unflattering facts about him: he squandered his birthright, and he married Hittite wives who embittered his parents’ lives. Nevertheless, we also know two other points: he was a hunter, and his father loved him. The text explicitly connects Isaac’s love of Esau to his hunting: “And Isaac loved Esau, for he had game in his mouth.” Some commentators explain that Isaac felt this love only during the moments when Esau was providing for him, these fleeting kindnesses masking, for the moment, Esau’s more negative traits. Similarly, the midrash reinterprets the grammar of the verse to explain that the game here is Isaac: he was himself like prey in Esau’s mouth, because Esau tricked him about who he really was. It certainly seems that only a tricked Isaac could have wanted to bless this son in the first place.
But maybe Isaac was not tricked after all. Maybe the father who was so attuned to his younger son’s essence saw a goodness in his older son as well. Maybe the text is straightforward: Isaac loved Esau because his son cared for him. He may not have been perfect, but he fundamentally respected his father, and provided for his needs.
With this in mind, we return to Isaac’s final question at the end of this exchange: “Are you my son Esau?” This line can be read not as a question, but as a statement, uttered with a surprised smile and a hope: yes, you are my son, Esau. You have grown the way I always thought you would, after all. You are my son Esau, that kernel of goodness infusing your character with an integrity that spills forth in your speech, just like your brother. In the end, you are who I always knew you to be.
Isaac believed in Esau. He recognized the good in him, and hoped that he could move in the right direction. He hoped that he had already moved in that direction. And though it was ultimately a fruitless hope, it was on that hope that he acted.
In this story, we see Isaac’s understanding of his younger son. We also see his unfailing faith in his elder son. And maybe Esau saw it too. Maybe he held onto it, letting it guide his life in some way however small, ultimately coming home, despite everything, to pay his final respects and bury his father together with Jacob.