Emet Le-Ya’akov


Eitan Mayer


      If we have national heroes, they are the Avot. Traditional Jewish interpretation of the Torah has poured great energy into magnifying their spiritual power and moral virtues and minimizing their mistakes (or, more in the spirit of tradition, what appear to have been mistakes). Tanakh frequently points to God’s promises to the Avot as guarantees of the everlasting relationship between Himself and Israel. Recently, however, some readers of Sefer Bereshit have noted patterns which appear to show that the Avot suffer retributive punishments for sins. In a recent volume published by the Orthodox Forum, Dr. David Berger provides a historical frame to explain why even some traditional commentators have felt comfortable accepting this approach.[1] But however textually compelling this sort of analysis might be, it can seem religiously troubling to read the major events of the lives of the Avot as mere accounts of sin and punishment, even if, as Berger concludes, “this new approach does not end with a denunciation of biblical heroes. After a process of retribution and moral development, the ethical standing of the patriarch is beyond reproach.”[2]

      Evidence of patriarchal misdeeds is most discomforting if we understand the Torah to be describing the Avot as perfect from the start.[3] This essay will suggest instead that the portrait is meant to be one of development and growth to moral integrity and, using a pattern-oriented approach, will attempt to understand not only the “process of retribution” but also the “process of moral development” in Ya’akov Avinu’s life which justifies our reverence for him.[4]


I. Ya’akov Ish Tam

. . . Eisav was a man who knew hunting, a man of the field. Ya’akov was a “tam” man who dwelled in tents (Gen. 25:27).


   Eisav, man of action, is comfortable with the physical life of the outdoors, accustomed to danger and skilled with weapons. But Ya’akov dwells in tents as a “yoshev ohalim.” Rashbam and Ibn Ezra suggest that this term describes him as a shepherd, moving his tent with the flock to wherever grazing pastures are available.[5] Since “tam” often parallels “yashar” in Tanakh,[6] the Torah appears to be describing Ya’akov as a tzaddik.

But ensuing events call this interpretation of “tam” into question. When Eisav returns from the fields one day to find Ya’akov making stew, he requests food to sate his hunger. Ya’akov demurs, offering a portion only in return for Eisav’s birthright.[7] Certainly, a man who would trade tomorrow’s leadership[8] for today’s soup is a figure of little foresight and even less self-control; thus, Ya’akov appears to trade on Eisav’s weakness. While Ya’akov’s motivation to take leadership of the family away from irresponsible Eisav can be justified, it need not have been done in a way that has the appearance of exploitation. Indeed, later on, when Eisav assails Ya’akov’s trickery in taking his blessing, he bitterly recalls Ya’akov’s swindling him out of the birthright. Although Eisav is willing, in a moment of fatigue and hunger, to trade away this valuable commodity for a pittance, later reflection convinces him that he has made a mistake — a mistake facilitated by Ya’akov. Is this the act of a tzaddik?

   Despite the evidence from elsewhere in Tanakh, tam need not parallel yashar. The Torah contrasts the brothers: Eisav is a man of the fields, Ya’akov a man of the tent; Eisav is the hunter, while Ya’akov is the “ish tam.” Rashi explains that “tam” means that while Eisav has acquired the skills of hunting, pursuing challenges, confronting and subduing his enemies, Ya’akov is tam, “not expert in these matters.”[9] The word “tam,” then, does not necessarily describe Ya’akov as perfect, but as one who avoids the direct confrontation Eisav seeks in achieving his goals and facing challenges.[10] Ya’akov’s first act on Earth — certainly not a volitional one, but nevertheless a deeply symbolic one — is to grab Eisav’s foot to prevent his brother from preceding him out of the womb. This mode of competition earns him the name “Ya’akov,” “He who grabs the heel,” and hints that this characteristic will be a challenge for him to overcome. The early events of Ya’akov’s life show what he is willing to do in order to achieve important goals: competing with Eisav for supremacy within the family, he takes advantage of Eisav’s superficiality and bluster.[11] Later, still competing with Eisav, he takes the blessing meant for Eisav by fooling his blind father. Ironically, once he has received the blessing of family leadership, he must abandon the family and delay assuming leadership, running away to avoid confrontation with Eisav.[12]

   This picture of Ya’akov may be deeply troubling. But these flaws are an integral part of the process of Ya’akov’s personal transformation; instead of indelible blemishes on the character of one of the Avot, they are opportunities for Ya’akov to face challenges and, in overcoming them, to develop and demonstrate moral strength.[13] A Ya’akov who builds the strength to surmount personal obstacles is surely greater than a Ya’akov born to perfection, just as an Avraham who builds the strength to pass painful tests is greater than an untested Avraham. The only difference between the two is that Ya’akov’s challenges are built into his character.

   The Torah goes on to report that Eisav marries two Cana’anite women, to the intense displeasure of his parents:

Eisav was forty years old when he took as wives Yehudit, daughter of Be’eri, the Hittite, and Basmat, daughter of Elon, the Hittite. They were a bitterness of spirit to Yitzhak and to Rivka (Gen. 26:34-35).


Perhaps attempting to emulate his father in some superficial way, Eisav marries at forty, as Yitzhak had done. But here the similarity to Yitzhak ends. While Avraham had vigorously rejected even the possibility that Yitzhak seek a wife from among the idolatrous, morally corrupt Cana’anites, [14] Eisav is burdened by no such scruples and marries two Cana’anite women. He is either unaware of his grandfather’s insistence or simply unwilling to limit himself. But whether he makes his marital choices in deafness to their moral reverberations or in purposeful disregard of them, he betrays his unfitness to succeed Yitzhak as patriarch and spiritual leader of the future nation. Eisav’s choices of Cana’anite spouses will play a critical role later in our analysis.

