The Binding of Isaac... Where You Least Expect It
Isaac's Blessing To Esau And Jacob: A Conversation For The Ages
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
At face value, Parshat Toldot focuses on a conversation between Isaac and his sons Esau and Jacob, in which Isaac blesses them and passes on the family heritage – and in which we have the famous story of Isaac blessing Jacob instead of Esau.
But hidden within that conversation is a reference to another, earlier conversation – arguably the most painful, incomprehensible conversation in the entire Torah. What story is being echoed here in our parsha? And what is the Torah trying to teach us by linking us back to this most difficult of biblical stories?
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Toldot.
In this week's parsha, we have the famous story of Yitzchak calling to Esav and seeking to bless him and, of course, instead Yaakov intervenes and Yitzchak blesses Yaakov instead. But I want to focus your attention on a very fascinating echo. What echo do we have in these words?
Biblical Parallels to the Story of Isaac and Esau
"V'y'hi ki-zaken Yitzchak vatichena eynav me'rot" – Yitzchak was old. He could barely see –"vayikra et-Esav bno ha-gadol vayomer elav bni, vayomer elav hineini" – He calls to Esav, his oldest son, and says, "My son." Then Esav responds, "Hineini," – "Here I am."
Where have you heard these words before? Where else do we have a father and son, one calling out to another, with one word expressing their relationship and the response is "Hineini"? It's the story of the binding of Isaac. We talked about the conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak, going up the mountain. It's right there, in the conversation of the Akeidah, that we have the exact same setup.
"Vayomer Yitzchak el-Avraham aviv," and Yitzchak said to Avraham, his father, "Vayomer" – and he said, "Avi." Again, father and son. But this time it is son talking to father and the one word that is said, is "Avi," – "my father." What's Avraham's response? "Hineini bni." – "Here I am, my son."
So let's just set it up. Yitzchak to Avraham at the Akedah: "My father." Avraham: "Hineini" – Here I am. Now, Yitzchak to Esav in the next generation: "My son." Esav's response: "Here I am." Seems like it's pretty similar.
Let's continue comparing these two stories and see. In the Akedah, what happens after that initial exchange, after Yitzchak says, "My father," and Avraham answers, "Here I am my son"? Yitzchak has a question: "Vayomer hinei ha-esh v'ha-etzim v'ayeh ha-seh l'olah" – Here's the fire, here's the wood, Father, but where is the lamb for the offering? Now what did that question mean? You might say that the question sort of has three meanings: a superficial meaning, a little bit of a deeper meaning, and then a deeper meaning still.
The superficial meaning is: We were supposed to have meat for the offering but there's no meat. Where is the meat? But of course, there is a deeper meaning. As we've pointed out, Yitzchak's question isn't "Eifo ha-seh?" – Where exactly is the seh? The question is "Ayeh ha-seh l'olah?" And as I pointed out "ayeh" doesn't mean, "Where is it?" It means, "Where did it go?" How come there's no lamb for the offering here?
Yitzchak senses that something fishy is going on. It just doesn't add up. There's a fire, there's wood, but where's the lamb? He begins to intuit: something is going on. But then, of course, the deeper meaning still is what it is that Yitzchak intuits. What is he really saying with, "Where is the lamb?" He is worried, of course, that perhaps he is the lamb. Am I going to die now?
So again three levels of meaning.
- Level A: Where is the meat for the offering?
- Level B: Something fishy is going on.
- Level C: Am I going to die now?
Digging Deeper into Isaac and Esau's Story
Now think of all of that and let's come back to the Yaakov and Esav story. What happens after Yitzchak calls to Esav, his son, and says, "My son," and Esav responds, "Hineini," – "Here I am"? So, the next words we have are, "Vayomer hinei-na zakanti; lo yadati yom muti." Yitzchak says, "Here I am. I am old. I don't know when I am going to die."
Isn't that fascinating? That was the third meaning of Yitzchak's own words in the Akedah story. Remember, by the way, that the Akedah story and the Yaakov and Esav story are linked by one other thing, which is that who is talking in both of these stories?
It's Yitzhak each time.
It's Yitzchak each time. Yitzchak to his father in the story of Akedah, Yitzchak now, to his son, Esav in the story of Yaakov and Esav.
But, right where we would expect it, right at the point where we are up to — Yitzchak's question to Avraham in the Akedah — we have a parallel to it in the next story with Yitzchak's request of his son Esav... and the request on some level is the same. I don't know whether I am going to die. I'd like you to do something. What do I want you to do?
