Toldot: The Other Sons
This is a week late, but I want to share my dvar torah from last week nonetheless.
The week before last I was discussing prayer in Torah. The first clear prayer seems to be from Hagar at Be’ar Lechai Roi. She’s pregnant with Yishmael, she’s in the desert and an angel appears. The angel promises her a son who will have many descendants and he shall be a wild ass of a man:
his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.
The question I had was simple: Why does Hashem answer Hagar’s prayer? In other cases, it is often far clearer. For example: G-d has made a promise. Later, G-d promised Avram Yishmael would survive. So, when he is near death, he must be rescued. Likewise, Yitzchak cannot actually be sacrificed. Sometimes it is because somebody is righteous. But the Torah doesn’t say Hagar is righteous or that, by this point, she’s had any promises made to (or about) her.
To find an answer, we can look at Parshat Mishpatim. There, we read:
And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry–My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.
Returning to Hagar’s story we see Hashem doesn’t answer her prayer. Instead the text reads:
thou shalt call his name Ishmael, because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.
G-d heard his affliction – just as is promised in Mishpatim. Who’se affliction? Hagar’s. Hagar’s name literally means “The Ger” – or the stranger. In other words, Yishmael and his children are a punishment to Sarah and her descendants for the mistreatment of the stranger. This concept applies not only to the Jewish people, but to her other descendants. The children of Esav, typically identified with the West.
We have a reason for Yishmael existing.
(Note: I’m not suggesting one group of people exist simply as a punishment or lesson for others, I believe every group of people exist to help other groups. So from Yishmael’s perspective, the descendants of Sarah can also have a defined role.)
But what about Esav? What is Esav’s raison d’être?
To understand this we have to understand Yitzchak. I’m going to combine my shiur and dvar Torah here because Yitzchak is so often misunderstood (in my opinion).
Let me start with a broad assertion. Yitzchak is trying not to embrace the spiritual. He’s trying to run from the spiritual. I believe this is because of the Akeidah. He was almost sacrificed in service of the spiritual and so he is resistant to it. Of course, he develops and learns, but let’s start with the simplest situations. Yitzchak is the only of the Avot to “sport” with his wife. And Yitzchak loves Esav because of his food. And he is the only of the Avot – or even of the Jewish leaders – to be a farmer. Our leaders tend to be shepherds – able to travel and not connected to a place. A farmer is a very physically anchored kind of role. He is embracing the physical.
Starting with this supposition, we can walk through his life and see many things explained.
Let’s start with his marriage. Avraham sends Eliezer to his relatives. Why? The standard argument is that he was too spiritual to leave. But what if, instead, he wasn’t spiritual enough. Given another land, another place – one with good and reliable land – Yitzchak might go and never return.
When Eliezer returns with Rivka, Yitzchak has gone to Be’ar Lecha Roi. He’s standing there, in what is typically translated as “meditating in the face of evening.” Except the word for evening, Erev, also implies a period of transition and uncertainty. He’s uncertain. This incident is treated as the source for the Mincha – afternoon – prayer. He’s praying. And his prayers are answered. How?
Rivka appears on the horizon.
Upon seeing him, Rivka veils herself. Why? I think -with very little evidence at this point in the story – that she identifies his physical need and she blunts it. She is the person characterized by the midot of Avraham. She is the one to help him recover after the Akeidah. To do this, she needs to blunt his natural reaction. To me, he is like a Holocaust survivor – many of whom were eager to hold on to the physical. They didn’t sever their relationship with G-d, but their anger drove them away even as G-d remained present. My grandfather used to have a Socialist Seder in which he’d curse G-d for the Shoah – drawing the many parallels between The Exodus from Egypt and the Exodus from Germany.
This by itself is just a little conjecture, so let’s continue the story.
Prior to the birth of his children, Yitzchak prays on behalf of his wife for those children. It is almost as if he himself doesn’t care for the future like she does. Yes, Yaacov also prays for Rachel – but Yaacov already has children. Yitzchak has none and yet he is not praying on his own behalf. Unlike his father, he isn’t consumed by the future.
When the children are born, Yitzchak loves Esav. It is because of his food. He is embracing the physical and the here and now. When the famine comes, Yitzchak is going to leave – possibly for Egypt. Hashem tells him not to leave. Hashem is concerned he will go to Egypt – as somebody who wants a physical anchor there is a danger in that – just as there was in Padan Aram.
Hashem makes a specific request, though. He asks Yitzchak to Shachon – spiritually dwell – in the land I will tell you of. Gerar isn’t quite it. Hashem asks Yitzchak only to Gur – live as an alien – in THIS land – the land of Gerar. He says – that because of the blessing of Avraham – he will be blessed. Notably, Yitzchak will not be blessed on his own account.
Yitzchak acquiesces, but just barely. He picks a third word to define his relationship with Gerar. He shaiv. He dwells in the land. It isn’t spiritual and he’s not a Ger. He intends to stay. But at least he didn’t go down to Egypt.
Yitzchak makes the curious choice to lie about his wife – just like his father did. But Avimelech had clearly established his fear of Hashem. Avraham had set the path. Seemingly, Yitzchak seems to have no excuse for his fear. Can’t he understand Avimelech is afraid of Hashem – given the past. Can’t he understand Hashem will take care of him.
