Anyone who compares the story of Esau, Isaac's first born, to that of Ishmael, Abraham's, is bound to be struck by the astonishing amount of parallel details. In both instances, the older son was cast aside as spiritually unworthy in favor of a younger brother; in both instances it was the matriarch who did the rejecting against the wishes of the patriarch, and despite the fact that in the common view Jewish society is heavily male dominated, in both instances it was the will of the female that prevailed.


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But the stories also have some striking differences. For example: Sarah confronted Abraham openly concerning her intentions. In contrast, Rebecca tricked Isaac into bestowing the blessings on Jacob. Sarah was unwilling to make a unilateral decision concerning Ishmael's future, but Rebecca showed no such hesitation. Her behavior seems not only high-handed, but downright reckless. What made her think that when Isaac found out he wouldn't just automatically revoke the blessings he had been tricked into bestowing?

Even more curious is the difference in God's approach to becoming personally involved in the rejection process. In each case, His method of involvement was to follow the lead of the matriarchs. Regarding the banishment of Ishmael, as Sarah made no secret of her intentions God also took sides openly; He backed Sarah and explicitly overruled Abraham. In sharp contrast, He maintained silence throughout the Esau controversy although we are informed by our Sages that His silence should not be confused with neutrality. They inform us that Rebecca did receive prophetic confirmation of the correctness of her position before she decided to trick her husband (see Onkelos, Genesis 26:13). Nevertheless, God's silence is quite emphatic; He never informed either Isaac or Jacob before or after the incident about the way He felt despite the fact that they were both prophets.

The implications of this Divine policy of non-involvement cry out for some explanation; after all, had Jacob's deception failed, or had he not heeded his mother's urging to undertake it in the first place, Esau would have ended up with the blessings. If Esau was truly so undeserving of receiving the blessings, how could God allow the outcome of such a monumentally important turning point in Jewish history to be determined by the vagaries of family politics?


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Let us begin our study of these differences of approach by attempting to place ourselves inside the world of the 'might have been.' Had Esau ended up with the blessings and never left the Jewish fold, the spiritual tasks assigned to the people of Israel would have been divided between Jacob and Esau. They would have accomplished all these tasks jointly, acting in cooperation. The Mishna (Avoth, 1:2) divides the tasks of the Jewish people into three and refers to them as the three pillars of spiritual survival; Torah study, service of God, and kind deeds. Let us see if we can discover how the responsibility for these pillars would have been divided between the brothers.

This is how the Torah describes the development of their characters:

"The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field, but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents." (Genesis 25:27)

Rashi explains that the "tents" referred to are the tents of Torah. Shem, the son of Noah, still alive at the time of these incidents, had founded a Torah Academy or Yeshiva to teach the seven Noachide that formed the basis of man's relationship to God before the Torah was given to Israel at Sinai. Jacob had no other interest in life aside from the study of Torah in this Yeshiva.

In light of this information it seems safe to conclude that of the three pillars of spirituality mentioned by the Sages, the area of Torah study had always been intended to be the province of Jacob. It would be difficult to explain why God, who is presumably a good manager, and who equips us with our characters at birth should have imbued Jacob rather than Esau with the propensity for Torah study if He had intended to assign this area of responsibility to Esau.


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The clue to the location of a second pillar in the 'might have been world' is located in the well-known tale of Esau's sale of his birthright for the proverbial "mess of pottage." What exactly were the entitlements attached to this birthright that Esau cared so little about? If this birthright involved some property entitlement, why would Esau, who is presented as materialistic, be so ready to spurn it, and why should Jacob, who is portrayed as the more spiritual brother, be so interested in it? In fact, the Sages inform us that this birthright concerned the allocation of the second pillar, the service of God. The Temple service subsequently assigned to the Kohen and the Levite was originally intended to be the province of the first-born.

Rashi presents the background to the sale in this context; Jacob offered to buy Esau's birthright because he said to himself, "This evildoer is not fit to offer sacrifices to God." When Jacob made his offer to buy the birthright, Esau inquired, "What is the nature of this Divine service?" Jacob told him that it was tied up with many restrictions and penalties, e.g. officiating over a sacrifice in a state of even mild intoxication, or while looking unkempt exposes one to the punishment of premature death. Esau said, "If I will die from it, what do I need it for?" {Rashi, Genesis 24:32)

Thus, Esau willingly surrendered the second pillar of spiritual survival, the service of God, to Jacob. His readiness to surrender it for nothing [the pottage] makes it obvious that Esau had little natural inclination to this area of spirituality either. It seems safe to assume that even in the world of 'the might have been' this pillar of Divine service would have ended up in Jacob's charge somehow along with the pillar of Torah study.


