Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
This week’s Torah portion covers a set of stories in scripture which have always been somewhat confusing to me. Rebekah gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob, who are in conflict with one another from the womb onward.
Esau, the archetypal wild man, seems frequently outsmarted by his brother, Jacob, the archetypal civilized man, with Esau pledging his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup, and later, Jacob outright lying to their father on his deathbed in order to steal his blessing on his firstborn.
What confuses me is the message we are meant to take from this story. What do we internalize here? That deception and lying win the day? After all, it’s Jacob who becomes a patriarch of the Jewish people, while Esau marries and more or less disappears back into the Canaanites. That’s not exactly a great PR win for Judaism.
On the surface, I think the writers of this passage want us to feel sympathy for Esau (and to some degree Isaac as well). Jacob’s theft of Esau’s blessing isn’t presented so much as a cunning and innovative act as it is presented as deceptive and manipulative. At another level though, there’s good reason to read the story as a sort of 3-D chess game.
Who is Deceiving Whom?
In his commentary on Parashat Toldot, Rabbi Gunther Plaut presents the idea that Isaac is himself not deceived. Rather, he recognizes ahead of time that Esau is unable to bear the burden of his blessing. Rebekah then is not acting out her own desires on the fate of their descendants, but potentially reading between the lines of Isaac’s needs and taking action to achieve the outcome he ultimately desires.
Isaac’s questions about who approaches him in the tent are not so truthful as they are nods to the audience, assuring that he knows what is happening even when his mouth will not admit it. When he does nothing to reprimand Jacob for his deception, his heart is revealed. What he knew had to be done was done, as painful as it will be.
Then ultimately, above all personal intentions, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau all, in their own ways, accept that G-d’s plan is what has been put into action here.
That tension there between Isaac appearing to be deceived and knowing the truth on some inner level reminds me of another part of this story as well as a passage from the Book of Isaiah.
In the middle of this week’s Torah portion, we get a description of Isaac moving his family around and re-opening the wells dug by Abraham which have since been stopped up by the Philistines.
After doing that, he even ends up opening some of his own wells. While on some level here, we’re obviously talking about literal wells, what I take from this episode is something of a spiritual quest going on. The wells in that sense are metaphors for spiritual wisdom. Isaac, in his adulthood, is seeking the spiritual wisdom uncovered by his father (and plugged up by those whose land they live in).
Any of us on spiritual journeys can relate to this process. You can read the story of someone else going through the same thing, you can hear it directly from them, you can even be present in some cases as a son or other tangential party to their experience, but until you go through it yourself, the lesson is not internalized, and the wisdom is not fully realized.
Isaac, like most of us, is surrounded by people who are not seeking the same sources of wisdom. They plug up his father’s wells in the same way that people these days suppress dissent and alternative ways of living. Isaac though is so eager on this journey and so unfazed by the repeated rejections of society, that his own path surpasses that of his father.
The prophet Isaiah actually gives us a similar story. In Isaiah 49, we get this prophesy about the restoration of Israel. In the beginning verses, one can hear the echoes of Esau and Jacob (“like a sharpened sword” and “in the shadow of his hand he hid me”; v. 2, NIV), as well as Isaac himself (“before I was born [HaShem] called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name”; v. 1, NIV).
Starting in verse 8, this is what Isaiah tells us:
“This is what [HaShem] says: ‘In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances, to say to the captives “Come out,” and to those in darkness, “Be free!”
‘They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill. They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water.'” (Isaiah 49: 8-10, NIV)
Another way to term that line about the desert heat and the sun is through the image of a “mirage.” Essentially when you are too exhausted, too hungry, too thirsty, and the conditions around you are too extreme, the landscape will play tricks on you and make you think you see something you do not. G-d is telling Isaiah that our salvation will alleviate this condition from us. In other words, we will understand the bits of Torah we have misinterpreted, and we will know the fullness of G-d’s plan.
I see the well-digging of Abraham and Isaac in this prophesy. Yes, on some level they’re out digging wells for real water. On a spiritual level, they are digging for wisdom and truth about the meaning of life and the nature of G-d and creation. That Isaac is recorded digging the same wells of his father, and that the title of this Torah portion is literally “generations,” shows us that this is something we will all do.
We are all going to be digging wells where mirages tempt us with spiritual wisdom. We are all going to revisit the mistakes and experiences of our ancestors. And until the end of this age, we, like Isaac, may be deceived by the mirage of Jacob claiming Esau’s blessing. We will know it enough to question what we are experiencing yet in our weakness or shame play along by refusing to speak the truth out loud.
Until we are righted by salvation, until we are shown the fullness of G-d at work even in perceived acts of deception, digging wells is our task, seeking that fresh water of wisdom from our Creator and the strength and courage to know and to act on it is our soul’s craving.
Like so much of Torah, there are literary components to this story that feel unknowable to me. But what I take from these stories is that universality of searching, of literal laboring in the land in search of G-d’s wisdom. And that soul-level need is something in all of us, without regard for morality or position in life. The full lesson G-d is instructing us in engages all of us in one way or another.
G-d will have compassion on us, Isaiah tells us. G-d will lead us away from digging wells and instead to springs of water where the wisdom is bursting forth to reach us from the ground.
Regardless of how the conflict between Esau and Jacob leaves us feeling, in some ways we are all Jacob (our ancestor) in the story. Like everyone else in every story from Torah or otherwise, we are not flawless little angels who receive G-d’s blessing because of our perfection.
That’s the message though. G-d’s compassion will reach us. G-d will work through even our own selfish intentions.