When I read the story of Yaakov stealing Esau’s blessing from their father, Yitzchack in this week’s parsha, Parashat Toldot, I am filled with a wide array of often conflicting emotions. I feel a profound personal connection to Yitzchack, understand his pain and vulnerability on a gut level. At the same time, questions such as these gnaw at me: am I overanalyzing, projecting my own sense of what is right and just onto an ancient text? What was Yitzchack and Rivka’s relationship like and what would inspire Rivka, who in many ways is the individual with the greatest amount of agency in the story to do what she did? How can I square hers and Yaakov’s actions with what I believe Judaism calls all of us to do—to do justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God? And perhaps most importantly for me, how can I bring my own experience as a blind person to this text authentically?
Someone recently asked me if I was bothered by God’s apparent nonintervention. What does that say about our tradition—that our patriarch, Yaakov, received his bracha through outright deception? What does that mean for me, for all of us?
I have sat with that latter question for years. As I read the narrative every year, I am struck by the starkness of it. Yitzchack favors Esau, the hunter, Rivka Yaakov, who is an indoorsy sort of guy. Rivka believes the blessing is rightfully Yaakov’s but as we of course know, Yaakov is the younger of the twins, and the blessing belongs to the older. What to do? Yitzchack is aged, he is blind, and it should be easy enough to manufacture a plan to get Yitzchack to believe he’s giving the blessing to Esau, his favored son. We know how the story proceeds. Yitzchack calls Esau to him, telling him he suspects he is nearing the end of his life and implores him to go hunt game and prepare foods for him so that he can give him his blessing. Rivka, overhearing, devises a plan to deceive her husband. Yaakov initially protests, saying that a curse will befall him if Yitzchack learns of the deception. At Rivka’s insistence that the curse will be upon her if the deception is revealed, Yaakov dresses up in skins reminiscent of those Esau was accustomed to wearing, brings Yitzchack the game he requested and so on. Although it is clear from the pshat of the text that Yaakov and Rivka put much thought into this disguise, our Torah also gives us many hints that perhaps Yitzchack knew that something wasn’t adding up. The tragedy in that, from my perspective, is if it was indeed the case that Yitzchack sensed from the very beginning—highly plausible, in my opinion—that despite his disguise, Yaakov was not in fact Esau, he was completely powerless to do anything about it. It is that powerlessness, on top of the vulnerability he already experiences as an elderly blind man who has more than a few lifetimes of trauma and tragedy to contend with that pulls at my heartstrings and fills me with incredible despair and anger.
“Please come closer so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really Esau or not. The voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands are the hands of Esau”. Something just isn’t computing. “What isn’t computing”, Yitzchack might be wondering? “My son, Esau, is hairy, Yaakov is smooth, but I hear what I know to be Yaakov’s voice, though his skin is hairy like his brother’s. Is the knowledge I feel I possess deep within actually true, real, complete? I don’t know, I can’t know, because I cannot physically see the man before me. I have to believe that I am not being deceived, and so I do, even as I experience some uncertainty deep down. I don’t have access to all of the information independently that I want. I have a gut feeling that I am not speaking with my eldest son, but I’m going to shut down that nagging feeling. This is a blessing I must give to my beloved Esau. What if it is in fact Esau and I don’t give him the blessing? What then? I’ll go ahead and give this blessing to this son of mine before me with the faith I am acting as I wish to be”. On these verses, Rashi comments that Yitzchack asks to feel whom he believes to be Esau because he senses a different manner in speaking, not only in terms of tone of voice—Esau’s being stronger, harsher—but also because Yaakov mentions God’s name more often.
Of course, Yitzchack later learns that he has been deceived. “Who was it, then, who hunted game and brought it to me?…I blessed him and he is indeed blessed!” (Gen. 27:34). Yitzchack’s strong physical reaction, I believe, speaks to the fact that he was cognizant of his vulnerability and powerlessness to stop this cruel injustice. This is a feeling all too familiar for many of us who are blind or visually impaired. That playground bully who delights in disguising their voice as a test, only to laugh at us when we get it wrong, feeling like we are set up to fail in a system that structurally disempowers us, despite our best efforts to do all of the right things, the countless ways daily that we are made painfully aware of the inherent vulnerability in disability that living in an ableist society entails.
How could this deception have gone on unchecked? God is supposed to intervene on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed! How can I make sense of this in a way that neither apologizes for, nor sugarcoats the text, but allows for an honestly expansive read?
Yaakov, as we know, is a morally flawed character. Indeed, the rabbis are wont to remind us that ours is a tradition that prides itself on our ability to sit with the tensions and complexity inherent in the fact that our ancestors are portrayed in all the realness and messiness that it is to be human.
Yaakov faces a great deal of trickery and deception in his own life and must pay a steep price for that. He is first tricked into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister and later still, tricked into believing that his beloved son, Yosef, has died. And it is only at the very end of his life, as he, too, is losing his eyesight, that he learns his son is indeed alive, though a far cry from who he was a boy. Yaakov works fourteen years for Rachel, his beloved, and his marriage to Leah is a less than happy one, Leah always having to live with the knowledge that she is unloved. What a profound tragedy that is all its own. Had Yaakov not deceived his own father, would any of this have happened? Though we cannot answer that question with any degree of certainty, there is a significant lesson for all of us in this, and I believe this is what God is showing us. Our moral and interpersonal actions have consequences. God knows the secrets of our hearts. God knows when we are not living the way God calls us to live. Yaakov’s two experiences of personal deception allow him to viscerally access the pain he has caused, to understand the multiple emotional layers, the vulnerability, the fear, the anger. Hopefully, those experiences caused him to do tshuvah and a cheshbon hanefesh. Hopefully, he grew from those experiences. If our ancestors teach us anything, it is what not to do. Jokes about our dysfunctional family aren’t for naught. God is showing us, through the complex narratives of our ancestors, the consequences of thinking only of ourselves, using others’ vulnerability in the service of our own aims, and the ways in which that can land an emotional punch.
As we say thrice daily in our Amidah, God gives human beings knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Knowledge is a truly powerful thing. It allows us to learn, generation after generation, more about the experiences of others and how the things we may think of as harmless means of achieving an important aim may leave indelible marks. That knowledge, used intentionally and wisely, with full awareness of the past and our present context can also allow us to co-create a better, more abundant and just future for all, in which the vulnerabilities many of us carry are not used against us, a future in which our means of understanding and relating to the world around us is seen as a normal part of the diversity of the human family and not an aberration. Though God enshrines “lifnei eivir lo titen mikshol” (you shall not place an obstacle before the blind) in Leviticus, referring to physical obstacles, God shows us powerfully in our parsha and throughout Genesis that denying dignity to another is even more wounding. May we grow from our past mistakes and approach each day with the kavannah that we will act rightly in all of our worldly encounters.