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Out of the three pillars then, Esau is left with one - kind deeds. And indeed, the stolen blessing, the chief cause of Esau's enmity of Jacob, concerned the assignment of material wealth and power, the resources that enable one to engage in contributing generously to charity:

"May God give you of the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth, and abundant grain and wine. Peoples will serve you, and regimes will prostrate themselves to you; be a lord to your kinsmen, and your mother's sons will prostrate themselves to you; cursed be they who curse you, and blessed be they who bless you." (Genesis 27:28)

The simple explanation of Esau's implacable hatred of Jacob points to this material loss as the source. However, this is a very shallow view. The loss of material wealth is only a small part of what there is to be upset about; to get a more accurate picture we must take the implications of the blessing into account as well. In the Jewish Commonwealth, the people who serve as the 'vessels of holiness', the Talmidei Chachamim, or Torah scholars, and the Kohanim and the Levites, who consecrate their lives to Divine service, are supported materially by the remainder of the population through a mixture of mandatory tithes and voluntary charity. If Esau were left with the pillar of kind deeds, in effect, Jacob would be dependent on Esau for his material support. The implication is clear; whoever is assigned the third pillar effectively acquires control over the destiny of the Jewish people. The third pillar is also the pillar of political power.


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Summing up our thesis: the division of the three pillars of spirituality in the world of the 'might have been' would have resulted in separating the spiritual roles of Esau and Jacob along the fault line that separates olam hazeh, this material world that we inhabit, from olam haba, the World to Come. Jacob would have been assigned the duties that call for separation from the material world and total immersion in the spiritual realms of Divine service and Torah study, while Esau would have been assigned the responsibility of supporting Jacob's spiritual efforts through his control of the material world. In effect Esau would have been assigned olam hazeh as his lot, while Jacob would have taken charge of olam haba.

A careful reading of the blessing that Isaac intended to bestow on Esau demonstrates that the implications of such a division did not escape him. Aside from assigning Esau the pillar of benevolence, Isaac also appointed Esau the overall leader of the Jewish Commonwealth: "Be a lord to your kinsmen, and your mother's sons will prostrate themselves to you". It is clear that he felt that the same traits of character that mandated the assignment of otherworldly tasks to Jacob also rendered Jacob unsuitable to be the brother entrusted to navigate the ship of the Jewish Commonwealth through the stormy waters of the practical world. The decisions required to cope with the many challenges to the physical survival of the Jewish people through the ages were better left to the worldlier Esau.


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It is absurd to regard a Patriarch as either naive or foolish. The patriarchs were giants; they were the authors of our collective character and our destiny. Our fervent ambition as Jews is to continue in the paths they established in their wisdom. Isaac understood his children well. Indeed, we can see for ourselves how on the mark he was in his assessment of Esau's abilities. According to our Sages, Esau's descendants founded the Roman Empire, the chief civilizing force in human history to date. It was Isaac's vision that Israel would be run by its "ba'aley batim" or lay people; the Jews who spent the bulk of their time immersed in this world, and not by its Rabbis and priests.

But Rebecca did not share this view. She felt that even the Jewish layman could not be trusted to maintain the proper sense of his own importance in the scheme of things needed to make this assignment of leadership work. The layman who would be left running the world would be have to recognize his subservient status. He would have to be trusted to recognize that the value of the contributions of the rabbi and the priest as higher than his own. He would have to accept the fact that unlike the rabbi and the priest who exist for themselves, he exists merely to guide and support them. The purpose of creation, bringing the world to a recognition of the Kingdom of God, is directly dependant on the success of their activities, not his.

If the layman is left in charge, the danger is ever present that the provider of material benefits will come to regard the material survival of the Jewish people as the top priority. He would allocate the bulk of the communal effort to the attainment of the Jewish people's material success and place the importance of such success above that of the levels of spiritual accomplishment. He would place the emphases of communal Jewish effort on the conquest and settlement of the land of Israel or on winning the battle against anti-Semitism. Such a misguided allocation of effort would rapidly lead to the decline of the Jewish people in all areas, including the material.


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Rebecca did not tell Isaac that Jacob was more deserving of the blessings because he was more righteous than Esau. Isaac knew this as well as she did. But that was the very point; in Isaac's eyes, Jacob's very holiness singled him out for the more spiritual role. He was not willing to saddle Jacob with the worldly concerns involved in leading the Jewish people politically. Jewish political leadership requires deep involvement with the secular world. Isaac did not wish to distract Jacob from single-minded devotion to Torah scholarship and Divine worship.

But Rebecca believed that involvement with the secular world was a spiritual necessity of Jewish survival. The Torah scholar must lead the Jewish people, not the layman. Whatever the spiritual cost of this immersion into the secular world may be, it must be paid. The layman may be more suitable for secular pursuits, but if he is the leader, he will regard the Torah scholar as his dependent. He will forget that he is really the arms and legs of the Jewish people while the Torah scholar is its head and heart.

