Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“The Great Competition” Parashat Toledot 5782

We were always taught to treat our forefathers with immense reverence. Even when they acted in a way that seemed to us problematic, we were taught to bring ourselves up to their level rather than bringing them down to ours. And so when a prominent medieval commentator mercilessly takes Isaac to task, we must sit up and take notice.

Rebecca bears Isaac twins sons, Esav and Jacob. The two children remain bachelors until a relatively late age. The first to marry is Esav [Bereishit 26:34-35]: “When Esav was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca”. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the fifteenth century, makes two scathing comments. Commenting on the words “When Esav was forty years old”, the Seforno writes, “At that point, Isaac was a hundred years old and yet he did not bother to see to it that both of his sons should be provided with suitable wives”.

Commenting on the words “Beeri the Hittite”, he writes, “Apparently Isaac did not object to his sons marrying Canaanite girls, something his father had objected to strenuously.” While the Seforno’s comments are admittedly brutal, they make great sense. Our Sages in the Midrash teach us that “The deeds of the fathers are signposts for the sons” and that we must learn from their conduct. When Isaac was forty years old, his father, Abraham, sent his loyal servant, Eliezer, back to his home town of Haran to find Isaac a wife. Abraham’s first words to Eliezer are unequivocal [Bereishit 24:3]: “I will make you swear… that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell”. Isaac should have learned two things from his father: [1] That a father should help his forty-year-old son find a wife and [2] that a Canaanite wife is unacceptable under any circumstances. And yet, not only does Isaac do nothing to find suitable wives for his sons but when one of them brings home a Canaanite woman, Isaac grins and bears it. He never confronts Esav – he and Rebecca seem content to make snide comments behind Esav’s back. Because of his parents’ silence, Esav never really gets the message. After Jacob appropriates Esav’s blessing, his parents send him to hide out at Rebecca’s family until things blow over. Only then [Bereishit 28:8] “Esav realized that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac.” Yet instead of divorcing his Canaanite wives, Esav does something else [Bereishit 28:9]: “Esav went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth”. Did Esav really believe that by taking another wife “in addition to the wives he already had” that he could dilute the concentration of Canaanite wives in his harem to a level acceptable to Isaac and Rebecca?

To understand Isaac’s behaviour, we must take a closer look at family politics. While Rule #1 of parenting states that a parent should love all of his children equally[1], the Torah tells us that Isaac and Rebecca each had their own favourite son [Bereishit 25:28]: “Isaac favoured Esav because he had a taste for game but Rebecca favoured Jacob.” Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, who died last year in Jerusalem, writing in “Mah’lchim b’Mikra”, proposes a novel explanation for the difference of opinion. From the moment of birth, Esav and Jacob were two very different people. Esav was born [Bereishit 25:25] “red (admoni)”. This was not a description of the colour of his body, but, rather, of his psyche. Esav was what we would call in Israel a “gingi” – a fiery redhead. He was bad-tempered, hot-headed, quick to act, bold, and brash. He preferred a game of pickup football over reading a book. Jacob was different. He was [Bereishit 25:27] “a mild man who stayed in camp”. He preferred the cerebral over the physical. Jacob remained quietly aloof, outside of Esav’s active social circles. Rabbi Henkin leverages the disparate characters to explain why Isaac and Rebecca each had a favourite son. The two both knew that their household was no ordinary one.

They understood that their descendants were destined to become leaders of a future Jewish Nation who would inherit the Land of Israel. At first glance, Esav seemed the person most fit to lead this nation. While Isaac knew that Esav was rough at the edges, it was nothing that couldn’t be polished over the years. Jacob’s other-worldliness would never enable him to rule. It had to be Esav. Rebecca, on the other hand, was not raised in the house of the righteous Abraham. She grew up in Aram, in the house of the wicked Bethuel. She had seen people like Esav come and go and she was unimpressed. She knew how Esav’s volatility could work against him, enabling him to be easily swayed by others. Isaac and Rebecca had to choose who would become their heir – the volatile warrior or the equable aesthete. Which was more likely: Esav cleaning up his act or Jacob learning to get his hands dirty? How was it even possible to adjudicate?

Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, who led North American Jewry in the second half of the previous century, puts an interesting spin on Rabbi Henkin’s thesis. When Isaac sends Jacob to Rebecca’s family, he tells him [Bereishit 28:1-4] “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Go to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Lavan, your mother’s brother… May [G-d] grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Abraham.” Isaac bestowed upon Jacob the “Blessing of Abraham”, granting him the future Land of Israel.

This present came with a condition: that Jacob not take a Canaanite wife. Rabbi Soloveichik writes, “Esav hoped that by continuing to live in the Land of Canaan and by marrying an Ishmaelite, he could co-opt the Blessing of Abraham. The Torah emphasizes, however, that because Esav had not divorced his Canaanite wives, his attempts to wrest the ‘Blessing of Abraham’ from Jacob utterly failed[2].” Merging Rabbi Henkin with Rabbi Soloveichik, a new picture begins to appear. Because Isaac and Rebecca could not choose a successor, Jacob and Esav had to prove their worthiness. Jacob had to prove his mettle by going to live with Rebecca’s family. He would have to survive the wicked Bethuel and the crafty Lavan. His hands would become blacker than black.

He would have to find wives who would be his “partners in crime”, where his only crime would be worshiping the one True G-d. Esav had to prove his worthiness by separating himself from people who would sway him, people who would turn him from the one True G-d, specifically, the pagan Canaanites. Esav and Jacob were the two contestants in the greatest competition in history, where the winner would lead a nation chosen to bring G-dliness into our corporeal world. Isaac and Rebecca could not influence the outcome of the competition. They could not choose who their sons did and did not marry. Isaac’s successor needed to be determined by merit and by merit alone.

Eventually, Jacob triumphs over Esav. Esav is left by the wayside while Jacob fathers the Jewish Nation. Esav lost the competition because he could not detach himself from his Canaanite wives. Esav’s wives and their families proved to be a negative influence that he could not overcome[3]. Jacob won the competition, teaches Rabbi Henkin, because he proved that beneath his mild demeanour, he was cut from the same cloth as Esav[4]. Indeed, Jacob’s descendant, King David was also [Samuel I 16:12] “red (admoni)”. The same King David that wrote the Book of Psalms was also the King David who ]Chronicles I 22:8] “spilled much blood and won great wars”. Jacob knew how to be a gingi when he needed to be one. We, as his descendants, must learn from his exploits. When we, as a nation, are not granted what we rightfully deserve, we must know how to take what we need to survive.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] I once heard a story about the children of a man who had just died who were talking about their father. Each one of them admitted to his siblings that he secretly believed that his father loved him best. That is the kind of parent we should all aspire to become.

[2] It is possible to interpret Rabbi Soloveichik’s words as asserting that it is better to be a righteous person living in New York than being secular living in Tel Aviv. I see things somewhat differently.

[3] According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, marrying a Canaanite was worse than marrying any other pagan specifically because Abraham’s family lived in Canaan, under their sphere of influence.

[4] Some commentators assert that Jacob and Esav were identical twins.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. 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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