   At this point Yitzhak, who fears he may soon die, asks Eisav to bring him food; after eating it, he will bless Eisav. We have already heard that Yitzhak prefers Eisav over Ya’akov,[15]  which seems strange enough, considering Eisav’s shortcomings. Now we hear that he not only prefers Eisav, but apparently considers him more fit for leadership than Ya’akov and plans to pass the mantle to him. What does Yitzhak see in Eisav? What evidence is there of Eisav’s leadership potential? Yitzhak’s request of Eisav at this time also seems strange: can he be willing to bless Eisav merely because Eisav serves him a good meal? If we turn back to where the Torah notes Yitzhak’s preference for Eisav, the question becomes more pressing:

Yitzhak loved Eisav, for hunting was in his mouth [“be-fiv”], but Rivkah loved Ya’akov (Gen. 25:28).


Can Yitzhak be so superficial that the entire basis for his preference of Eisav is that Eisav puts “hunting in his mouth,” that he feeds his father the fruit of his hunting?

   Perhaps we can take Eisav, rather than Yitzhak, as the antecedent of “his” in the phrase “hunting was in his mouth.”[16] Hunting is Eisav’s mouth: it is second-nature for him. The phrase “in his mouth” is used this way later in the Torah:

This commandment which I command you today is not beyond you, and not far away . . . For this matter is very, very close to you — it is in your mouth [“be-fikha”] and heart to do it (Deut. 30:1-14).


If “be-fiv” means the same thing in our context, then Yitzhak prefers Eisav not because Eisav fills his father’s mouth with food, but because Yitzhak admires Eisav’s hunting ability. This interpretation also explains why Yitzhak connects Eisav’s hunting ability to his readiness to bless Eisav. Indeed, a careful look at Yitzhak’s instructions to Eisav shows that Yitzhak seems to want much more than just a meal:

“Now, lift up your weapons — your quiver and bow — go out to the fields, hunt me some prey, and make tasty food for me, as I like, then bring it to me and I will eat it, so that my soul will bless you before I die” (Gen. 27:3-4).


Yitzhak seems unduly interested in the details of the meal’s procurement: How is Eisav to subdue his prey? “Lift up your weapons.” What weapons should he take? “Your quiver and bow.” Where should he look for prey? “Go out to the fields.” Furthermore, why does Yitzhak want specifically a hunted meal? The family corral could just as easily provide a tasty meal.

   Yitzhak admires Eisav’s hunting ability and connects it with the blessings because he sees hunting as confirmation of Eisav’s leadership potential. Hunting demands planning, patience, skill, persistence, the initiative to seek out difficult, sometimes dangerous challenges, and the courage to face them down. Unlike Avraham, Yitzhak had received no divine communication that his younger son would succeed him (Gen. 21:12). In Eisav’s hunting, Yitzhak sees a manifestation of leadership ability. Ya’akov ish tam, staying close to his tent, tending sheep and keeping to himself — manifesting no particular sign of readiness to engage challenges — takes second place in Yitzhak’s affections and as the obvious candidate to succeed Yitzhak as family leader. As his death approaches, Yitzhak requests that Eisav perform the act which will inspire him to pass leadership to him: to lift up his weapons, go out to the fields Eisav knows so well (as the “ish sadeh”), and hunt. Yitzhak wants symbolic confirmation that Eisav is the man for the job.[17]

   Rivka overhears Yitzhak’s instructions to Eisav and commands Ya’akov, her own favorite, to dress as Eisav and trick Yitzhak into giving him the blessings. Ya’akov momentarily protests that the plan will not work – but not that it is dishonest. We can only speculate about why he agrees to carry out this plan: perhaps because Rivka tells him of her prophecy that “the older [son] will serve the younger [son]”;[18] perhaps because he feels his purchase of the birthright from Eisav entitles him to this blessing of wealth and leadership; perhaps he follows through merely in obedience to his strong-willed mother. But it appears that neither he nor his mother have been instructed to carry through the Divine plan (“the older will serve the younger”) on their own.[19] And if Ya’akov feels entitled to the blessings because he bought the birthright, why doesn’t he simply tell his father about the deal with Eisav instead of claiming to be Eisav?[20] Finally, it is difficult to claim that Ya’akov obeys Rivka solely in order to respect parental wishes, since by doing so he clearly flouts his father’s wishes.

   Ya’akov’s keep-to-himself style, his questionable purchase of the birthright, his taking of the blessings and his eventual flight from Eisav establish a pattern: he avoids facing challenges, and when he must achieve an important goal, he uses cleverness to avoid facing challenges head-on. This is what makes him “Ya’akov,” but as we will see, he eventually transcends this limitation.

   As Ya’akov leaves his father’s tent, Eisav returns from the hunt, prey in hand. Moments later, the truth dawns on Yitzhak, who tells Eisav that his blessing has been taken. Eisav begs his father to bless him as well, and when Yitzhak hesitates, Eisav rages at this latest of Ya’akov’s “tricks”:

He said, “Is his name indeed ‘Ya’akov’ [“trickster”]? He has deceived [“ye-akveini[21]] me twice! He took my birthright, and now he has taken my blessing!” (Gen. 27:36).


Eisav’s fury gets away from him; he says too much. His mention of the sale of the birthright, of which his father had apparently been unaware, must provoke a surprised question from Yitzhak and a sheepish explanation from Eisav that he sold the birthright for soup. Yitzhak now sees the full measure of Eisav’s impetuosity and irresponsibility, his lack of foresight and judgment — his complete unfitness to lead. In the space of minutes, Yitzhak’s blind eyes are opened not only to to Ya’akov’s “mirma” (Gen. 27:35), but also to Eisav’s blustering irresponsibility.