"V'atah sa-na chelecha telyecha v'kashtecha." – "Go, get your implements together, your hunting implements," – "tze ha-sadeh," – "and go out to the field," – "v'tzudah li tzayid," – "and hunt for me food." What is he saying? "Where is the meat? There's no meat. Please bring me missing meat." Meaning C, meaning A, right after each other. It just seems like we are getting a replay of Yitzchak's dialogue with his father in this next story, Yitzchak's dialogue with his son.
From Isaac to Esau and Jacob
Now here's the really fascinating thing. As you know, of course, Esav goes out to the fields and then Yaakov comes in and deceives his father, pretends that he is Esav and now listen to what happens, as Yaakov begins speaking, standing before his blind father. "Vayavo el-aviv," Yaakov came to his father, "vayomer," and he says, "Avi" – "My father." – "Vayomer hineini. Mi atah bni?" And Yitzchak says, "Here I am. Who are you my son?"
It's happening again. Son comes to father and says, "My father," just as in the Akedah. Yitzchak came to Avraham and said, "Avi," – "My father," and now Yaakov is coming to Yitzchak and saying, "Avi," – "My father," and the answer is the same. Avraham said, "Hineini bni" – "Here I am, my son." Yitzchak now says to Yaakov: "Hineini. Mi atah bni?" – "Here I am. Who are you, my son?" It's all the same except for the insertion of the words, "Who are you?"
Now what happens next? Yaakov represents himself as Esav. "Anochi Esav bchorecha." – "I am Esav. I have done what you asked of me. Please eat the meat." "And now listen to what Yitzchak says. "Ma ze miharta limtzo bni." – "Gee, that was fast. How’d you find the meat so quickly?" What does that remind you of? Anything in the Akedah? That's what Yitzchak said to his father in the Akedah. It is the next thing that happened. That was meaning B: Gee there's something fishy going on. In the Akedah, the fishy thing was, where is the lamb for the offering?
In the next story, when Yitzchak blesses his sons, the fishy thing is, "Gee, how did you find it so fast?" Now let's listen to Yaakov's response, but as we listen to Yaakov's response, let's remember Avraham's response to the question of "Isn't something fishy going on?" posed to him by his son. Avraham, when asked by Yitzchak, "Where is the lamb for the offering?" said, "Elohim yireh-lo ha-seh l'olah bni." – "G-d will show for Himself a lamb for offering, comma, my son."
Avraham sort of evades Yitzchak's question, evokes G-d and says, "G-d is going to figure it out. G-d is going to find the lamb for the offering." And listen now to Yaakov's response to Yitzchak. Yitzchak says, "Gee, there's something fishy going on. How did you find the meat so fast?" "Vayomer ki hikra HaShem Eloheicha lefanai." – "G-d, your G-d, helped me find it quickly."
Yaakov, hiding behind G-d, just like Avraham before him had hid behind G-d. "G-d will help me find the meat for the offering, my son." It really seems like these stories are connected in fascinating ways. It's as if the conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak is being echoed in this next story, except there is one big difference.
Passing the Blessing: Abraham to Isaac to Esau to Jacob
The conversation splits in the second story. You see in the first story, there was a father and one son, Avraham and Yitzchak, but here there's a father and two children, Yaakov and Esav. The original conversation between father and son now splits in two. What's the meaning of that? Why is part of the conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak now echoed in the conversation between Yitzchak and Esav, and the rest of the conversation echoed between Yitzchak and Yaakov. What does it mean?
So, I don't know. I can only speculate, but for what it's worth, let me throw out a possible idea. In the Akedah, Yitzchak became the bearer of a promise: Avraham's promise, the promise that G-d would give blessing to the world through Avraham: "Barech avarechecha." – "I will bring blessing to the world through you." And now at the end of Yitzchak's life, it's time for Yitzchak to pass down that blessing. He says, "I want my soul to bless you, my son, to let you be the bearer of that blessing which it was my destiny to bear."
He chooses Esav to be the bearer and he begins the conversation now, one more time. The conversation which he remembers being the vehicle through which he received the mandate of Abraham. He will now have that conversation with his son, to be able to transfer that mandate to him. Yaakov, on some level, understands what's happening and knows that if he is going to get the blessing, he too, somehow, must enter into that conversation. It's as if he is saying to his father: You can have that conversation with me, too. Let's have that conversation. You began the conversation with Esav; complete it with me.