November 1, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David A. Lipper
Taken at face value, this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, gives us every reason to conclude that Isaac, son of Abraham, father of Jacob and Esau, was a complete idiot. Listen to the story …
“When Isaac was old, and his eyes too dim to see, he summoned his older son Esau and said to him, “My son!” And Esau replied “Here I am.” Isaac sent Esau out to the fields, to hunt some game for preparing a delicious meal for Papa. Rebecca saw in this an opportunity for Jacob to seize his father’s blessing. They schemed for him to impersonate his brother, wearing hairy goat skins to simulate the hirsute Esau, presenting a delicious goat stew which mom had made quickly while Esau was out hunting.
Now pay attention to how many times Isaac seems on the verge of figuring out what’s going on… but then, doesn’t. Jacob “came to his father and said, ‘My father!’ And he replied, ‘Here I am. Who are you, my son?’” “Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you have instructed me. Please get up, sit down and eat of my game, so that you may give me your innermost blessing.’”
“Then Isaac asked his son, ‘How is it that you have found [it] so quickly, my son?’ And he said, “Because the Lord your God prepared it in my presence.’” “Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.’” “So Jacob approached Isaac his father, and he felt him, and said, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau!’”
“And then,” the Torah tells us, Isaac “did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau, and so he blessed him.” But that’s not even the end of the episode!
“’Are you [really] my son Esau?’” Isaac asked again. And Jacob answered, “I am!” After enjoying dinner, Isaac said, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.”
So Jacob came closer. Isaac kissed him, smelled his garments, and blessed him, saying, “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed!”
Three times did Isaac directly confront Jacob: “Who are you, for real?” He felt him, kissed him, smelled him, ate his food. Deprived of eyesight he relied on hearing, touch, smell and taste. The voice gave Jacob away; but the hairy disguise, the outdoorsy smell, the delicious dinner all said “Esau” so again, taken at face value, Isaac was duped.
But come now. Are we really to believe that Jacob tricked his father into transferring a precious family heritage to the wrong son? The stakes were so high. How could Isaac have let it happen? If even a shred of doubt nagged at him, why would he have gone through with it? For with this blessing Isaac set in motion the rest of the Jewish story: Jacob will inherit the mantle of leadership.
“Nations shall serve you and kingdoms shall bow down to
you…. You shall be master over your brothers, and your
mother’s sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse
you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be
An energized Esau, fresh from the hunt, came into the room after Jacob departed, unaware of his mother’s and brother’s actions. Anxious for his father’s approval he asked for Isaac’s innermost blessing. Isaac was now seized with a violent trembling.
But why did Isaac tremble? Was it excitement? Was he cold? Was it fear? For this answer, we need walk through the pages of time.
The overwhelming majority of commentators agree that, using an interpretive and fantastic lens, Isaac was shaking in his boots out of fear. In fact, it was heat and not cold. The scene is painted in the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 77:2): Rabbi Yochanan taught that Isaac trembled because when Esau came in, Hell actually came in with him; Rabbi Acha added that the walls of the house began to seethe from the heat of Hell. 500 years later, the great Torah commentator Rashi paints an even darker, more frightening picture: Isaac saw hell and the ground opening beneath him, for Esau entered his tent, and now faced the deception. Isaac, immediately realized he was the one at fault, his future hanging in the balance.
And so now Esau, pleads with his father for another blessing. “Bless me too, father! Bless me too!” he wept. It is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of literature. But the deed is done and not even the promise that one day Esau will break Jacob’s yoke can ameliorate his hurt feelings.
Esau flew into a murderous rage and Jacob fled home, initiating a pattern that will persist throughout the story of our people: Jacob, that is, Israel, imperiled by brutish enemies. (Esau will come to represent the Roman Empire.) The people of the book always having to outwit or outrun the hunter.
All because, it would seem, Isaac was a complete idiot.
I mean, really? Could he really not figure out what was going on? There is a difference, after all, between visually impaired and comprehensively blind to reality. Could he not have just switched the blessing when he found out? “Oops, sorry boys. My bad. Do-over.”
Something about this face-value reading doesn’t add up. Idiocy does not explain Isaac’s behavior, and, for that matter, neither does blindness. Maybe Isaac’s condition conveniently allowed him to get away with subverting a cultural norm–the blessing of the firstborn son–in order to privilege the son better suited to spiritual leadership.
As it turns out, a number of noted commentators on this passage believed that Isaac knew exactly what he was doing by bestowing the responsibility of leadership on Jacob. The 19th century Russian rabbi known as Malbim concluded that Isaac deliberately bypassed Esau who had forfeited all claim to future Jewish leadership when he intermarried with idolatrous women. And the supreme authority RaSHI, drawing on earlier midrash, takes great pains to portray Isaac as a willing partner in Jacob’s deception (which, however improbably, he concludes was not really a deception at all).
So before we smear Isaac with a reputation for idiocy we could give the old man the benefit of the doubt. It seems to me that this story comments meaningfully on a common phenomenon among us human beings: not being blind so much as refusing to see what’s right in front of our faces, especially if what’s right in front of our faces makes us uncomfortable, challenges our ways of looking at the world, conflicts with our stated beliefs, preconceived ideas, or deeply held convictions and intentions. In short, we don’t see what we don’t want to see.
Over the course of history—during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods—the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see. So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene.
People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive?
We have a phrase for that all-too-human tendency to overlook the things that disturb us, that threaten to knock us from a place of complacency to a place of concern; we call it “turning a blind eye.” How many kids turn a blind eye when we see a classmate being teased? How many of us turn a blind eye when we see a fellow man or woman being mistreated, because to get involved might exact a cost, entail a risk?
Even more: Most of us–and I am certainly as guilty as anyone on this–tend not to want to know every last detail of exactly what and whom our mutual fund investments are supporting; exactly where and how our food and clothing and electronics and household items are produced; exactly how big our carbon footprints have become and how dependent we remain on fossil fuels. We know that our American way of life depends in large measure on cheap foreign labor and foreign oil but we usually choose to remain deliberately vague on the specifics.
But our Jewish tradition teaches that we have to see not only what we want to see but also what we do not want to see. The road to Jewish spiritual enlightenment does not lead to a monastery cloistered from the world, or our head buried in the sand.
The road to Jewish spiritual enlightenment leads directly through the experience of human suffering, down the ladder of economic injustice, deep into the belly of the real world, with all its hurting, all its aching… and all its redemptive possibilities for helping and healing. And the only way to walk that crooked road is with eyes wide open.
So here, this Shabbat, we can’t be Isaac or Jacob or Rebecca or Esau. We must be more present and focused on the reality of our time. We must listen to the cries in the world and open our eyes to those around us. There is a greater purpose to our presence here. Closing off the world is clearly not what our tradition teaches is our path. So …
As Cantor Jeff Klepper wrote these words:
Open up our eyes
Teach us how to live
Fill our hearts with joy
And all the love you have to give.
Gather us in peace
As You lead us to your name
And we will know that You are One.
Open your eyes ….