Jacob vs. Esau, Part I: The Two Roles
Unravelling one of the most cryptic episodes of the entire Torah.
The story of Jacob and Esau is one of the most perplexing sagas of the entire Torah. From a young age, Jacob developed into the diligent Torah student, dwelling in the tents of study. Esau, by contrast, is described as an idler and hunter, a man of violence who lived by his might and conquest. Our Sages describe him as a murderer, idolater and womanizer all rolled into one. Reading the opening account of their lives (Genesis 25:27), we would have little question who should be the progenitor of the Jewish people.
Yet the story almost immediately takes a peculiar turn. Whereas their mother Rebecca favors Jacob, their father Isaac favors Esau – “because his venison was in his mouth” (v. 28). Isaac wanted to give the firstborn blessings to Esau, presumably to make him the primary heir. Was Isaac some clueless old man, taken in by Esau’s tasty food and outer show of piety? How could Isaac be so easily misled? And likewise, why didn’t Rebecca simply tell him of Esau’s true nature? Couldn’t she have easily influenced him to favor the deserving brother? Why this unnecessary rift in the family?
As Isaac approaches old age, he asks Esau to hunt and prepare him a meal so he may bless him before his passing. Isaac specially warns Esau not to steal an animal and to slaughter it properly (see Rashi to 27:4). Isaac knew full well the wickedness his son was capable of. Yet even at this late stage, Isaac still favored Esau as the more deserving son and attempts to give him the blessings.
Rebecca overhears her husband’s instructions and conceives her plan. She dresses Jacob in furs to resemble Esau’s hairy exterior and hands him cooked foods she prepared herself. She then sends him in to receive the blessings in Esau’s stead. Thus, again, rather than leveling with her husband Isaac, telling him the wicked truth about Esau, Rebecca simply tricks him into blessing the deserving son.
Jacob does as he was told and successfully receives the blessings, but with one significant twist. He nearly gives himself away. This does not occur because Jacob was a poor impersonator, but because he did something Esau would never have done: he spoke gently to his father. As the Sages point out, unlike Esau who later says “My father should get up” (v. 31), Jacob said “Please get up” (v. 19), and he attributes his quick arrival (after allegedly catching his hunt) because “the Lord your God chanced [the prey] before me (v. 20). He acknowledged that God was behind his success. And Isaac’s suspicions were immediately aroused. This did not sound like the harsh and uncouth Esau. He asked to feel Jacob’s arms, which – thanks to Rebecca’s disguise – felt exactly like Esau’s.
Thus, the well-known story of Jacob and Esau contains several surprising details. Isaac was well-aware (if not fully aware) of Esau’s evil ways, yet he still favored Esau to become father of the Jewish people. Rebecca, for her part, does not explain to Isaac his error but simply manipulates him into blessing Jacob. And Jacob seems to purposely do a poor job of concealing his true identity – prompting Isaac to pronounce in reaction, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.”
There is one very simple – albeit surprising – key to understanding the story – as well as the continuation of the story of Israel’s creation: Isaac was right. Esau really should have been an integral part of the Jewish nation. How can that be? Where is the place for such wickedness in the Jewish people?
Isaac was right. Esau really should have been an integral part of the Jewish nation.
The answer is that the nation of Israel really has two roles in the world – a “Jacob” role and an “Esau” role. The Jacob role is to be internally righteous people – to study Torah, to become more spiritual, and to develop a relationship with God. The studious, tent-dwelling Jacob was clearly grooming himself for such a role from his earliest years.
But that is only a part of Israel’s mission. Israel is not only to be a secluded nation of saints. We are to be the leaders of mankind, a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). We must see that all mankind recognize and devote themselves to God. We must go out to the nations and oversee their development – and if necessary, wage war.
The nation of Israel thus has a dual mission to fulfill: a private role led by Jacob – developing their internal relationship with God, and a universal one led by Esau, the public, strongman of the world – leading mankind to full submission to God. Isaac rightly recognized that ultimately, Esau’s role would be a critical one in Israel. He would bring the entire world – not just the Jewish people – to salvation. Thus, in spite of all of Esau’s personal failings, Isaac knew that his abilities were needed for the development of a true nation of God.
Isaac was right to be sure. It was not simply a matter of Rebecca explaining to him that Esau was wicked. Isaac was well aware (even if not entirely aware) of that, yet he still favored his elder son.
Rather, Rebecca devised an alternate plan – risky, but which would ultimately prevail. Esau was too wicked to fulfill his role. Therefore, rather than pinning their hopes on the recalcitrant Esau, Jacob would have to assume two roles. He would have to fulfill not only his own personal role within Israel, but Esau’s as well. Not only would he be the private man of letters, but he would have to deal with the rough and tumble of the outside world, and take arms against his foes.
This is precisely what Jacob intended to convey when he entered Isaac’s tent, feigning to be Esau. While pretending to demonstrate his newly-acquired role as man of the field, he also spoke gently, invoking the name of God. For he was not simply trying to imitate his brutish brother Esau. He was projecting himself as the son who truly deserved Esau’s blessings. He would possess the hands of Esau, yet speak with the voice of Jacob. He was the new composite brother, who would fulfill both roles, a kinder and gentler Esau. And Isaac, after realizing his error, concluded “so too will he be blessed” (Genesis 27:33).
As we will see God willing in the next installment, ultimately Jacob would be successful, assuming a dual role and mission in the world.
Based primarily on lectures given by my teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig.