This week’s Torah reading tells us about the diverging paths of Yaakov and Esav. While Yaakov reached great spiritual heights as a “complete man, dwelling in tents [of Torah],” Esav committed the worst sins in pursuing his desires. Although the Torah makes it clear to us that the brothers were total opposites, the people who actually saw them on a day-to-day basis apparently did not realize just how different they were from one another. In fact, we know that each was favored by one of their parents:
Now, Yitzchak loved Esav… but Rivkah loved Yaakov.
-Toldot, 25:28 (abridged translation)
Commentators discuss at length Yitzchak’s love of Esav. While at first glance one may find nothing unusual here- after all,
it would be only natural for Yitzchak to love Esav, regardless of his son’s wrongdoings and corrupt character- we must keep two things in mind. First of all, we know (at least in hindsight, benefiting from the Torah’s continued narrative and our Sages’ insights) that Esav was not an ordinary ‘bad person’, but rather someone who sought to ruin the entire fabric of the nation that the Avot were building. Secondly, Yitzchak’s emotions were completely geared toward Hashem’s will, and so he wouldn’t truly love Esav if that ran counter to what was just and right. As King David teaches us:
Those who love Hashem hate evil…
So we must ask: did Yitzchak actually favor Esav? And if Yitzchak did favor him, was it because he was unaware of Esav’s wrongdoings? Or is the Torah telling us that he loved Esav in addition to his more obvious love for Yaakov? Did other considerations cloud Yitzchak’s judgment? Or, perhaps, Yitzchak knew exactly what Esav was about, and had a calculated reason for the affection that he showed him…
Rav Nachum Gold recently quoted his father’s unique explanation of this topic. The Talmud relates a fascinating conversation that will take place at the End of Days, as Hashem will hold B’nei Israel accountable for its sins over the centuries. At that time, He will turn to our forefathers and ask whether they can provide a defense for their descendants. Avraham Avinu will actually decline to defend us, as will Yaakov Avinu. Yitzchak Avinu, however, will come to our rescue:
He says to Yitzchak, “Your children have sinned.”
He [Yitzchak] says before Him, “Master of the Universe- my children and not Yours? At the time that they said, ‘We will do’ before they said, ‘We will hear’* You called them “My son, My firstborn, ” and now they are my children and not Yours?… If You will accept all of them (their years of sinning) upon Yourself, good; if not, half should be on me, and half on You… **
-Gemara Shabbat 89b
Why, we may ask, is Yitzchak the only one who will argue on our behalf?
Let’s take a look at the verse that we cited earlier- although we’ll focus on the full verse this time…
And Yitzchak loved Esav ki tzayid be’feev, but Rivkah loved Yaakov.
There are a couple of possible meanings for the highlighted words
Tzayid is literally translated as “trap,” and be’feev means “in his mouth.”
What then could this phrase, “because there was a trap in his mouth,” mean?
It could actually mean a number of things:
In his mouth: 1. As the Targum renders:
“Into Yitzchak’s mouth.” [i.e., Esav would hunt and catch food for Yitzchak; Yitzchak loved him for this reason.]
2. The Midrashic interpretation is: “With Esav’s mouth-” for he [Esav]would entrap him and deceive him with his words.
— Rashi [From Midrash Tanchuma]
-So we are told here either a reason that Yitzchak loved Esav so much (that is, because of the lengths that Esav went to in honoring him), or else why he loved his son despite Esav’s wickedness (namely, because Esav actually fooled him into thinking that he was righteous).
Rav Gold presents a creative alternative interpretation, based on the Gemara that we’ve read. Yitzchak saw prophetically that Hashem would ultimately take B’nei Israel to task for their sins- and so he prepared now for that eventuality. He knew that he, Avraham, and Yaakov would be limited in their ability to save the nation by overlooking our wrongdoing (to some extent)… unless one of them could show himself to have loved a wayward son without reservations. Avraham had had to send Yishmael away due to his bad influence. Yaakov would later grow angry with Shimon and Levi- and retain bad feelings about their actions until his passing. Yitzchak, therefore, turned out to be our only hope. As such, he went out of his way to love Esav despite his bad character- which he was very much aware of- in order to defend us down the road.
(Of course, his defense, while narrow in focusing on a specific redeeming argument, was real, and one which God allowed him to make- no trickery or illogical arguments could ever be used before the Creator!)
As such, Rav Gold concludes, our verse can now take on fresh meaning…
Yitzchak loved Esav so that he [Yitzchak] could ‘trap’ Hashem with his mouth.
Yet another reminder for us of the Torah’s limitless depth…
*With this expression B’nei Israel showed a willingness to do Hashem’s will, no matter what He would command.
**See the full Gemara passage to see how Yitzchak argued to minimize the culpability of B’nei Israel.
***In fact, we know that Yitzchak embodied the trait of strict justice. There is another line of thinking, which we won’t go into here today, which actually explains that it was specifically the trait of justice that was necessary for effecting this positive perspective of our nation.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.