Parashat Toldot 5778
“Isaac’s blindness and how we can open our eyes and see the big picture”
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
The parasha for this Shabbat, Parashat Toldot, narrates the story of Isaac’s sons. First, Rebecca was barren, and then she was blessed and conceived twins. In their mother’s womb, the twins were fighting. It is written in the Torah: “And the children struggled together within her; and she said: ‘If it be so, wherefore do I live?” (Bereshit 25:19) Before they were born, their mother realized that there were conflicts between them.
The Torah continues telling about the personality of each son: “And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebecca loved Jacob” (Bereshit 25: 27-28).
The boys developed different styles of living: Esau was a man of the field, of dangers and risks, and Jacob a man of the house, of peace and reflection. These are two very dissimilar behavior patterns.
Also, we could say that Esau was a person interested only in the present. It is written in the Torah that Esau answered Jacob when he asked him to exchange his birthright for a bowl of stew: “I am very hungry now; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?” (Bereshit 25:23).
On the other hand, Jacob was a person who was worried about the future, the continuity of tradition. They had different visions of the world and the meaning of life.
They were each following the preferences of their parents: Isaac loved Esau and Rebecca loved Jacob. Parents can cause problems between brothers!
According to Abraham’s tradition, only one would be chosen to succeed Isaac. How to choose the best candidate? Should it be by a contest or an exam? It wasn’t clear to Rebecca and Isaac how to choose. They didn’t talk about it—another thing that causes fighting in a family, the lack of communication.
Why did Rebecca love Jacob more than Esau? We don’t know. Perhaps because Jacob was helping Rebecca every day and they built a very good relationship. Why did Isaac love Esau more than Jacob? The Torah says: “because Isaac did eat of Esau’s venison.” Because Esau brought him delicious food! Is this a good reason to love a person?
Usually a member of a family will become closer to another person in the family if they have similar interests. It is not a problem in a typical family. However, what happened in Isaac’s family? He could only pass on Abraham’s heritage, tradition, and theology to one son. It must have been a very hard decision.
The question that I would like to focus on here is: why did Isaac choose Esau to bless instead of Jacob?
Many commentators have tried to answer this question. I want to share with you three different opinions:
- Abarbanel, a Biblical commentator of the XVI century, thought that Isaac was blind both literally and metaphorically. He couldn’t see to choose the best choice. He was blinded by his love for Esau. Sometimes love and passion blind our eyes and we cannot see what happens around us. Isaac’s great love for Esau didn’t allow him to think and choose the right person to continue our tradition.
- Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (65:5) says that Isaac reached a very high level of spirituality in the episode of Akedat Itzchak, “Binding of Isaac,” so that he couldn’t understand the everyday, earthly world. Maybe he was traumatized because his father was willing to sacrifice him. He was disconnected from humankind and didn’t have the ability to understand human relationships and identify qualities and skills in people. He was blinded by his trauma.
- Rabbi David Kimhi, also known the RaDaK, was a medieval rabbi, biblical commentator, philosopher, and grammarian. He thought Isaac knew Esau very well, and Isaac understood Esau’s bad intentions. For this reason, Isaac wanted to bless Esau because Isaac thought that, through the blessing, Isaac could change Esau and help him follow good ways. Isaac wanted to correct Esau by giving him such an important blessing.
Whichever explanation you choose, Isaac couldn’t select the best candidate. All the work fell on Rebecca, his wife. He was blind and unable to see what was going on in his house. It may have been because of his love for Esau, his trauma over his near death, or his desire to help his son Esau to improve his life.
Sometimes we are like Isaac. We are like blind people, and we cannot see the world with clarity. We are involved in our problems and feelings so much that we cannot see what really happens around us. It is our challenge to open our eyes and choose worthy people to succeed us. We should not rely on our emotions but rather choose people who are qualified to do a job or mission.
Parashat Toldot helps us to think about our own blindness and to consider how we can open our eyes and see the world in a different way. Just as we do before praying the Amidah, we should take a few steps back in order to see the big picture.
Also, Parashat Toldot teaches us that it is important in our tradition to be worried about the future, the continuity of our heritage. We must be committed to carrying on the Jewish covenant the way Jacob did, rather than worrying only about the present, as Esau did.
It is vital to enjoy the present, but always to keep in mind the future, where our path is heading.