Unlike the dispute that arose between Abraham and Sarah which turned over an issue of fact; did Ishmael have the sort of character that would allow him to fit into the nascent Jewish people or not; the dispute between Isaac and Rebecca concerned an issue of policy over which there could be legitimate differences of opinion. God did not interfere in the settlement of this legitimate difference of opinion. It was up to the Jewish people themselves to sort out this problem internally.


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Isaac ultimately accepted Rebecca's position on this. We see that he refused to withdraw his blessing even after he discovered Jacob's subterfuge.

"Then Isaac trembled in very great perplexity, and said, 'Who then is the one who hunted game, brought it to me, and I partook of all when you had not yet come, and I blessed him? Indeed, he shall remain blessed!'" (Genesis 27:33)

Isaac realized that the deception could not have succeeded had he been unequivocally in the right. The fact that God remained neutral indicated that Rebecca's position also had merit. As the rationale behind his position was based on the attainment of maximum spiritual success whereas Rebecca's position was based on the necessity of avoiding spiritual disaster, he gave her his after-the-fact consent. With Isaac's agreement, the course of Jewish history was set. The men of affairs, the empire builders, would always play a minor role in decision-making throughout Jewish history. The Torah scholar always ran the show.


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However, it is important to point out that the scholar always ran the show from behind the scenes. Despite the ultimate disposition of the blessings, Jewish rabbis have never seized the reigns of material power. They never ran governments or industries, nor dominated the seats of worldly power. The Sages were always ready with a negative comment whenever this pattern was violated.

Jacob never did usurp Esau's place in the material world. Esau, or the lay leaders who replaced him, did in fact retain the control over the third pillar even in the world of actuality. The difference between the world of might have been and the real world actually involves the assignment of leadership only, and does not touch the allocation of material assets. The proper assignment of Esau's spiritual task was never in dispute, only the leadership role that was attached to it


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But isn't this somewhat perplexing? If the machinery of power would continue to be controlled by the layman, how is it possible for the rabbi to issue the orders? Why would the problem that concerned Rebecca not reassert itself? Why do Jewish laymen listen to Jewish rabbis any more than Esau would have?

Once again we must search for the answer in the blessings themselves:

"May God (Elohim) give you of the dew of the heavens, and of the fatness of the earth, and abundant grain and wine ..."

The Sages point out that this blessing was bestowed using the Holy Name Elohim that denotes God's attribute of justice. Thus Isaac's blessing is bound by the strict demands of justice, only to be enjoyed by the recipient if he merits it. But what does blessing have to do with merit? Why would the person of merit require a blessing to obtain the good things in life in the first place?

The true intent of Isaac's blessing was not to confer riches upon its recipient, but to remove him from the constrictions of physical limitations by connecting him to the workings of Hashgacha Pratis, or Divine Providence. The blessing removed the Jewish people from the laws of cause and effect that apply to mundane reality and placed them into a reality in which the Almighty directly decides every single event that occurs. In such a world, all the events of life are tailor made for the individual specifically and are designed to advance his spiritual growth. There is constant give and take between the individual and God, and every alteration of spiritual need results in the appropriate readjustment of his material circumstances. The individual is constantly held up for judgment to determine precisely where he is spiritually, and what he requires of the physical world in order to advance.

When Isaac designated Jacob as the leader, the Torah scholar was appointed as the channel through which the flow of Divine Providence must pass.

R' Chaim of Volozhin, the student of the renowned Gaon of Vilna, explains a strange Talmudic passage which cites God as saying:

"The entire world is sustained for the sake of Chanina My son, while Chanina My son is satisfied with just a small measure of carobs from Sabbath to Sabbath." (Brochot 17b)

The Talmud employs the Hebrew word bishvil to express the idea "for the sake of." The word shvil also means "path." in Hebrew. Thus the passage is to be interpreted to mean that the world is fed through the path of Rabbi Chanina. The provisions provided by Divine Providence reach the world only if they pass through his hands. The source of the provisions is God, but they are distributed through Rabbi Chanina.

Without possessing a drop of temporal power, the rabbi was always the ultimate leader, because following Isaac's blessing to Jacob, the flow of Divine Providence into the world, which was the only source of Jewish material well- being, passed through the Torah scholar and not the empire builder. Esau's departure did not affect this principle. Other Jews have stepped forward to assume the role of empire builders in his place. The knowledge that the scholar is at the very heart of Israel's connection to God has been central to the culture of Judaism through the ages.

In fact, the role of the scholar lies at the very heart of the genius of Jewish survival. Jews never committed the error of measuring their national strength in terms of material might. National well-being was always equated with the general level of Torah knowledge. The commitment to such knowledge measures the Jewish will to survive. Without the spiritual message that is contained in the Torah, Jews have no real raison d'etre.