These days, there is no shortage of hatred to go around. Tragically, much of this hatred has erupted into tragic violence in Jerusalem this week, a brutal set of murders in a synagogue that most clearly illustrates the religious, and we may say, biblical nature of this conflict. It is noteworthy that this week’s Torah reading is one in which the growing animosity between Jacob and his brother Esav is described, a rift that the Talmud records as the source of eternal enmity between Jacob, that is, the Jewish people, and Esav, midrashically reified as Rome and thus European society. The reflexive assumption made before reading the texts, then, is Jacob=good, Esav=bad. However, that is a prejudice not entirely present in the text, as we shall see, a text which is extremely ambiguous with regards to who is or is not the hero of this episode. For after all, their father Isaac (Yitzchak), clearly intended to bless Esav, but only through the wily intervention of Jacob’s mother does Jacob hijack these blessings.
Despite the ambiguity in the narrative, the blessings that ultimately are bestowed upon Jacob are read in various ways as prophetic of later Jewish history, and as such are incorporated into the traditional prayers. The Midrash gives many readings of these blessings as pertaining to the Jewish future, but surely Yitzchak had a whole different idea of the blessing’s possibilities, geared as they were in original intent towards Esav. To put this in modern terms, there is a very wide gap here between authorial intent and reader response to these texts. I will present three exegetical approaches to this conundrum, which will be presented in order of progressive radicality in terms of the usual assumptions about this episode.
The first approach, most traditional is that even though the blessings were to be given to Esav, at the core, they were ultimately blessings meant with Jacob’s best interests in mind. Thus, the Lurianic school understands that when Yitzhak blesses Esav, he had in mind Rabbi Akiva and all the converts that would emerge from Esav’s descendants, and those are whom Yitzchak is “really” blessing. In a similar vein are two later readings, one from the Beis Halevi and the other from the Be’er Mayim Chayim, which also reveal some deep differences between the former’s Misnaged perspective and the latter’s Hassidic mode of reading text.
The Beis Halevi states the Yitzchak knew that Yaakov was the greater of the two brothers, and the future of the world lay with his spirituality. Thus, Yitzchak blesses Esav with mastery over the physical world in order to prevent Yaakov from distraction by the temptations of the physical world. Yitzchak intended to divorce Yaakov from the bounty of the earth, ensuring that he has no recourse but to live in the more important spiritual world. The Be’er Mayim Chayim similarly maintains a spiritual:material dichotomy, but from an opposite perspective. He argues that Yitzchak had a utopian, “Carlebach” view of the future. He saw his twins each with wildly disparate physical and spiritual personalities, each an archetype in their physical appearance and their ways of living in the world. Yitzchak dreamt that Yaakov and Esav were to be the archetypes in the unfolding of God’s plan: in the physical world by Esav and in the spiritual world by Yaakov. Yitzhak’s intention was for the brothers to work side by side in world transformation, similar to the more successful mythical model of the relationship between the two tribes of Issachar and Zevulun, where the merchant tribe of Zevulun would support the scholarly tribe of Issachar, with credit going to both elements of the equation equally. Why this did not transpire is not our issue right now, but we see the structural similarity of these readings – the intention of the blessing directed towards Esav was really meant for the good of Yaakov (It is also interesting to note the pessimistic and dualizing nature of the Lithuanian hermeneutic versus the more hopeful and unifying tendency of Hassidic exegesis).
The second approach is presented by the Yismach Moshe. The approach denies the intention of the “blesser” from the downstream effect of the blessing. He asks, how can blessings that are given by mistake “take hold”? He answers by borrowing a concept from Jewish civil law, formulated in the Talmud, Bava Kama 20: Zeh neheneh v’zeh lo chaser, “the user benefits, at no loss to the owner.” In the Yismach Moshe’s view, the uttered speech act of the blessing is a free floating textual possibility, an “organism,” as Heidegger described the life of a work of art (the way a painting of a woman by Da Vinci becomes “The Mona Lisa” with a history entirely unforeseen by the artist at the time of the painting). Had Esav lived a proper life after appropriating the blessing, then the blessing would have retrospectively been the blueprint for his future as a great and respected individual. Had he received the blessing and remained evil, then the blessing would have become void since a positive blessing cannot be actualized by an evildoer. As it was Yaakov that acquired the blessing and his descendants did merit them, the blessings can now be read in light of the life achievements of the Children of Israel. The relation of the blessing to the appropriate life is akin to that of a liquid to its container – fitting it appropriately regardless of the container from which it was originally decanted.
