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The Voice of Jacob and the Hands of Esau

  • The Voice of Jacob and the Hands of Esau

    Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19−28:9
D'var Torah By: 

Tol'dot is a parashah of stories. It begins by narrating the birth of Jacob and Esau and ends with the account of Jacob's deception and the patriarchal blessing by the old, blind Isaac. These are familial stories about parents and siblings. They are also etiological and political tales, sculpted to ground national antagonisms in the conflict between the brothers-the hunter and the farmer, the rugged man of nature and the cunning man of culture. And today, in the midst of renewed conflict in Israel, these stories about animosities-ancient and at the same time urgently contemporary-resonate even more powerfully and poignantly.

One verse in particular has continually fascinated me. In Genesis 27, Jacob takes food and bread from Rebekah to his aged, blind father. "I am Esau your firstborn" (Genesis 27:19), he says, as he hands Isaac the meal, asking for his patriarchal blessing, an act more assuredly political and symbolic than personal and intimate. At first, Isaac is surprised at how quickly the hunter had succeeded at his task and, perhaps because he is a bit suspicious, he asks his son to come close so that he can feel him, to determine whether or not he is really Esau. Then comes the crucial verse 22: "So Jacob drew close to his father, Isaac, who felt him and wondered, 'The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.'" But, as verse 23 records, Isaac does not realize that it is Jacob standing before him, and so Isaac blesses him. What does the haunting remark "The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau" mean?

Here is one obvious possibility: Isaac uses his other senses to compensate for his blindness. When Jacob speaks to him, Jacob says that he is Esau. But Isaac is incredulous because the voice sounds like Jacob's. So he feels his son's arms and neck, which Rebekah had covered with the skins of kids, and they feel like Esau's. Now Isaac is confused, and he utters the above statement. It expresses his puzzlement: Who stands before him? Who has brought him his favorite meal? Who seeks his parental blessing? The text says: "Isaac did not recognize him" (Genesis 27:33) but gives him the blessing nonetheless. Why? Does Isaac weigh the evidence? Does he choose to credit his sense of touch more than his hearing and his memory? Or does he decide to trust what his son has told him, namely, that he is Esau? We do not know. Isaac blesses even though he is confused: The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.

Suppose I am Isaac. Old and blind, I do not recognize who stands before me, calling himself Esau, seeking my blessing. The voice sounds like Jacob's, but his arms feel like Esau's. Who is this man? Either I am more blind than I think, or this man, my son, is a liar. Do I trust myself, my senses? Or do I trust my son? I vocalize the conflict: The voice is the voice of Jacob-so it seems to me as I listen to the voice, its tone, and timbre; but the hands are the hands of Esau-this is what they tell me, indeed this is what he says to me. But I am his father. Would he lie to me?

Now suppose I am Jacob, decked out in these skins to fool my old, blind father, hungry for his blessing, his power. A minute ago, I knew he was suspicious. But now, I think that I have persuaded him. He has stroked my arms and felt my neck; he is fooled. Listen to him: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." He really is blind. He cannot trust his grasp of who I really am but must trust how I seem to be. My deception has worked. He blesses me because I deserve to receive his blessing.

But perhaps to the storyteller, the stakes are greater-neither personal, nor familial, nor even political, but rather mythic. Here are two dimensions of human existence-logos and physis, culture and nature, speech and violence. Which shall receive the blessing of the future? Which shall flourish and rule? Which shall be our master and govern the ways of human life and the ways of nations? Or might it be that there is no alternative, no either/or? Isaac blessed the one who stood before him. He was worried but resolute. Humankind would not be wholly rational and cultivated nor wholly violent and driven by passion. It would be both, for the voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau.

