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14.11.2017 15:43    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  toldot  burgansky  

"Isaac’s Blessings to Jacob and Esau: “Of the Dew of Heaven and the Fat of the Earth

The blessings that Isaac gave Jacob and Esau comprise one of the more difficult passages in the Torah, grappled with by biblical exegesis from the Sages to our day.  In this article I shall focus on Isaac’s intention to bless Esau, an intention that seems rather perplexing to us insofar as his wives were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah and he was destined to come to symbolize the main enemy of the house of Jacob.  What lay behind Isaac’s blessing to Esau?

To understand Isaac’s actions, we must consider the three blessings in this week’s reading:

  1. The blessing he intended to give Esau and mistakenly gave Jacob, thinking he was Esau (Gen. 27:28-29), hereafter referred to as Esau’s blessing.
  2. The blessing he later gave Esau (Gen. 27:39-40).
  3. The “blessing of Abraham,” a blessing of offspring and promise of the land, which Isaac gave Jacob before the latter set off for Padan-aram:

“May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.  May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G‑d assigned to Abraham.”  (Gen. 28:3-4)

Examining these blessing raises the question of the relationship between the original blessing to Esau and the blessing of Abraham.  Ostensibly these were different blessings.  Yet various commentators side with Nahmanides (on Gen. 27:4), who holds that the blessing which Isaac intended for Esau is actually the blessing of Abraham, even though this is not explicitly mentioned by Isaac when he blessed Jacob, thinking him to be Esau.  In Nahmanides’ opinion Isaac’s blessing to Esau of “the fat of the earth” alludes to the promised land, “the fattest of all lands,” and that is the blessing of Abraham, given to Jacob at the end of the weekly reading.

According to this interpretation, Isaac made a grave mistake in seeking to transmit the family heritage to Esau and apparently to deprive Jacob of it.  Malbim takes a different stand (Gen. 27:1), holding that from the outset Isaac intended to give the blessing of Abraham to Jacob, not Esau, and therefore the original blessing to Esau mentioned neither offspring nor the land.

According to this view, Isaac was not altogether blind.  He knew that Jacob deserved the blessing of Abraham and from the outset intended to confer it on Jacob.  When Isaac sent Esau to hunt him some game, he intended to give him only a material blessing, thus thinking that each of his two sons would receive the blessing fit for them; Jacob would safeguard the sacred tradition and be blessed with Abraham’s blessing, and Esau would be the one to protect Jacob and provide him a livelihood, like a “rind on the fruit,” as Malbim put it.

Malbim’s distinction between the blessing to Esau and the blessing of Abraham seems to be correct, but it is hard to accept his claim that Esau’s role was nothing more than to protect and support Jacob.  Someone who receives the blessing, “Be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you,” can hardly be called “the rind that protects the fruit.”  Moreover, if the blessing of land and offspring is reserved for Jacob, as Malbim believed, what was signified by the blessing given Esau of “dew of heaven and the fat of the earth”?

I would like to suggest another solution.  We understand that Isaac’s actions stemmed from the fact that he did not know the prophecy given Rebekah, that “the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23), and therefore he sought to bless Esau with being master over Jacob.

In my opinion, Isaac’s point of departure diverged from the prophecy given Rebekah on a far deeper point:  he wished his two sons to be a single people, whereas the prophecy to Rebekah included first and foremost the statement that “two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body.”  Isaac’s wish was motivated by his understanding, upon examining the difficult task his father had faced—blessing Isaac and casting the rest of his sons out of the family—that it stemmed from the need to set Sarah’s son apart from the concubines’ sons.

Abraham’s home was also Sarah’s home, and there was no room in it for the sons of other women.  The structure of Isaac’s family, in contrast, was different, for Isaac had only one wife, and she gave birth only once—to twin sons.  Isaac did not consider that he had to be put to the terrible test of his father and expel one of his sons, for the two sons were as close to one another as can be:  they had the same parents, and were from the same pregnancy and birth.

The strong bond between the two brothers, conceived and born together, was interpreted by Isaac as indicating that the two, together, would build the House of Isaac which would eventually become a nation, in accordance with the promise of the Holy One, blessed be He, to Abraham and Isaac in the “blessing of Abraham.”