What is clear in these readings, is a recognition that Esav is not necessarily evil and could well have turned out differently. So how do we understand the opening segment of this story, where Rivka finds herself in what we would call today a high risk pregnancy, consults an omen, and is told of two nations in her womb? Other than the Hizkuni, who does introduce an element of uncertainty regarding which son is the problem son into the equation, generally the assumption is that in the womb, one is already evil and one is already good. The Ohev Yisrael suggests that in fact, this assumption is only in their mother’s mind, but not necessarily fated. In his reading, Rivka’s distress is a reflection of her own self-doubt. She was certain that her children would be flawed because she viewed herself as having a problematic background. In other words, had Yitzchak married someone of more righteous stock, someone more appropriate, then this troubled pregnancy would not have happened; Yitzchak and a “proper wife” would only produce righteous children, but Rivka and her problem “genes” are creating less worthy progeny for him. In all this self-loathing and self-doubt, however, she was confused by the idea that one of the children would be righteous if she was the cause of the bad seed. How could there still be a righteous child as well emerging from within her? (Distribution of genetic alleles and the concept of haplotypes were not yet discovered.) Thus, her question “Why me?” of 25:23 can be read as a double articulation – why did he choose to conceive through me, and how is there any “me” in the child if he has pure and good qualities? The answer she received from the oracle, that there are two nations in her womb, is meant to clear her of these doubts. There was no “bad blood” transmitted by their mother to taint them. Her past is not a determinant in the children’s development, but rather mimay’ayich yiparedu: they will separate after leaving the womb, and not their birth but their subsequent life choices will characterize them. At this point they are both potentially righteous, and either one could have become all the things inherent in the blessings.
The third approach is most “radical” of all. Not only is the author’s intent irrelevant, but it was entirely incorrect. The Sefas Emes says that Yitzchak was entirely wrong about Esav, and fully intended to give this blessing, with all of its intimations about future historical sovereignty, to Esav, who he perceived as being the greater of his sons, the one most capable of engaging the world and transforming it according to the message of Avraham. This mistaken assumption on the part of Yitzchak was necessary for the sake of the correct unfolding of the blessing itself – the Sefas Emes points out that a blessing of such great potential would only be limited and demeaned by human intentionality. It had to be given entirely “wrongly”, without any “interference” by the author, by God’s own plan, as it were, to unfold.
A contemporary parallel model in textual understanding would be that propounded by Julia Kristeva, borrowed from biology-that of the “genotype,” which are all the potential readings obtainable from a given text, and the “phenotype,” which is the way the text is generally understood and perceived. In our perasha, it was critical that the blessing come to Yaakov from Yitzhak in an incorrectly apprehended genotype form, to prevent any phenotypical limitation on the blessing’s potential.
This is in line with Ramchal’s reading of the Talmudic dictum that the one who answers amen to a blessing is greater than the person who utters the actual blessing. Ramchal explains that the person who makes the blessing is limited by his understanding of the blessing he’s made, but the amen response implies an openness to all possible meanings the blessing might evoke, to any member of the faith community past or present, above and beyond the intention of any one individual.
In summary, we have three approaches to the relationship between Yitzchak’s intentions and the meaning of the blessing he uttered: one in which the meaning was intended, one in which it is fluid, and one in which it was entirely erroneous. These three possibilities are really present in every speech act, as uttered by any person. What matters in the end, is not the speech act, but the choices that one actualizes in one’s life. One is not doomed by biology or by parentage, by race or religion, but only by the choices one makes of their life. Only in retrospect can we say who that individual was meant to be and what promise they fulfilled. To quote Leonard Cohen:
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken…
The same is true in the larger scale. Societies don’t have to be enmeshed in endless war, or maintain ancient hatreds. We must continuously decide whether we will be the holy or the broken, and for the sake of the future, I wish different choices were being made in the present.