Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Toldos: Elevating the mundane
Eisav became a hunter, a man of the field, whereas Jacob developed into a quiet, studious scholar. Our sages give two reasons why Isaac liked Eisav: (1) he provided him with food from the animals he hunted; and (2) Eisav trapped Isaac with questions that made him appear extremely careful in his observance of the commandment regarding tithing. Although Isaac was a prophet that merited constant Divine presence, G’d decided to hide the true face of Eisav from Isaac in order that Jacob would receive his blessings directly from G’d. No doubt Isaac was well aware of and knew the difference between Jacob and Eisav. Isaac thought that Eisav and Jacob would enter a partnership where Eisav would enable Jacob to sit and study in the halls of Torah. Isaac told Eisav that he wanted to bless him to make it easier for him to overcome his evil inclination. “The wicked are controlled by their heart, whereas the righteous control their heart.” Eisav did not manage to take his knowledge to heart and put it into practice in his daily life. Isaac was actually encouraging Eisav to repent and elevate the mundane activities of hunting and preparing food to a higher spiritual level. If a person eats to maintain his health and to give him the ability to serve G’d, then his actual eating is no less pleasing to G’d than bringing an offering on the altar. Rather than elevating the mundane food to a spiritual level, Eisav asked Jacob to feed him the way one feeds an animal. As descendants of Isaac and Jacob, it is our obligation to follow in their footsteps and aspire to elevate our mundane activities for a higher purpose.
Eisav and Jacob
In the beginning of this week’s portion, the Torah relates how for many years Isaac and Rivkah did not have any children. They poured out their heart to G’d in prayer and eventually their prayers were answered. After a difficult pregnancy, Rivkah finally gave birth to twin boys. When the boys grew older, Eisav became a hunter, a man of the field, and Jacob developed into a quiet, studious scholar. The Torah tells us that Isaac took a liking to Eisav, whereas Rivkah loved Jacob (see Bereishis 25:28).
Isaac liked Eisav
The Torah explains that Isaac’s special liking to Eisav was, “because he had tzayid in his mouth”. Rashi quotes the Targum who explains that Isaac liked Eisav because he provided him with food from the animals he hunted. In a second interpretation, Rashi quotes an explanation from the Midrash Tanchuma (para.8). The Midrash says that this verse is referring to the mouth of Eisav, as Eisav trapped Isaac with questions that made him appear extremely careful in the observance of the commandment regarding tithing. This seems very strange. Could it really be that our pious Patriarch Isaac could be bribed to favour someone due to some well-tasting pieces of meat? Even the Midrashic interpretation needs further explanation. Isaac was a prophet. How could it be that he did not see through the tricks of Eisav to appear pious? The Zohar (139a) explains that although Isaac was a prophet that merited constant Divine presence, G’d decided to hide the true face of Eisav from Isaac. G’d wanted that Jacob should receive his blessings directly from G’d, with Isaac acting only as a conduit without any personal knowledge or involvement.
Isaac knew the difference
The Beis Halevi explains that no doubt Isaac was well aware of and understood the difference between Jacob and Eisav. He knew that Jacob was a righteous person, who spent his time studying in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eiver, whereas Eisav spent his time in the fields hunting. As Rashi points out later (Bereishis 27:21) when Jacob disguised himself as Eisav, and came and served Isaac his meal, Isaac was puzzled by the choice of language Jacob used when he said “HASHEM your G’d arranged it for me.” This was not the way Eisav would talk. It was not his custom to mention G’d’s name. This sounded more like Jacob.
Says the Beis Halevi, if we analyze the blessings that Isaac intended for Eisav, we find that they were all of a material nature suited for a man of the fields. As it says (Bereishis 27:28): “And may G’d give you from the dew of the Heavens, from the fatness of the earth, and an abundance of grain and wine.” On the other hand, when Isaac knowingly blessed Jacob, prior to Jacob leaving his paternal home, he said (28:3-4): “And may the Almighty G’d bless you, make you fruitful … and may He give you the blessing of Abraham … to take inheritance of the land of your sojourns that G’d gave to Abraham.” This was a blessing suited for the future patriarch of the Jewish nation, including all of G’d’s blessings to Abraham, and specifying the land of Israel as his inheritance. So what was Isaac’s mistake? Isaac thought that Eisav and Jacob would enter a partnership where Eisav would work the fields and tend to the flocks. With the blessing of abundance he would take care of the needs of Jacob and his family as well, thus enabling Jacob to sit and study in the halls of Torah (see also commentary of Chasam Sofer on 25:23). Eisav succeeded to trick Isaac, and maybe even himself, that he would keep his part of the deal and provide Jacob with his needs. Just as he honoured his father and provided him with delicious foods, so he made his father believe that he would also honour his scholarly brother, Jacob, and look after his needs.
Even more, Isaac understood that it did not come easy to Eisav to fulfill G’d’s commandments and therefore made an extra effort to be nice to Eisav. He did whatever he could to encourage him and help him to do what was right. He wanted to create a closeness between the two of them, and as part of this he told Eisav that he wanted to bless him. Through his blessings he hoped to make it easier for Eisav to overcome his evil inclination.