   Nothing could be stranger, then, than Yitzhak’s next move: he blesses Ya’akov again! But a careful look at this second blessing shows that it is quite different than the stolen first blessing:

“E-l Shad-dai shall bless you, increase you and multiply you, and you shall become a throng of nations. He shall give you the blessing of Avraham -- to you and your children with you -- to inherit the land of your dwelling, which God gave to Avraham” (Gen. 28:3-4).


While the first blessing, intended for Eisav, bestowed wealth (“dew of the heavens,” “fat of the land,” “grain and wine”) and political leadership (“nations shall serve you, peoples shall bow to you,” “be master of your brother”), this second blessing bestows the spiritual-national leadership of the future nation. The recipient inherits the holy land, Eretz Yisrael, and the privilege of producing the nation which will have a special relationship with God. This second blessing, then, does not duplicate or merely amplify the first blessing. It is the birkhat Avraham.

   Why does Yitzhak wait until now to give this blessing to one of his sons? Perhaps Yitzhak had not yet decided which son to choose as spiritual-national leader of the future nation. Until learning of Eisav’s sale of the birthright, he had thought of Eisav as a capable temporal leader, but neither son had stood out as a religious leader. Eisav, now exposed as the seller of birthright for soup, has displayed judgment so flawed as to make him unfit for any sort of leadership, but Ya’akov’s “mirma” demands that Yitzhak reject him also as religious leader. Faced with no good options, Yitzhak withdraws. When Eisav begs for a blessing, Yitzhak can offer him only a watered-down version of the blessing taken by Ya’akov, for he is not ready to pass religious leadership to either of his sons. But then what eventually makes him choose Ya’akov?

   The answer to this question will also solve another difficulty: when Rivka hears that Eisav plans to kill Ya’akov for taking his blessing, she tells Ya’akov that he must run away to save himself. But she tells Yitzhak a different story:

Rivka said to Yitzhak, “I despise my own life because of these Hittite women! If Ya’akov takes a wife from among the Hittite women, one like these local women, for what am I living?” (Gen. 27:46).


Instead of telling Yitzhak of Eisav’s murderous plans, Rivka makes it sound like the issue is what kind of woman Ya’akov will choose to marry. Rivka wants to kill two birds with one stone: to convince her husband that Ya’akov must leave and also that he should bless Ya’akov with the spiritual-national leadership.[22] The issue of Hittite women justifies sending Ya’akov to far-off Haran to find a decent wife, and it also reminds Yitzhak that Eisav has already married two Hittite women. This subtle hint convinces the reluctant Yitzhak that it is better to bless a son who needs to rethink the way he faces challenges than a son who has already made marriage alliances with the idolatrous, morally corrupt Cana’anites.[23] Rivka communicates all this to Yitzhak simply by expressing her horror at the possibility that Ya’akov might choose a Cana’anite wife: perhaps Ya’akov is not perfect, but Eisav has been completely disqualified as a candidate.[24] Yitzhak accedes, but he expresses his reluctance in the way he blesses Ya’akov, as we will see.


II. Measure for Measure

   Ya’akov journeys to Haran to accomplish two goals: to escape the murderous wrath of Eisav and to find a wife among the daughters of Lavan, his uncle. But he must also go to Haran in order to spend twenty years under the careful “tutelage” of Lavan, as we will see.

   Not long after Ya’akov’s arrival in Haran, uncle and nephew arrange that Ya’akov will shepherd Lavan’s flocks for seven years in return for the hand of Lavan’s beautiful younger daughter, Rahel. But when the time comes, Lavan substitutes Le’ah, his older daughter, for Rahel, and the next morning Ya’akov realizes he has consummated marriage with the wrong sister:

In the morning, there was Leah! He said to Lavan, “What have you done to me? Was it not for Rahel that I worked for you? Why have you deceived me?” Lavan said, “It is not done, in our place, to place the younger before the older” (Gen. 29: 25-26).


Lavan paints the episode as a misunderstanding. He had “assumed” that Ya’akov had understood that the elder daughter had to be married off first, and that Ya’akov had known that the woman he had married the night before had been Le’ah. How could anyone have thought otherwise? Of course, he adds, Rahel, too, can become his wife, but only for the going rate: seven more years! Lavan knows blessed hands when he sees them, and he sees them on Ya’akov.[25] He will do whatever is necessary to keep his nephew shepherding for him, making him rich.

   But Lavan’s language is a bit more pointed than this. He stresses that it is not done “here” to place the younger before the older. While he may not consciously intend to imply that there is a place where the younger is put before the older, his language cannot fail to remind Ya’akov of his taking of the blessings, when Ya’akov placed himself, the younger, before Eisav, the older.[26] While Lavan may be aware of this misdeed,[27] his own motivation in deceiving Ya’akov is not to avenge the wrong done to Yitzhak and Eisav,[28] but to make sure that Ya’akov stays on with his flocks. The bigger picture, however, and the one which must appear before Ya’akov’s eyes at this time, is that Ya’akov has just received his wages, mida ke-neged mida, measure for measure. He is being punished for taking Eisav’s blessings.[29]

   Ya’akov has been delivered into Lavan’s custody so that he can appreciate what it means to be a victim of deception. He makes no response to Lavan’s transparent protestations of innocence because he realizes that Lavan has been the instrument to deliver a punishment he deserved, the perhaps unwitting teacher of a lesson he needed to learn. In his bitterness, Ya’akov appreciates the bitterness Eisav felt[30] upon discovering that his blessings had been taken; with the stunning revelation that the woman with whom he has shared intimacy is Le’ah and not the beloved Rahel, he begins to understand the “harada gedola ad me’od,” the terrible trembling fear which gripped Yitzhak when he realized he had blessed the wrong son.

