The Torah Text
In Parshat Toldot, Jacob tricks his father into giving him, instead of his older twin Esau, the firstborn’s blessing. He does so by dressing in a hairy mantle that mimics the look and smell of Esau. Isaac is blind at this point and although he is suspicious (“the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau…?”) he nonetheless gives Jacob the blessing he has designated for Esau. The essential problem here is how the blessings could be worthy if they were obtained deceitfully and how Isaac could have erred in such a way as to not recognize his own sons.
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
ויש בברכתו אלו כמה שאלות קשות אם הברכה היתה נבואה איך לא ידע את מי יברך והשיבו נבוני הדור כי השם אמר לו כשבא יעקב ברך את זה. ואילו היה כן היה אומר יצחק לעשו השם צוני. ועוד למה בירך לעשו בעבור שבכה. ואחרים אמרו כי לא היה יצחק נביא וברכתו לא נתקיימה. גם אלה טעו כי הכתוב אמר וירא ה’ אליו. גם אמר דוד ובנביאי אל תרעו ואחרי’ אמרו מה תועלת יש בדברים אחרי שהיתה מחשבתו על עשו והנה הדבר היה בספק אצלו כי כן אמר הקול קול יעקב ובירך מי שיהיה מהם כי בניו היו שניהם. ויש אומרים איך אמר השם ורב יעבוד צעיר ג”כ אמר יצחק ואת אחיך תעבד והגאון דחה זו השאלה בקנה רצוץ בעבור שמצא וילך אל ארץ מפני יעקב אחיו. והנה שכח וישתחו ארצה שבע פעמים. והנכון בעיני שברכת הנביא כעין תפילה היא והשם שמע תפלתו. כי עיקר זאת הברכה על זרעם. וישנים שלא הקיצו משנת האולת יחשבו כי אנחנו בגלות אדום ולא כן הדבר רק אדום היה תחת יד יהודה וכן כתוב ויפשע אדום מתחת יד יהודה
These blessings present a number of great difficulties. If the blessings were prophecies how is it possible for Isaac not to know whom he was blessing?
The wise ones of our generation respond to this problem by explaining that when Jacob entered the room, God told him, “Bless this one.” However, if this was the case Isaac would have told Esau, “God commanded me to bless Jacob” [rather than “Your brother came with deceit and has taken away your blessing”]. Furthermore, if God told Isaac to bless Jacob, why did Isaac bless Esau when he cried?
Others say that Isaac was no prophet and his blessings did not come to pass. However, they are also mistaken. Scripture explicitly tells us, “And God appeared to him (Isaac)” (Genesis 26:2, 24). Moreover, King David in referring to the patriarchs says, “And do My prophets no harm” (1 Chronicles 16:22).
Others ask, what efficacy could there be in Isaac’s blessings since he thought that he was blessing Esau? The truth of the matter is that Isaac was in doubt as to who was really before him. Indeed, he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22). What Isaac did was bless the one in his presence without regard to whether it was Esau or Jacob, the reason being that both were his sons.
Some ask, how could God say, “And the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23)? Similarly how could Isaac say, “And you (Esau) shall serve your brother (Jacob)”? Saadiah Gaon superficially answers this question by pointing to Scripture’s statement, “And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the souls of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts…and went unto a land away from his brother Jacob” (Genesis 36:6). However, the Gaon seems to have forgotten that the Bible relates, “And (Jacob) bowed himself to the ground seven times until he came near to his brother (Esau)” (Genesis 33:3).
It appears to me that the prophet’s blessing was akin to prayer, and God accepted his prayer, for Isaac’s prayer was mainly concerned with the offspring of Jacob and Esau. Those who have as yet not awakened from their foolish sleep think that we are in the exile of the Edomites (descended from Esau). however, this is not so. Edom (Esau) was subject to Judah. Scripture thus states, “In his (Yerocham’s) days Edom revolted from under the hand of Judah” (2 Kings 8:20)… (Translation Strickman and Silver)
Reflection for the Path
After raising and resolving a number of questions, Ibn Ezra turns to the historical dimension of Esau. Esau receives the following blessing from Isaac, which Ibn Ezra asserts refers to their future offspring, not themselves directly:
“See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth
and the dew of heaven above.
Yet by your sword you shall live,
And you shall serve your brother.
But when you grow restive,
You shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27:39-40, NJPS translation)
Esau’s descendants will become Edom, a country neighboring ancient Israel. They in turn are understood to become Rome, which morphs into Christianity over time. So when medieval Jews hear “Esau” their first association is “Christians”. Living in an exile bitterly associated with Roman/Christian persecution in medieval Europe, some seem to think they are living in that prophetically foretold time when “Esau” would rebel against “Jacob”. Ibn Ezra says otherwise, that in fact that prophecy came true already in biblical times during the era of kings.
In resisting the common narrative that collapses biblical time with present time, I think Ibn Ezra helps us not over-relate to the characters that we read of in Torah. Of course it is helpful to see our own life reflected and inspired through text. But sometimes a character is just a character.