Doing the Impossible
This parashah challenges us to do the impossible. Let me explain.
When we read Parashat Vayetzei as a unit together with last week’s parashah, the narrative implicitly asks us to make a choice. The story confronts us with the question about how we shall interpret Jacob’s act of “stealing” his brother’s blessing.
Was it deception, just as Laban deceived Jacob with his substitution of Leah for Rachel, or was it part of God’s plan?
And though Esav is not mentioned in this parashah, he can’t be out of Jacob’s consciousness completely. After all, Jacob is running from Esav, and he will have his reckoning with him in next week’s parashah. How shall we as readers relate to the man Esav and his descendants?
I believe that our parashah suggests that Jacob’s receiving of Isaac’s blessing was the will of God. Indeed, God echoes Isaac’s blessing to Jacob. In the opening verses of Va–yetzei God offers Jacob the following bracha, emphasizing Jacob’s special status:
Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth: you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land (Genesis 28:14–15).
God is with Jacob! Jacob receives many personal blessings in this parashah. He finds and marries the love of his life. He has many children and he accumulates great wealth. All is very good. So it seems to be the will of God that Jacob received Isaac’s blessing, yet how shall we relate to Esav and his claim to the blessings?
Well, the haftarah last Shabbat suggested one path. The prophet Malachi can’t entertain any notion that Esav should have any legitimate claim to the blessing. If it was the divine plan that Jacob receive the blessing, then Esav can have no claim whatsoever. Esav must be seen as an illegitimate heir. In fact, Malachi demonizes him. Malachi hears God say:
After all, declares God — Esav is Jacob’s brother; yet I loved Jacob and I hated Esav and I made his mountains a desolation, and his territory a home for beasts of the desert. (Malachi 1:2–3)
God hates Esav. God gives Esav the desert — a home for beasts. Edom, Esav’s descendants shall be know as a people damned forever. ((Malachi 1:4) Jacob’s children shall receive the Promised Land.
Yet, thankfully, our tradition has another way of relating to Esav and his claim to the blessing. In B’reishit Rabbah, a midrash collection of early antiquity, the rabbis suggest that Jacob had wronged Esav. Esav had a legitimate claim to his father’s blessings. They are so bold as to suggest that the punishment for Jacob wronging Esav was the tribulations that the Jews experienced in Shushan with Mordechai and Esther. The rabbis of the midrash note that when Mordecai learned of Haman’s plan to destroy all the Jews of Persia:
Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city crying out loudly and bitterly. Va’yizak za’akah gedolah u’marah (Esther 4:1).
The midrash reminds us that Mordechai’s cry is almost identical to Esav’s cry when he finds out that Jacob stole his blessing. When Isaac tell’s Esav — “I blessed him (Jacob) and now he must remain blessed,” Esav let’s out a chilling cry — va’yitzak tza’akah gedolah u’marah ad m’od — he burst into wild bitter sobing.” (Genesis 27:34)
Mordechai’s pain is understood as a consequence of Esav’s pain. The courageous authors of this midrash demand that we not demonize Esav and his descendants. Their claim to the bracha is real and Jacob’s insensitivity to their pain, the midrash suggests, is reprehensible.
And yet the midrash does not contradict the notion that it was God’s will that Jacob receive the blessing.
Ultimately, this midrash when read with our parashah is asking us to do the impossible. It’s asking us to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas at once.
Can we believe that it was part of the divine plan that Jacob receive Isaac’s blessing while also being sensitive to Esav’s legitimate claim to a blessing, or must we demonize Esav as someone despised by God?
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.