   Ya’akov’s punishment is not just a slap on the wrist. Lavan’s deceit all but guarantees that Ya’akov will never be happy in marriage: he can either marry Rahel in addition to Le’ah — in which case he can expect the two sisters to fill his home with conflict in their competition for affection and fertility — or he can abandon his love for Rahel, suffering the pain of unrequited love for her and bitter resentment for the wife who married him in deceit. Ya’akov chooses to marry Rahel, and, as the Torah reports, the center stage of his marital life is held by Le’ah’s despair of ever earning her husband’s love and Rahel’s desperate jealousy of Le’ah’s fertility. Ya’akov pays dearly for the blessings.

   Le’ah bears four sons in quick succession, but Ya’akov is unmoved by her remarkable fertility. Still hopeful of earning Ya’akov’s favor, she names her sons as appeals to her husband for love and attention: Re’uvein (“Look — a son!”), Shimon (“Listen!”), and Leivi (“Drawn to me”), but by the fourth son she senses her failure and simply thanks God through the final name, Yehuda (“Thanks to God”).[31] Le’ah communicates with Ya’akov through the names of her sons because children are the only path she knows to Ya’akov’s affection; she knows that she herself she can never attract Ya’akov, for she reminds Ya’akov of himself: just as Ya’akov executed the plan masterminded by his mother to fool his father, so Le’ah executed the plan conceived by her father to fool Ya’akov. As the Midrash Tanhuma so beautifully articulates, Le’ah will always remind him of his own “mirma”:[32]

. . . All night, Le’ah pretended to be Rahel. When he [Ya’akov] got up in the morning, “there was Le’ah!” He said to her, “Daughter of a deceiver! Why have you deceived me?” She said to him, “And you — why did you deceive your father? When he said to you, ‘Are you my son Eisav?’, you said to him, ‘I am Eisav, your first-born’ — and you can say to me, ‘Why did you deceive me?’! Did your own father not say [to Eisav], ‘Your brother came in deceit . . .’?” Because she rebuked him, he began to hate her. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said, “The cure for her can be only through having children; then her husband will desire her.” Therefore, “God saw that Le’ah was hated, and He opened her womb.”

   Rahel, painfully aware of Le’ah’s fertility, becomes frantically envious of her sister, demanding that Ya’akov give her children. Barrenness would be a catastrophe for her under any circumstances, but the fact that Rahel measures herself against her sister makes her struggle even more desperate. But Ya’akov can find no sympathy with which to respond to her outburst, though she is the wife he loves best. He wants no part of the rivalries his multiple marriages have created.[33]

   Rahel and Le’ah clash once again over the duda’im, the mandrakes, which Le’ah’s son finds in the fields and gives to her. Presumably, Rahel believes in their power as a fertility drug,[34] so she asks Le’ah for some of them. Le’ah explodes in frustration: “Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, that you now want to take my son’s mandrakes as well?” Read, “You already have the love of my husband, and now you want my help in having children so that you can prevail in that category also?” Le’ah eventually sells the mandrakes to Rahel for the privilege of spending a night with Ya’akov, and when Ya’akov returns from a day in the fields, Le’ah frankly informs him that she has “hired him”[35] for the night with her mandrakes. Ya’akov has just been told that his wives consider intimacy with him subject to commerce. In this episode, we may hear an echo of the sale of the birthright, which Ya’akov bought from Eisav for a bowl of soup; perhaps Ya’akov is being punished for manipulating Eisav into treating the birthright with contempt[36] – for inappropriately making the birthright an object of commerce – by being treated with contempt himself and becoming an object of commerce himself.


III. Flight and Confrontation

   Twenty years after arriving in Haran, Ya’akov readies his family and flocks and flees Lavan’s household. Stealing away stealthily, he runs away (“va-yi-vrah”) without telling Lavan. He has good reasons: Lavan and his sons have become openly resentful of his growing wealth, and God has commanded Ya’akov to leave Haran and return to Cana’an. But the Torah communicates clearly that sneaking away is the wrong way to end this relationship:

Ya’akov stole the heart of Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was running away. He ran away with all his possessions, arose and crossed the river, and turned toward Mount Gilad (Gen. 31:20-21).


As far as the Torah is concerned, Ya’akov’s pattern of “mirma” continues with this flight. He  unfairly extracted the birthright from Eisav and the blessings from Yitzhak, “ran away” from Be’er Sheva to avoid Eisav, and now he “steals away” (“va-yignov”) again. The word “barah” enjoys special prominence here in order to remind us of an earlier “barah” — when Ya’akov fled from Cana’an to Aram.[37] Just as he ran from Eisav instead of facing him and seeking a resolution, so he now runs from Lavan. Taking leave in the normal fashion would have been risky because Lavan is capable of feats of deceit that Ya’akov knows he may not be able to anticipate and control. Rather than taking this risk, he runs.[38]

   When Lavan finally confronts Ya’akov, he accuses Ya’akov of “stealing his heart” and “stealing his household gods.” Ya’akov explains that he ran away because he was afraid Lavan would try to “steal his daughters away.” Neither man acknowledges wrongdoing; both hurl accusations of theft.

   Lavan accepts Ya’akov’s invitation to search his belongings for the stolen gods, but when Lavan finds nothing, Ya’akov lashes out, certain that Lavan has invented the disappearance of his idols as an excuse to conduct a humiliating search through all of his possessions.[39] In the fury of this confrontation, Ya’akov, incensed by Lavan’s sheer chutzpah, begins to shows signs of transformation. Yes, it was wrong to steal away, but how can Lavan, lifelong thief and cheat, accuse Ya’akov of theft? Twenty years of frustration pour out of Ya’akov, and we learn for the first time just how scrupulously he has taken his responsibilities as shepherd. He has maintained an unusual standard, gone further than legally necessary, paying out of his own pocket for sheep destroyed by predators or stolen by thieves. He has suffered physically as well in caring for the flocks, exposed to the elements during the day and deprived of rest at night. And Lavan accuses him of theft!