Jacob may have thought that Isaac was fooled. But Jacob does not know what we know, that the hairy arms and neck did not fool Isaac. Feeling Jacob's arms and neck did not resolve Isaac's suspicions but deepened them. As verse 23 says, because of those hairy arms, Isaac "did not recognize him." Why? Because the sons he had known were either/or, while the man who stood before him was both/and. Isaac did not recognize the future: He was blind to it and surprised by what it was going to be because his senses were confined to the past. But he did bless this man. Why? Because he accepted the past for what it was and the future for what it would be: All of his progeny would have the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau.

Genesis 27:18 says that when Jacob first approached his father, Isaac asks: "Which of my sons are you?" Later, in verse 24, after the text records that Isaac gave this son his blessing, Isaac asks: "Are you really my son Esau?" Why does Isaac repeat his question? If the repetition means that Isaac asked the same question again, it was because of his suspicions and confusion, in an attempt to resolve his doubts and reassure himself. But it is possible that verses 24-29 are an alternative version of the story that eventually found its way into the text. If so, then Isaac did not ask the question once again, looking for confirmation after he had felt the hairy arms and accepted their verdict. Rather, Isaac never recognized the man as either Esau or Jacob because he was both-a symbol of human existence as a struggle between culture and nature. He blessed him nonetheless, with the words ringing in his ears and ours: "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau."

Michael L. Morgan is a professor of philosophy and Jewish Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.

Modeling Cooperation
Davar Acher By: 
Laura Wolfson

In this week's parashah, Tol'dot, the well-known story of Jacob and Esau is interrupted by the lesser-known account of Isaac in Gerar. Isaac becomes very wealthy in Gerar, acquiring many flocks and herds even during a famine, until the Philistines grow envious and stop up his wells. They then expel Isaac from the land, but King Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, and his councilors approach Isaac to tender a peace treaty.

What motivates their action? It could be fear of God's power: "We now see plainly that God has been with you." (Genesis 26:28) Fear of Isaac's anger might also be a factor: "Let us make a pact with you that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace." (Genesis 26:28-29) Or perhaps they are really remorseful.

And what was Isaac's response? When asked to leave Gerar, he departs without protest. When there is a dispute over the waters of the well dug by his servants in their new location, he again moves without protest and digs another well. Finally he chooses a third place and digs a well to which the herders of Gerar lay no claim. Approached by Abimelech, Isaac agrees to diplomatic relations between his household and that of the king.

Whatever Abimelech's motivation may have been, the result is a peace treaty-a healing of the broken relationship between two communities and an agreement to live side by side. Whereas in other episodes, Isaac can sometimes be viewed as being passive, even weak, this one shows another perspective, namely, that Isaac is a man of peace.

Eight years ago, a small (130 families) Protestant congregation in Waterloo, Ontario, approached an even smaller (40 families) Reform Jewish congregation in the same city, asking whether the temple would consider building a worship center for shared use. At the time, each congregation rented space for worship services and its religious school, and neither was financially strong enough to consider building a permanent congregational home of its own. Each congregation also stood to gain from an alliance for other reasons: Their joint effort would set an admirable example of cooperation and respectful sharing for their children; the development of trust between the two communities would bring its own rewards; and the alliance would contribute to the ongoing improvement of Christian-Jewish relations in Canada. (The Christian congregation was particularly moved by the latter factor.) Three years later, after a collaborative effort to design the building, fund it, and plan the agreement by which shared use would be defined, the two congregations moved into their new home.Mutual respect has continued to grow with every stage of the collaboration.

The story of Jacob and Esau, so prominent in Parashat, Tol'dot, hints at broken relationships between communities. But in the very same parashah, the story of Isaac's peace treaty with Abimelech suggests a lesson in healing: When a rift occurs, reconciliation can and should follow. Two congregations have illustrated that which Isaac modeled for his sons: Brothers and sisters can dwell together. May it be so here, in the Land of Israel, and in all the world.

Laura Wolfson is the educator at Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, ON, Canada.

Reference Materials: 

Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156

When do we read Tol'dot

2020, November 21
5 Kislev, 5781
2021, November 6
2 Kislev, 5782
2022, November 26
2 Kislev, 5783
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