In last week’s Torah portion we saw that Abraham, in the concluding decades of his life, stepped down from his world-significant plane of living to become just another person, living his private life as best he could. The change – freely chosen or imposed by destiny – is not described by the Torah as being stressful or challenging.
In contrast, this week’s portion brings us into a moment of great and painful stress when one of our protagonists, Esau, is forced to cross the bridge leading from one of those two planes of living to the other. Esau has sold his birthright, but he still expects to receive his father’s blessing. However, his brother, Jacob, and his mother engineer it so that Isaac bestows the blessing upon Jacob, instead.
Esau enters his father’s chamber, unaware that Isaac has given the blessing away to Jacob. When he finds out, he utters a gut-wrenching cry: “Bless me, also, my father!” (Gen. 27:34) And Isaac tries to explain that “you brother has come with guile and has taken your blessing.” (v. 35) And Esau repeats his request, backed by a shattering question: “ ‘Is there but one blessing that you have, my Father? Bless me, too, my Father!’ And he raised his voice and wept.” (v. 38)
In this excruciating exchange we witness a shifting back and forth as both Esau and his father struggle with two different concepts of blessing. Isaac understands his blessing to be a gift that will direct the destiny of the world. There is only one such blessing, and it has been passed on to Jacob. But Esau cannot keep his focus on that kind of blessing. He yearns for another kind of blessing, the simple blessing that flows from a parent’s love for their child. He asks, incredulously, “Do you have only one blessing to give out?” Esau simply wants to hear some words of love from a father who has always loved him so fully. Each child has a right to expect such a loving gift on their own terms, after all. How could Isaac be so withholding? But Isaac feels that he is standing upon a different plane of living. The blessing at stake is not an intimate expression of love and support, to be universally shared in all families. This family lives with a great, overriding burden – to be a world-blessing. So he adheres to his understanding, even as he finally gives in and blesses Esau, by framing the blessing in the terms that God had initially set forth, as influencing the rivalry between his two sons who are to become two nations and cultures. (Gen. 25:23)
Esau’s struggle can be understood to lie in his inability to choose between his desires for these two types of blessing. Sometimes he is ready to give up the world-blessing if he can only get his father’s love. But he is not able to stay content with that and he seethes with resentment against his brother: “And Esau nursed a hatred for Jacob over the blessing that his father had given him.” (v. 41) The verse is ambiguous. Did he hate his brother because of the blessing his brother received from his father, or because of the blessing his father gave to him, to Esau? Did he resent his brother for taking away the world-blessing from him, or for taking away from him something else, entirely – the chance to get a simple father’s blessing, a blessing that would have expressed unconditional love for him, as himself?
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein