Torah Lights on Vayetze: Isaac and Peace Now

Torah from the Efrat in the Judean hills. Insights from the parsha that are applicable today.

Contact Editor
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,

Then he heard the words of Laban's sons, saying 'Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from that which belonged to our father, he amassed all this wealth." (Gen 21:1)

This week's Biblical portion of Vayetze records Jacob's flight to the Laban-land of Aram-Naharayim, where he spends 22 years with his wily and deceptive uncle. Jacob fled because his brother Esau was threatening to murder him for deceptively taking the blessings which their father, Isaac, had meant for Esau.

Underlying this fateful act of deception was a tug-of-war between the parents of these rival twins, in which Isaac favored the elder son, Esau, "a man who knows the business of trapping (both aggressive hunting and deceitful ensnaring), a man of the outdoor fields", whereas Rebecca favored the younger Jacob, "a whole-hearted, naïve man, an introspective and scholarly dweller in tents" (Gen 25:27).

The disposition of the patrimony would determine which of the two would be heir to the Abrahamic mission of spreading "ethical monotheism" throughout the world. It seems difficult to understand how Isaac could possibly have favored the aggressive Esau over the more studious Jacob. Moreover, how could Rebecca have orchestrated her son to deceive his father and her husband?

An analysis of these narratives will grant us insight into the tensions within contemporary Israel between the Settler Movement and Peace Now, and the dangers of the extremist, vigilante "price tag" attacks against Palestinians.

Abraham's major discovery and legacy was ethical monotheism, the ideals of compassionate righteousness and moral justice promulgated by a God of love, morality and peace (Gen 18:18,19, Maimonides, Book of Commandments, Command 3). The qualities involved in fostering such moral excellence and in teaching it to others were far more suited to a "wholehearted dweller in tents" than to an aggressive "master of entrapment, a hunter in the open fields." Winning over the errant "souls of Haran" certainly did require a more extroverted personality; nevertheless, Rebecca's choice of Jacob for the patrimony seems far more logical than Isaac's choice of Esau!

God's first commandment to Abraham is to "get forth" to the land of Canaan, and the major content of God's covenant with Abraham is the promised borders of the land of Israel, the basic and eternal inheritance of Abraham's progeny (Gen 12:1,15:16-21). Such a homeland, not indigenous to the founder of the nation requires a strong and committed nation to conquer it and protect it. Even Abraham's high ideals require protection from evil purveyors of terrorism and jihad, as Abraham demonstrated when he successfully defeated the four terrorist nations who captured innocent civilians, including Lot. (Gen 14:14-16).

Isaac, more than the other patriarchs, was inextricably bound up with the land of Israel. He alone never left the land, he alone is Biblically pictured as working the land in addition to herding sheep: "And Isaac planted seeds in that land, and in that year he reaped one hundred fold; thus the Lord blessed him" (Gen 26:12).

Even when Isaac was bestowing the blessings and wished to check if he was indeed dealing with the right son, "Isaac his father said to (Jacob), 'Come close and kiss me, my son.' And he came close and kissed him; and (Isaac) smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him. He said, 'behold, the fragrance of my son is as the fragrance of the fields which the Lord has blessed.'"

Isaac loved the land of Israel, and so he was naturally drawn to Esau, who was a man of the fields. As I explained in last week's commentary, Isaac had also felt unworthy when he compared himself to his aggressive and militant brother Yishmael.

Isaac never challenges Avimelech, the King of the Philistines, even when he reneges on his treaty with Abraham, even when he stops up the wells which Abraham had dug, even when he pushes Isaac and his household off of the land which is part of the boundaries promised to Abraham's descendants! He is even bullied into signing another treaty with Avimelech, who has the arrogance to say that he had only done good to Isaac since he sent him away in peace (without killing him)." (Gen. 26:15-33)

Isaac believes that the more aggressive and pro-active Esau, rather than the retreating and passive Jacob, must become the standard-bearer of God's covenant and mission. Rebecca, on the other hand, believes that the moral qualities, so lacking in the hedonistic Esau, are really cardinal. She recognizes that physical prowess and a degree of aggressiveness are also mandatory, but she also remembers how Jacob grasped onto Esau's heel in a struggle to emerge first from her womb (Rashi, 25:26). Rebecca recognizes that Jacob possesses physical strength of which Isaac is unaware. She therefore sets out to prove as much, by dressing the moral soul of Jacob in the external garb of Esau.

Rebecca, however, seems to have over-reached her goals. She did not realize that sometimes the crafty and grasping hands of Esau can totally drown out the spiritual voice of Jacob. That's what occurs to Jacob in Laban-land; he out-Labans Laban when he utilizes chicanery in an attempt to manipulate the births of spotted, speckled and striped cows.

Peace Now does not sufficiently understand that a terrorist enemy hell-bent on total domination cannot be won over by more and more concessions. But the settler community must also be exceedingly careful lest the aggressive hands of Esau choke their Jewish consciences and mute the Divine Voice within us. Jacob eventually succeeds in learning this lesson – but only after he becomes Yisrael.