   Instead of running from Lavan’s challenge of theft or attempting to avoid it with cleverness, Ya’akov takes Lavan on directly and indignantly. Facing Lavan is Ya’akov’s first concrete step toward facing his own “Ya’akov” challenge: he ran away to avoid Lavan, but now, emboldened by anger, he confronts his enemy with courage and force. Ya’akov is aggressive and direct, not cunning and subtle. Lavan, surprised, blusters, boasts, and backs down.[40] This confrontation with Lavan prepares Ya’akov, psychologically and morally, for his meeting with Eisav.


IV. Panim el Panim

   As Ya’akov nears home, he passes closer to the Land of Se’ir, Eisav’s territory. Some readers of the Torah assume that Eisav has somehow heard that Ya’akov is in the area and that he independently starts out toward Ya’akov in order to intercept him.[41]According to this reading, Ya’akov assumes that Eisav still plans to kill him; he hopes to gain Eisav’s favor by bribing him and behaving obsequiously. He splits his camp into two, hoping that one camp will escape if Eisav attacks the other. All of these preparations are classic “grab-the-heel” behaviors: sidestepping a challenge with flattery and bribery while hoping for a chance to escape.[42]

   But Ya’akov’s preparations deserve a second look. First, the simple reading of the text makes it sound like Eisav has no inkling of Ya’akov’s whereabouts, and that Ya’akov actually takes the initiative in confronting Eisav![43] He sends messengers “to the land of Se’ir, the field of Edom” — all the way to Eisav’s doorstep — because Eisav has no idea that he has left Lavan’s household and is returning to Cana’an. Second, looking at Ya’akov’s gifts to Eisav as a bribe also seems highly doubtful: when the brothers finally meet and embrace, Eisav seems confused by the profusion of gifts Ya’akov has sent him. He urges Ya’akov to keep his animals, explaining that he has all he needs, but Ya’akov strenuously insists that Eisav accept the gift. Why does Ya’akov work so hard to convince Eisav to accept the “bribe” if Eisav has forgiven him without it? Finally, interpreting Ya’akov’s strategy of splitting his camp as another attempt to avoid facing a confrontation also seems strained when we note that the next morning, when Eisav actually appears, there is only one camp, not two! Either Ya’akov has abandoned hope of escaping, or something has changed his mind.

   Why would Ya’akov actively seek a confrontation with Eisav? Why does he force the gift of the animals on Eisav? What does he hope to accomplish by splitting the camp into two, if not to create an escape route, and why has he brought the two camps together?

   Ya’akov himself provides a key to answering these questions. As he prepares the “bribe,” the Torah summarizes his thoughts:

. . . He [Ya’akov] said [to himself], “I will atone before him [“panav”] with the gift that goes before me [“le-fanai”], and after that I will see his face [“panav”]; perhaps he will forgive me [“yisa panai”]” (32:21).


   The word “panim,” “face,” appears four times in this one sentence; the word game continues as the story goes on. After wrestling with the mysterious “man”:

Ya’akov called the name of the place “Peni’el” [“face of God”], “For I have seen God face to face [“panim el panim”], and was saved” (32:31).


And in insisting that Eisav accept his gift:

Ya’akov said, “Please do not [refuse]! If I have found favor in your eyes, take my gift from my hands, for seeing your face [“panekha”] is like seeing the face [“penei”] of God, and you have accepted me” (33:10).


   By using the word “panim” at every possible opportunity, the Torah emphasizes the confrontational, face-to-face nature of what Ya’akov has initiated. It was “Ya’akov” — “the heel,” the avoider of challenge — who departed Cana’an so long ago, but the figure who now returns to Cana’an has turned himself literally upside down. He seeks to “face” this challenge directly and openly, “panim el panim.”[44] Thus Ya’akov boldly sends messengers to Eisav to announce his arrival and arrange a meeting. What Ya’akov hopes to accomplish becomes clear the next morning, when the brothers actually meet. At that time, as we will see, Ya’akov himself reveals his need for this confrontation.

   As night falls, Ya’akov moves his wives and children across the river at the Yabok crossing. Abravanel explains that he is now splitting his camp into two, as planned before, placing his family in one camp (across the river from Eisav) and leaving the servants in the forward camp. When Eisav arrives, he will encounter the servants’ camp, and if he attacks it, Ya’akov and his family will have the chance to escape.[45] But the simple reading suggests that Ya’akov splits the camps differently:

He got up that night, took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, and crossed at the Yabok crossing. He took them, brought them across the river, and brought his possessions across. Ya’akov remained alone .  .  . (32:23-25).


After moving his family and possessions to one side of the river, “Ya’akov remained alone” on the other side. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that Ya’akov puts his wives and children in one camp, and he himself “remain[s] alone” — he himself is the other camp. He places himself in the forward camp, the one more exposed to Eisav’s approaching forces, hoping that if Eisav attacks, his family will be able to escape while he battles Eisav. And indeed, this strategy pays off when Ya’akov is the first to be attacked: “Ya’akov remained alone, and a man struggled with him until the dawn arose” (32:25).

   That this “man” is an angel and not a common thug is clear from Ya’akov’s later demand that the “man” bless him. Furthermore, the blessing the “man” gives Ya’akov is later repeated by God Himself. Most conclusive of all, Ya’akov later refers to the encounter as an encounter with God. But what does it mean to wrestle with an angel?

He [the unnamed “man”] saw that he could not beat him, so he touched the socket of his thigh; Ya’akov’s thigh-socket became dislocated as he struggled with him. He [the “man”] said, “Let me go, for the dawn has arisen!” He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Ya’akov.” He said, “No more shall your name be called ‘Ya’akov,’ but instead, ‘Yisrael,’ for you have struggled with God and men, and prevailed.” Ya’akov asked and said, “Please tell me your name!” He said, “Why do you ask my name?” and blessed him there (32:26-30).

