Rebecca took the garments of Esau, her older son,’ the fine ones’ (bigdei chamudot) which were with her in the house, and she dressed Jacob, her younger son. (Genesis 27:15)
[Jacob disguised as Esau] approached and kissed him. [Isaac] smelled the scent of his garments and blessed him. “See, the scent of my son is like the scent of the field which God has blessed.” (Genesis 27: 27)
As I write these words, my son and daughter-in-law have just celebrated the birth and bris of a son, my first grandchild. It is truly an amazing moment, reminding me (vicariously) of the time I first became a parent (although without all that responsibility!). If we consider an infant as it emerges from the womb, naked and unformed, we realize the infinite number of potentialities that exist. As we clothe the child before the child even knows he or she is naked, we immediately begin to assign this birth not only biological, but cultural significance. They are no longer part of the world of animals, but now part of the community of humanity. The adage ‘clothing makes the man (or woman)’ is more accurate than we might realize. Our parashah bears out this truth in the struggle between Jacob and Esau.
According to the Jewish tradition, who was the first to dress another? Who was the ‘first parent’? Immediately following the banishment from the womblike Garden of Eden, God provides Adam and Eve with garments of skin. (This is also the Talmudic source that is cited to prove we are to emulate God through ‘clothing the naked,’ examples of love and kindness.) What was the nature of these garments? Were they simply animal hides to warm Adam and Eve from the cold? Furthermore, whatever happened to these mysterious vestments?
Jewish tradition creates numerous incredible and fanciful legends, tracing their fate. In one midrash, this garment was embroidered with the forms of all the creatures of the world, indicating Adam and Eve’s mastery over all the world (See Rashi, B.T. Pesachim 54b). This garment was bequeathed from generation to generation. Noah inherited the outfit, and they eventually came into the hands of Nimrod, who Genesis calls a ‘mighty hunter’ and someone who ‘became mighty throughout the land’ (10:90). Already by the Second Temple period, people saw Nimrod as the legendary king who undertook the building of the Tower of Babel, a project of utter hubris and seen as a rejection of God. In early midrashim, it is also Nimrod who prosecutes Abraham for his monotheistic beliefs and even condemns him to die in a fiery furnace. God miraculously saves him from this fate, making Abraham not only the father of the Jewish people but the first martyr as well.
This piece of clothing, which originally connotated power and mastery, became associated with limitless power and the violence of hunters. No wonder this garment would be coveted by Jacob’s brother, Esau, who also is described as a hunter and one with violent tendencies. For this reason, in one version, Esau ‘desires’ these garments for himself, given he craves the power associated with the first born. Seeing the etymological connection between the Hebrew word covet (chamad) and bigdei chamudot (here translated as ‘fine clothing’), Esau steals this garment from Nimrod. In another version, Esau murders Nimrod and takes the clothing of power for himself. Thus, the garment that Rebecca took from Esau to enrobe Jacob was none other than these miraculous and hoary garments.
Putting aside the ethical problems of Jacob wresting the blessing from his older brother Esau through subterfuge, it is clear why his mother might want to dress her son with these selfsame garments, representing power and leadership. If Nimrod and Esau used their power in a violent and aggressive manner, even attempting to overthrow God, perhaps in the hands of Jacob the use of power might be applied more judiciously, creating a different world than the world of the hunter. Isaac, before blessing Jacob (disguised as Esau), embraces and smells the clothing, exclaiming ‘they are like the scent of the field blessed by God.” Esau is described as a man of the field (25:27), a person of action. Power and mastery can be a blessing, and Isaac’s blessing to whom he assumed was Esau underscores those positive qualities. Perhaps Isaac was attempting to help his son apply his talents in a productive way.
Yet there is another way to see these bigdei chamudot, these garments passed down from generation to generation beginning with Adam. In another midrashic tradition, these garments were priestly garments (Tanchuma Toldot 12 and parallels). In other words, this tradition assumes that before there ever was a Jewish people, there were select individuals who worshipped the one true God and performed sacrificial acts, even as the rest of the world slipped into idolatry. According to these legends, Adam worshipped and sacrificed to God, as did Noah, his son Shem, and Shem had bequeathed these garments to Abraham. As the Levites had not yet assumed the service in the tabernacle the priesthood was transferred from generation to generation to every first-born male. Thus, Esau had inherited these priestly garments from Isaac and Abraham; in this telling, the clothing embodies piety and worship. (This original tradition also makes the daring claim that insight into the Divine was not limited to one person or one nation, and in fact Abraham himself came from a longer line of Godly men.)
It makes sense that Rebecca would want Jacob, the spiritually oriented son, to inherit this special uniform. In this reading, Isaac embraced Jacob disguised as Esau, and the fragrance inspired him. However, the fragrance according to this reading is not the fragrance of the field, but the fragrance of the original field that God blessed, i.e., the Garden of Eden, as these were the garments Adam wore in the garden. This is a beautiful and touching notion; in blessing his son he is inspired by the fragrance of a time before sin, a time of spiritual intimacy between humanity and God.
Physicality or spirituality, worldly power or other worldly insight, practical prowess or internal wisdom- which is more important? The various midrashic traditions ask us to consider the clothing with which we clothe ourselves and our families. Perhaps both have their proper place in the pantheon of values. We all begin like naked infants, and throughout our lives we try on different outfits, different uniforms. These fantastic traditions cataloging the origin of Esau’s clothing teach that the choices we make in life are made within the context of a larger tradition. As parents or grandparents, or even great grandparents, we dress our children with hopes, dreams, and expectations. Those clothing and those dreams are incredibly significant, as each child is a link in the chain that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. What is the story we want to tell our own children? What is the clothing we hope them to wear?
As my grandson Eitan Yizchak Lev grows, may he be clothed with the blessings of his wonderful parents and all who came before him, and may he use his unique gifts to make a positive contribution to the world.
In honor of the birth of Eitan Yitzchak Lev, born to my son and daughter Moshe and Eliana Klein, and my first grandchild.