The reality might not be so clear. After all, Yitzchak was not blessed in his own name. Perhaps both Avimelech and Yitzchak can see Yitzchak is no Avraham. There is no reason for Yitzchak to think he’ll deserve either the same treatment from Avimelech or the same divine protection from Hashem.
As we covered before, Yitzchak sports with his wife, unlike all the other Avot. He is, again, physical.
In Gerar, he’s a farmer. A very very successful farmer. In the Middle Ages, European farms yielded 3-5 seeds per seed planted. Today, we’re up near 30-50. Yitzchak gets 100. Hashem is blessing him.
But he gets no respect.
After Avraham dies, Avimelech’s people stop up all his wells. I can’t imagine many reasons to stop up a well. One might be control – by limiting access to water you can establish your own power. Anger might be another reason, or some kind of resentment. Whatever it is, while Avraham was around they weren’t willing to play that card. But when he dies? There is only Yitzchak to consider and he is no spiritual force.
When Yitzchak redigs those wells, I believe he is trying to capture the physical traces of his father. Not his prayers, not his tent, not his love of guests or his desire to build the future. His wells.
It doesn’t go well. He’s continually driven away. But he keeps trying to establish his stake in the land. He keeps digging wells. Finally, he digs a well and there is land for it. He calls it Rechovot – for Hashem has made him space. It is a start.
Hashem says, again, “I will bless you for your father’s sake.” Yitzchak still doesn’t have the same divine relationship with Hashem.
Nonetheless, in thanks for this physical gift, he raises an altar and brings offerings. This isn’t a response to a divine promise, but in response to water and space.
Nonetheless, it is the beginnings of a greater relationship with Hashem. All Yitzchak did before was agree not to go to Egypt – now he is taking a more positive step.
After the raising of the altar, Avimelech again does Teshuva. Avimelech is beginning to see the G-dly in Yitzchak and realizes he might have made a terrible mistake. When Avraham made a treaty with Avimelech it involved offerings to Hashem. This time, it is Yitzchak making the deal. So, there is no sacrifice. Just food. Again, the spiritual is distanced.
But Yitzchak is growing. Both he and his wife are spiritually troubled by Esav’s wives (one named Yehudit, interestingly).
When it comes time for blessings, Yitzchak knows what he wants to give Esav, his favorite son. He blesses him with a physical blessing. He says G-d will give him the dew of heaven and fat places of the earth and corn and wine. But the rest comes from Yitzchak. G-d isn’t mentioned. This part of the blessing involves power and the idea that those who curse him will be cursed and those who bless him will be blessed.
Yitzchak understands his words can have power. But he isn’t uses them to pass on a spiritual gift – just wealth and power. In fact, when Esav and Yitzchak discover Yaacov’s deception, Yitzchak can’t think of another blessing to give.
‘Behold, I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him; and what then shall I do for thee, my son?’
Yitzchak’s imagination doesn’t extend beyond this.
Then Esav cries – like a baby. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵשָׂו קֹלוֹ, וַיֵּבְךְּ
I remember when I was a kid I had terrible fits. I was a difficult child, but my fits were my signature. They were awful. I had many fits. They were so bad, especially on Friday nights when guests were over, that occasionally my father would toss me into the swimming pool to calm me down. I kept having those fits until one day I saw my little brother have one of my fits. I was probably like 12 or 13 years old.
I was deeply deeply embarrassed for myself.
I never had one of those fits again.
When Esav cries – over his lack of wealth and power – I like to think that Yitzchak recognizes the limitations of his emphasis on wealth and power and that which is physical. He is embarrassed for himself. With an extra nudge from his wife (“we sure don’t want any more of those local girls, do we?”) he ends up finding that missing blessing: the blessing of Avraham and the covenant with G-d.
It was there the whole time, but Yitzchak either didn’t see it or didn’t want to.
It is then, with this action, that we come to Yaacov’s first blessing. That blessing is “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Yitzchak.”
Yitzchak has finally become a source of blessing in his own right.
This approach isn’t critical of Yitzchak. I would never criticize a Holocaust survivor for a lack of desire to be close to G-d. How could I expect someone who has seen such horror – effectively sacrificed by parents and grandparents who decided to maintain some Jewish identity? – to embrace their connection with G-d? I couldn’t expect that. And Yitzchak is a survivor. He has good reason to reject G-d – even as G-d speaks to him and blesses him.
But Yitzchak isn’t just any survivor. He is a survivor who manages to embrace the spiritual despite all he’s been through. And that capability, that growth, is what makes him one of our forefathers.
So why is Esav there?
Esav is there to provide the physical example – the people of Esav are those who will cry like babies if they do not have wealth and power. They embrace their physicality and can’t see past it. Esav is there to shock us into realizing what is truly important. Esav is there so we can see our own worst excesses and be embarrassed by them.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that connects Esav with Rome – not on some genetic level. But I can understanding connecting Esav with cultures that are dedicated to the physical and define themselves by the physical.
Theirs is a material and ultimately short-term view of the world.
When they cry out for lack of wealth and power, we – the children of Yitzchak – can relearn what is truly important.
That, of course, is our relationship with G-d.
(Photo by Emerson Vieira on Unsplash )