   The struggle cannot be a contest of strength, for God could easily have sent an angel to tear Ya’akov limb from limb. He sends the angel to wrestle, but programs the angel not to overpower Ya’akov, for the point of the struggle is not whether Ya’akov will win, but how he  will fight. The physical contest provides the opportunity for a moral test: will Ya’akov face this challenge as he has faced others — with cleverness or flight — or will he face it squarely and compete honestly? Have twenty years as a victim of Lavan’s deceit truly changed him, or does he remain “Ya’akov”? If, seeing that he cannot achieve a quick and easy victory, he turns to subtlety and trickery as before — for example, by trying to dislocate the thigh of the enemy — then he fails the test. If he responds to his opponent’s unfair move of dislocating his thigh with his own dishonest tactic, then he also loses. Only “Ya’akov” would grab at the heel, hoping to unbalance; “Yisrael” meets challenges panim el panim.[46]

   To understand the exchange between Ya’akov and the angel, we must return to Yitzhak’s blessing to Ya’akov. Abravanel points out[47] that berakhot offered by one person to another in the Torah fall into two categories: prediction and prayer. A blessing either reveals the future to the recipient,[48] or it is a prayer on his behalf. Let us examine the blessing of spiritual-national leadership which Ya’akov receives from his father just before leaving for the safety of Lavan’s house. Yitzhak passes this blessing to Ya’akov reluctantly; we suggested that Yitzhak agrees to bless Ya’akov only because Rivka subtly reminds him that Eisav’s marriages to Cana’anite women completely disqualify him from consideration. But Yitzhak expresses his reluctance in the very substance of the blessing itself:

“E-l Shad-dai shall bless you, multiply you and increase you; you shall become a throng of nations. He shall give to you the blessing of Avraham, to you and your children with you, to inherit the land of your dwelling, which God gave to Avraham” (28:3-4).

Paradoxically, this berakha promises only berakha: instead of bestowing a specific boon — wealth, power, children — it promises only blessings. “E-l Shad-dai” will someday bless Ya’akov with countless children, with nationhood, and with the “blessing of Avraham,” including the right to inherit  the Land of Cana’an. Yitzhak, aware of Ya’akov’s flaws, does not actually pass the spiritual-national leadership to Ya’akov at this time at all. Yitzhak’s berakha predicts and prays that Ya’akov will eventually receive these blessings from “E-l Shad-dai”; at that point, “E-l Shad-dai” will come to Ya’akov and bless him. Until then, he must work to deserve the berakhot.[49]

   Who is “E-l Shad-dai”? Obviously, it is God, but why does Yitzhak refer to Him specifically as such? “E-l Shad-dai” first appears in the Torah in a vision to Avraham:

“I am E-l Shad-dai; walk before Me and be perfect. I shall make My covenant with you, and greatly increase you.” Avram fell upon his face, and God spoke to him, saying: “I hereby make My covenant with you; you shall father a multitude of nations. Your name shall no longer be called ‘Avram’; your name shall be ‘Avraham,’ for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will increase you very greatly and make you into nations; kings shall come from you. I shall uphold My covenant between Myself and you, and with your children after you, as an everlasting covenant, to be your God and your children’s after you. I will give to you and your children after you, in their generations, all of the Land of Cana’an as an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Gen. 17:1-8).


   “E-l Shad-dai” makes a permanent covenant with Avraham: Avraham will produce a great nation with a unique relationship with God; his descendants will receive Cana’an as an everlasting possession. E-l Shad-dai is the One who grants the spiritual-national covenant.[50] E-l Shad-dai redefines the individuals He blesses: He renames Avram and Sarai (Sara is renamed in the ensuing pesukim of the section above) to reflect how He has changed them through His blessing, and as we will see, He eventually renames Ya’akov as well.

   Ya’akov knows about E-l Shad-dai’s appearance to his grandfather; he knows who E-l Shad-dai is and what He offers, and he notices that Yitzhak’s berakha to him contained exactly the same elements as the blessing received by Avraham. He understood also that his father had held back the spiritual leadership, giving it to him only in potential, and that he had to earn it. And now that, having learned hard lessons at the hands of Lavan, he has resolved to face the brother he tricked long ago, he knows that his symbolic struggle with the angel has demonstrated his new approach to challenges. He believes that he may now deserve to assume the spiritual-national leadership. So when he requests a blessing, hoping to receive the birkhat Avraham, and the angel renames him — as he knows E-l Shad-dai renamed Avraham and Sarah — he begs to know whether the angel comes in the name of “E-l Shad-dai.” If so, it will mean that he has finally received the blessings given to Avraham and promised by Yitzhak.

   But the angel refuses to tell him, hinting that Ya’akov must take a few more steps in order to merit the berakhot of spiritual leadership, the appearance and blessing of E-l Shad-dai. He must face Eisav and make amends.

   It is now morning, and Eisav approaches. Ya’akov’s camp is no longer split: he has already faced and beaten his challenger the night before. He approaches Eisav, bowing seven times along the way, humbly referring to himself, as before, as Eisav’s servant. By now it is clear that Ya’akov is not simply making a show of self-subordination and false humility, trying to flatter and bribe Eisav into leaving him alone. To do so would undermine all that is honest and face-to-face about this encounter. Ya’akov is treating Eisav as the head of the family, as his superior. Ya’akov explains that the animals he has sent to Eisav are an effort to “find favor” in Eisav’s eyes. Eisav politely tries to decline the gift, but Ya’akov insists:

Ya’akov said, “Please do not [refuse]; if I have found favor in your eyes, take the gift from my hands, because seeing your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please take my blessing, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me, and I have everything.” He urged him, and he took it (33:10-11).


Ya’akov uses the same words to describe seeing Eisav as he used the previous night to describe the confrontation with the angel:

Ya’akov called the place ‘Peniel’ [lit., “face of God”], “For I have seen God face to face, but my soul has been saved” (32:31).

