Thursday, December 1, 2016

On the Trail of Blessings: Yitzchok's Wisdom, Eisav's Appetite & Yaakov's Mission

Occasionally old posts get refined and sometimes a post develops and grows to the point that warrants a reposting. Rare indeed is when it happens at just the right time. This week's parsha, in fact. (The new paragraphs follow the quote from Rav Hirsch.)

[This is the second installment in the series. It can be read independently or, for maximum reading pleasure, begin the Trail here.]

Yitzchok was no fool. His desire to bless Eisav was not driven by blind love for his son but by a compelling vision for Israel: Yaakov would be master of spirituality and Eisav would be master of physicality.

Do not misunderstand - Yitzchok has only the highest regard for Eisav. In Yitzchok's plan, Eisav has the awesome responsibility of sanctifying this world by harnessing it for the Creator's purposes. This is why Yitzchok tells Eisav to serve him a meal before he blesses him; it is Eisav's job to dedicate the physical in support of the Tzaddik - and it is only in this merit that he gets the Beracha.
Yitzchok wanted to bless Eisav in the spirit of his future calling...
The savage craft of hunting must be elevated and used for exalted humane purposes. For it seems that Eisav did not usually hunt in order to provide a nourishing meal for his aged, feeble father. He enjoyed hunting for its own sake, for the sight of the steaming blood of his prey...
Yitzchok therefore tells Eisav: "Please take your gear, hunt some game for me, and prepare a tasty dish for me" (27:4). You yourself, this time, use the tools of your trade to perform an act of kindness...
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch
Expanding on Rav Hirsch's insight, we can say that before granting Eisav his mandate, Yitzchok wants to see him perform. Yitzchok understands Eisav and he is training him in the appropriate use of his God-given gifts. 

Avraham and Yitzchok were not hunters; they were shepherds. For this family descended from Noah, the love and care of animals was a central tenet, as evidenced by Eliezer's test of Rivka. Coming from this tradition, we would expect Yitzchok to abhor Eisav's sport of choice, but Yitzchok is bigger than that. He does not attempt to quash Eisav's native talent; on the contrary, he embraces it and encourages his son to pursue it. On one condition: it must be elevated.     

Eisav was born to hunt and this defines his mission: to conquer the animal - both the external prey and the internal drive - and dedicate it for a higher purpose. In this way, unbridled physicality is tamed, sanctified and elevated. Eisav is thus privileged to play the central role in the ultimate purpose of creation: bringing down the divine presence and its accompanying blessings into our physical world. 

Yitzchok's directive to Eisav carries a deeper meaning. It is the birthright of the firstborn to serve as Kohen and offer sacrifices (cf. Rashi to 25:31,32). On its most basic level, animal sacrifice is the elevation of the animal soul before God, כי הדם הוא הנפש. In order for this to be accomplished, it is critical that the Kohen has the right intentions. If the Kohen has his own personal agenda in mind - for example, if he plans to eat the meat at the time and place of his own choosing - the offering is rendered invalid, פיגול הוא לא ירצה. 

The fundamental principle of sacrifice is thus the total subjugation and dedication of life itself to God - קודש להשם. The physical act is the easy part; the real challenge occurs within the human mind. This is what Yitzchok was telling Eisav: "In order for you to succeed in the offering of sacrifices, you must first learn to transcend your self. Let's try a practice run. Use your hunting talent selflessly. Do it for me and follow my instructions precisely. If you pass this test, you will qualify to be a Kohen."

Eisav failed. He does deliver game to his father, but he can't get his mind under control. Yitzchok instructed Eisav, "Capture for me" (27:3), i.e., be sure to find an ownerless animal and don't steal one (Rashi). However, Eisav heads out "to bring it" (27:5) - he said to himself, "If I don't find an animal on the hunt, I will steal one" (Rashi). Eisav will not submit to his father's instructions. Success must be achieved, by hook or by crook. Eisav's mind is warped and wrapped into itself and instead of sacrifice he is only willing to serve his own interests. Eisav will never be Kohen. (See Kli Yakar 27:3.)  