Wicked ruled by their heart
Rav Eliyahu Lopian explains that we should not think that Eisav was a simple villain. He was a highly intelligent and well-educated man. This was part of Isaac’s mistake. He did not realize that all the righteousness he saw in Eisav was only on an intellectual level but his heart was not in it. Towards the end of the Parasha, it says (Bereishis 27:41): “And Eisav said in his heart”. On this the Midrash Rabba (67:8) comments: “The wicked are controlled by their heart, whereas the righteous control their heart.” Eisav knew what was right and was able to discuss everything in the proper manner. However, when push came to shove, he would follow the desires of his heart, even though he understood intellectually that it was not the right thing to do. Later, he would often regret having done the wrong thing, as our sages say, “The wicked are full of regrets” (see Shevet Musar Chapt.25). As a case in point, we find that when Eisav turned forty, he reasoned: “just as my father married at the age of forty, I should do the same”. However, there was one major difference. Rashi (Bereishis 26:34) quotes from the Midrash that Eisav had been seducing even married women for many years before he decided to get married. This was Eisav’s modus operandi. He knew what was right and proper, but constantly his heart got the better of him.
Our sages (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer Chapt.39) teach that at the burial of Jacob, Eisav came and claimed that the last space in the Cave of Machpeilah belonged to him. Chushim, the son of Dan, defended the honour of his grandfather Jacob and got up and killed him. The Zohar explains that Eisav’s severed head rolled into and merited to be buried in the Cave of Machpeilah. In his head, Eisav was on a very high spiritual level. He knew what was right and what was wrong. But he did not manage to take his knowledge to heart and put it into practice in his daily life.
Elevating the mundane
When Isaac told Eisav that he wanted to bless him, he asked him to prepare him a meal. As it says (Bereishis 27:3): “And now, please prepare your utensils, your sword and your bow, go out into the fields and hunt for me …” The illustrious Gerer Rebbe, the Sfas Emes, asks why did Isaac need to request of Eisav to go and hunt and prepare a meal, was this not how Eisav generally conducted himself in any case? He analyzes the expressions used by Isaac and shows that Isaac’s intention was to encourage Eisav to repent. If he would catch and prepare Isaac’s meal with the intent of fulfilling a mitzvah, this would elevate the mundane activities of hunting and preparing food to a higher spiritual level. The Sfas Emes adds that it is very likely that Eisav accepted Isaac’s request on an intellectual level and wanted to comply, but when it came to the actual hunting he was not able to elevate it to the required spiritual level.
Eating and Temple offerings
Isaac was on such a high level that whatever he ate was considered as having been brought on the altar for the sake and honour of G’d. As the Talmud (Berachot 55a) says: “As long as the Temple stood, the altar provided atonement for the Jewish people. Since the destruction of the Temple, the table of a person has the potential to provide him with atonement.” The Talmud (Pesachim 59b) explains that even in the time of the Temple part of the atonement was achieved by the Kohanim partaking in specific parts of the offering. If a person eats to maintain his health in order to be able to serve G’d properly, then his actual eating is no less pleasing to G’d than bringing an offering on the altar. This is similar to what the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:4) says, “Three people who ate at one table and did not speak words of Torah, it is as if they ate from offerings to idols … but three people who ate at one table and spoke words of Torah, it is as if they ate at the table of G’d.” Someone who eats merely to satisfy his animalistic cravings is serving no one but himself. But a person who is able to elevate his eating habits for a higher purpose is considered as serving G’d at his own table, just as the Kohein, who served G’d at the altar in the Temple. Such a person will make sure that his food is prepared according to the highest standard of Kashruth. In addition, his meals will be conducted in a respectful and refined manner, as outlined in the Talmud (Beitzah 25b) and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim Chapt.170).
Eisav ate like an animal
Although Eisav understood what was expected of him, we find already in the beginning of this week’s portion how he reacted when it came to food. When he saw the meal that Jacob had prepared to comfort their father who was mourning the death of Abraham, rather than elevating the mundane food to a spiritual level, he asked Jacob to feed him as one would feed an animal. As it says (Bereishis 25:30): “And Eisav said to Jacob, ‘Please pour into me some of that red stuff, for I am exhausted.’”
Elevating for a higher purpose
As descendants of Isaac and Jacob, it is our obligation to follow in their footsteps and aspire to elevate our mundane activities for a higher purpose. This affects every moment of our lives, how we sleep, how we eat, how we conduct our businesses, and how we deal with our fellow human beings at social gatherings. Our Patriarchs showed and taught us the way. In order to continue in their holy path, we must study their ways and understand that everything related in the Torah are lessons for us to emulate. Once we have accomplished this on an intellectual level, me must internalize these lessons and take them to heart. Only in this way do we have a chance to live up to the high standards expected of us and avoid getting influenced by the lifestyle of Eisav and his descendants.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network