The night before, he saw “God face to face” and struggled; today, he encounters a powerful challenger (another meaning of “Elohim” being “powerful one”) as well; just as “my soul was saved” despite that encounter, “you have accepted me” in this encounter. The gift of animals has never been a bribe in Ya’akov’s mind. It serves a much nobler purpose. Ya’akov begs Eisav to accept the gift because he is admitting that taking Eisav’s blessing was a mistake; symbolically, he is returning the blessing he took from Eisav.[51] Ya’akov risks his life for this moment. In order to clear the record and to deserve the spiritual leadership, he must right this old wrong. Perhaps he cannot literally return the berakha,[52] but by this symbolic gift, he admits his guilt and asks Eisav’s forgiveness. It is crucial for Ya’akov that Eisav accept the gift because Ya’akov wants to walk away with not only his life intact, but also his conscience restored. Eisav understands the gesture and accepts the gift, forgiving Ya’akov.[53]

   All that remains is for Ya’akov to perform an act of leadership by teaching others to face their challenges. The opportunity to demonstrate this arrives with the rape of Ya’akov’s daughter, Dina. Shekhem, prince of a Cana’anite town, rapes Dina, falls in love with her, and proposes marriage. Ya’akov’s sons take charge and agree to the match, provided that all the men of the town undergo circumcision. But then, taking advantage of the recuperating townsmen’s post-circumcision weakness, Shimon and Leivi massacre the town. Ya’akov reacts in horror:

Ya’akov said to Shimon and Leivi, “You have befouled me, sullying me among the people of the land, the Cana’ani and the Perizi. I am few in number — they will gather against me and strike me, and I and my household will be destroyed!” (34:30).


   Shimon and Leivi protest, unable to accept their father’s criticism in the face of the violation of their sister. But Ya’akov has seen his own dishonesty beget terrible consequences, even when justified by extreme circumstances, and he expects revenge for this deceit to be visited on him by the neighboring nations.

   The nations never bother Ya’akov. In fact, we hear later that they fear him. But the family escapes attack for this deceit only because Ya’akov refuses to let it pass unrebuked; God responds by protecting his family, planting fear in the hearts of the neighboring nations:

They traveled; the dread of God was upon the cities around them, and they did not chase after the sons of Ya’akov (35:5).

   At this point, God signals that Ya’akov has merited the spiritual-national berakhot. He commands Ya’akov to go to Beit E-l and make an altar. There, God appears to Ya’akov and delivers the blessings as E-l Shad-dai, just as Yitzhak had predicted and prayed in his blessing:

God appeared to Ya’akov as he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. God said to him, “Your name, ‘Ya’akov,’ shall no longer be your name; instead, ‘Yisrael’ shall be your name,” and He called his name Yisrael. God said to him, “I am E-l Shad-dai; be fruitful and multiply. A nation, a throng of nations shall come from you, and kings shall emerge from your loins. The land I gave to Avraham and to Yitzhak, to you I will give it, and to your children after you, I will give the land” (35:9-12).


   As predicted by Yitzhak, “E-l Shad-dai,” Provider of blessing, Maker of covenants, Changer of names, appears to Ya’akov and renews with him the covenant made with Avraham: God, nationhood, and land. He renames Ya’akov “Yisrael,” “He who struggles with the powerful,” “He who struggles with God,” or “He who rules powerfully,” symbolizing the finality of Ya’akov’s personal transformation. Ya’akov surmounts his central challenge: he transcends himself, rising from the limitations of “Ya'akov” to moral and spiritual power and national destiny as “Yisrael.”

I would like to thank the following people for reviewing this essay and offering valuable comments: my father and teacher, Benyomin Mayer, Sally Mayer, Daniel Mayer, Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Dr. Joel Wolowelsky, Dr. Moshe Bernstein, Seth Berkowitz, Zvi Romm, and several others.


[1]Dr. David Berger, “On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis,” in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, Rabbi Shalom Carmy, ed. (Aronson: Northvale, NJ, 1996). See especially pp. 140-146 and notes 21, 22, and 25.


[2]Ibid., p. 145, note 31.


[3] To put it slightly differently, evidence of patriarchal misdeeds in the Torah is most discomforting if we understand that when Hazal spoke of the Avot, they intended to record history rather than offer didactic lessons. If, however, we understand Hazal’s comments on the Avot to be about the present and the future (“What is it like to be a ‘Ya’akov’ rather than an ‘Eisav’?”) rather than the past (“What did the historical person ‘Ya’akov’ intend when he made this statement?”), it is less troubling to interpret the text of the Torah literally when it states or implies patriarchal misdeed. Indeed, this approach leaves room for the understanding that the Torah, understood literally, may convey different lessons about Ya’akov than those conveyed by the midrashim of Hazal.


[4]While this essay will trace many of the events of Ya’akov’s life, the constraints of space prevent the analysis from extending to the latter half of his life. Dr. David Berger’s article does some of the work of interpreting events in the latter half of Ya’akov’s life in line with the patterns developed here.


[5]Ibn Ezra and Rashbam to Gen. 25:27; see Gen. 4:20 and Rashbam ad loc.


[6]See 1 Melakhim 9:4, Tehillim 25:21, 37:37, Iyyov 1:1, 1:8, 2:3.


[7]But see Rashbam 25:31, who sees the soup not as payment for the birthright but as the meal traditionally held to seal or celebrate an agreement.


[8]See Ibn Ezra 25:31, Radak 25:31, and Rashbam 25:31, 25:32, who assert that the birthright entitles its bearer to a double portion of the family wealth; Ibn Ezra and Radak add that it entitles the firstborn to leadership of the family.


[9]Eino baki be-khol eileh,” Rashi 25:27. This interpretation follows Rashi’s explanation of the word “tam,” but not Rashi’s explanation of the differences between the brothers.