Understanding Eisav's mandate to transcend himself and do for others allows us to reconcile Yitzchok's blessing with the prophecy that Rivkah received before the boys were born:
ויתרצצו הבנים בקרבה ותאמר אם כן למה זה אנכי ותלך לדרש את יקוק
ויאמר יקוק לה שני גיים גוים בבטנך ושני לאמים ממעיך יפרדו ולאם מלאם יאמץ ורב יעבד צעיר
...and the elder will serve the younger.
Assuming Yitzchok knew this, how could he attempt to bless Eisav (27:29) הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ? The Ramban (27:4) concludes that Rivka never told him, but in light of the above, there is no contradiction here. Yes, Yitzchok foretells that Eisav will be more powerful than his brother; he even says that Yaakov will bow to him. But the elder will still serve the younger, for this is Eisav's role - to support his younger brother, the Tzaddik. Yaakov bows before Eisav not in servitude but in recognition of Eisav as the גביר - the source of his support!

Since selfless giving is Eisav's mandate, he is uniquely challenged in this regard - "blessed" with  impulsiveness, self-centeredness and the need for instant gratification (cf. Vilna Gaon on Rus; Reb Tzadok, cited in Ali Shor). He trades his birthright for a bowl of soup and is prepared to kill his brother in an act of vengeance. He was a rapist and a murderer (Baba Basra 16b). Most tellingly, Eisav strove towards paganism from the womb (Rashi to 25:22). Paganism is equated with hedonism - "the Jews knew that paganism had no substance; they only worshiped it in order to permit for themselves sexual immorality in public!" (Sanhedrin 63b) - but in Eisav's case it ran deeper than that. He pursued paganism before he was born!

A prenatal interest in sin would seem to contradict the Talmudic teaching that the evil inclination enters man only after birth (Sanhedrin 91a), but Eisav is different. For Eisav, paganism and its accompanying hedonism was no ordinary "Yetzer HaRa." Eisav's paganism was not ideological, nor was it "sinful" in the usual sense of the word, for man has no evil inclination before he is born. Rather, Eisav had a natural affinity for paganism (Gur Aryeh to 25:22). Eisav was predispositioned to be attracted to the forces of nature and obsessed with power because Eisav's life-mission is to subdue, transcend and channel his physicality, sanctifying it to the One God. If subjugating nature is your mission, God isn't going to make it easy.

Eisav failed. Instead of controlling himself, he indulges in all things physical. In the end, his head is buried in the Machpela Cave, but his body is not (Sotah 13a). His head was in the right place; the problem was his body, the negative drives he could never get under control.

In contrast, Yaakov's primary mission addresses not his body, but his mind and heart. Yaakov must elevate himself in the tents of Torah, and God therefore challenges him not with an appetite for hedonism, but with ethical dilemmas, crises and tragedy: 
  • Can he "steal" the birthright and blessings from his older brother? 
  • Should he honor his mother and delude his father? 
  • May he outwit his father-in-law Lavan? 
  • How will he deal with Dina's rape, Rachel's death and Yosef's disappearance? 
  • According to the Rambam, Yaakov's struggle with the angel was fought on the battlefield of the mind, in a prophetic state. 
  • Even Yaakov's assertion that he took Shechem with his "sword and bow" is an allegory for his prayers and supplications (cf. Targum and Rashi to 48:22). 
For Yaakov the issue is not battling a Yetzer HaRa but exercising his Yetzer Tov. Is his faith strong enough to weather a life of aggravation? This is why Yaakov placed stones around his head when he slept (28:11). He is not worried about his body; if a problem were to arise it would be a challenge to his head.

It is as Yitzchok said: "The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Eisav" (27:22). Yaakov perfects the universe of thought and Eisav perfects the physical universe. If Eisav cooperates, that is.

[Continue the Trail with part-three here.]

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