When Isaac set about blessing his sons, he understood that the blessing of Abraham applied to both brothers together, and that both would be blessed with offspring and the land by virtue of their being his sons.  Now, each one had to be given a unique blessing just for him, which would characterize his role in the emergent nation.  First he sought to choose Esau as leader of the Isaac nation.  In this respect Isaac’s blessing was similar to Jacob’s blessings to his sons:  Jacob, too, would not give the blessing of Abraham to any of his sons, and Jacob, too, would later choose his son Judah, to be the leader of the Israelite nation.  Indeed, Isaac’s blessing to Esau has close resemblance to Jacob’s blessing to Judah:

Isaac’s blessing to Esau

(Gen. 27:28‑29)

Jacob’s blessing to Judah (Gen. 49:8-11)

May G‑d give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.

You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the nape of your foes; your father’s sons shall bow low to you…The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet…

Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you.

He tethers his ass to a vine, his ass’s foal to a choice vine; he washes his garment in wine, his robe in blood of grapes.


Both with Esau and with Judah the blessing includes land and leadership.  Esau is given the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, and abundance of new grain and wine.  His leadership position is both international and national.  The order, however, is reversed.  Judah is also blessed with land—vineyards and wine—and with international leadership (“your hand shall be on the nape of your foes”) and national leadership.

Judah’s inheritance of a land of vineyards is clear, for the land of Judea has plentiful vineyards, and it is echoed in the “abundance of wine” in Esau’s blessing.  The land of grain can be found in Moses’ blessing to Joseph at the end of Deuteronomy.  There his land is blessed, “with the bounty of dew from heaven […] with the bounteous yield of the sun” (Deut. 33:13-14).  So the land “of grain and wine” (and perhaps also a land “of the dew of heaven”) includes the tribal inheritance of Judah and Joseph, the heart of the land of Canaan, as a fitting inheritance for the leader and his progeny.

It is hard to know what was in Isaac’s mind to give Jacob in the context of his sons sharing the inheritance of Abraham, but if we are correct in identifying the land of grain and wine, then Jacob would be left with the peripheral regions.

Thus in his mind’s eye Isaac saw his whole nation, all coming into Abraham’s blessing:  Esau’s offspring dwelling in the best parts of the land and having sovereignty, and Jacob’s sons dwelling on the outskirts, some in peripheral areas, and perhaps engaged in shepherding, as would befit the offspring of a “man who stayed in camp.”[1]

The main problem in Isaac’s plan, however, lay in his underlying assumption that the two twins would build the House of Isaac together.  He did not know that he was dealing not with a single nation and single household, but with two different nations that would be in a state of continual friction.

The Torah refrains from revealing to us how Isaac ultimately came to understand his error.  Did Rebekah finally reveal to him what she had heard prior to giving birth?  Or did he understand it of himself, as the episode of the blessing unraveled?  Either way, giving Abraham’s blessing to Jacob at the end of the weekly reading indicates that Isaac had given up his dream of the Isaac-nation and understood that his family was destined to split into two lines, just like his father’s family had done.

Ironically, it is precisely the strife-torn family of Jacob that will found the shared line common to all, the House of Israel, with all his sons partaking in the blessing of Abraham.

Lastly, as we know, Jacob did not “use” the blessing he received in deceit from his father.  He lived in exile many long years, did not receive a land of grain and wine, and instead of his brother Esau bowing down to him, he bowed down to Esau seven times.  All the same, centuries later the blessing was again bestowed on the House of Jacob in the form of Moses’ blessing to the Israelites on the eve of his death:

Thus Israel dwells in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode, in a land of grain and wine, under heavens dripping dew.  O happy Israel! Who is like you, a people delivered by the Lord, your protecting Shield, your Sword triumphant!  Your enemies shall come cringing before you, and you shall tread on their backs.  (Deut. 33:28-29)

The familiar elements from Isaac’s blessing reappear here:  a land of grain and wine, the dew of heaven, and the sword.  Unlike Isaac, who sought to apportion these blessings between his two sons, Moses stresses the unity of Jacob:  “Thus Israel dwells in safety, untroubled is Jacob’s abode.”

Jacob alone, without Esau, is the one to inherit a land of grain and wine, a land whose heavens drip dew.  Even the sword appears here, except that it is not the sword belonging to flesh and blood that was given to Esau, rather the sword of the Holy One, blessed be He, that makes Jacob triumphant.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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