[10]Ish tam is translated as “a quiet man” by Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-12, A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis, 1985), p. 411.


[11]Even at this early point in the story, Eisav may deserve pity, but not admiration. He remains focused on today’s hunger and ignores tomorrow’s birthright: “Here I am dying, what good will the birthright do for me?” (25:32). Even Eisav knows this is nonsense — the Torah tells us that he is actually only “ayef” (25:29), tired, not dying, but Eisav silences his judgment for the soup.


[12]J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (Assen and Amsterdam, 1975), pp. 90-91, notes that Ya’akov’s name and the corresponding position in which he is born confirm Rivka’s prophecy that the two brothers will struggle for supremacy. But the word “Ya’akov” and the grabbing of the heel connote not only competition, but trickery.


[13]See Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis (New York, 1989), who takes a decidedly different view in Excursus 21, pp. 397-8.


[14]Avraham had been told by God that the Cana’anites would eventually sink to such evil that in several generations, they would deserve the destruction they would suffer at the hands of Avraham’s descendants, who would return from Egypt to conquer the Land (15:16).


[15]See Gen. 25:28.


[16]See Targum Onkelos 25:28, Rashi 25:28, Ibn Ezra 25:28, Radak 25:28, Rashbam 25:28, Ramban 25:28, Hizkuni 25:28.


[17]One other subtle confirmation of the idea that Yitzhak admires Eisav for his hunting/leadership ability is what Yitzhak says after smelling Eisav’s clothing (which Ya’akov is wearing) in order to confirm that the son who has brought him food is indeed Eisav: “.  .  . the smell of my son is like the smell of a field blessed by God” (Gen. 27:27). Yitzhak sees Eisav’s involvement with and mastery of the outside world, the field, as evidence that he deserves the blessing, which Yitzhak then gives to the son he believes is Eisav. It is also crucial to note that at this point, Yitzhak is certainly unaware of Eisav’s sale of the birthright for a bowl of soup, since this knowledge would have shattered his image of Eisav as a leader.


[18]See Gen. 25:23. Most commentators argue that Rivka had never informed Yitzhak of this prophecy, for if she had, he would never have attempted to flout the Divine will by blessing Eisav with leadership. Why she did not report this prophecy to him during her pregnancy (when she received it) or at some other time remains a difficult issue. See Abravanel 25:23. If we assume that she did not tell him before, it becomes clear that she cannot simply tell him of the prophecy now because she fears that Yitzhak, knowing of her preference for Ya’akov, may refuse to believe that she received such a prophecy, and may assume that she has invented it in order to force him to bless Ya’akov instead of Eisav.


[19]Abravanel (25:23) adds that the very language of the prediction that “the older will serve the younger” is ambiguous and can also be understood to mean the opposite. Furthermore, he adds, this prediction was accompanied by another: “each nation will overpower the other,” indicating that Ya’akov and Eisav will each rule the other at different times in history. This prophecy, then, heralds conflict and competition between the two sons and their descendants, not that one will permanently rule the other.


[20]Ya’akov cannot tell his father about the deal with Eisav (birthright for soup) because Yitzhak would think poorly of Ya’akov for taking advantage of Eisav, or worse, refuse to recognize the sale.


[21] The root of “ye-akveini” is the same as that of the name “Ya’akov.”


[22]She cannot openly argue that Yitzhak select Ya’akov because Yitzhak, knowing her long-standing preference for Ya’akov, might dismiss her as blinded by her general favoritism toward Ya’akov. She must communicate in such a way that Yitzhak draws the conclusion on his own.


[23]As explained above, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Rivka have already expressed deep unhappiness with the Cana’anite women as marriage partners for their children; moreover, God has told Avraham that their evil will eventually justify their destruction.


[24]Robert Alter notes this subtlety of Rivka’s tactic in his Genesis, Translation and Commentary (New York, 1996), p. 144. Note also that Eisav “wakes up” at this point, sees that Ya’akov has been commanded not to marry a native woman, and that Ya’akov has received the blessing of Avraham. Too late, he tries to show his worthiness by taking one of Yishmael’s daughters as a wife.


[25]See Gen. 30:27.


[26] See Beit Ha-Levi Al Ha-Torah, p. 33, s.v. Lo Ye-aseh, who asserts that Lavan intends to hint to Ya’akov that although placing the younger before the elder may be accepted practice in his home town, it is not accepted in Haran.


[27]See Gen. 29:13, “Va-ye-saper le-Lavan et kol ha-devarim ha-eileh.


[28]The picture of Lavan as righteous avenger seems somewhat improbable in view of his character and his dishonest dealings with Ya’akov.


[29]See Alter, p. 155.


[30]Va-yitz’ak tze’aka gedola u-mara,” 27:34.


[31] See Alter, p. 157.


[32]Midrash Tanhuma, ed. S. Buber (Vilna, 1885), Va-Yetzei 11, p. 152 (I thank Dr. Berger for the citation). See also Bereshit Rabbah 70:19. See also Berger, ibid., pp. 142-3, note 25.


[33]Ramban 30:1 cites Bereshit Rabba, which has God responding to Ya’akov’s anger at Rahel’s request for children: “This is how you answer the downtrodden?! By your life — your children will stand before hers!”, a reference to Ya’akov’s sons from Le’ah standing before the powerful Yosef, son of Rahel. Alter (p. 158) notes that Rahel’s desperation and her mention of her death recall Eisav’s similar histrionics and mention of his own impending death: “Here I am, about to die; what good will the birthright do for me?” But the contrast of the scenes is instructive: Ya’akov was then powerful and in control; now he is powerless and frustrated.


[34]See Ibn Ezra 30:14, Radak 30:14, Ramban 30:14, Seforno 30:14.


[35]Gen. 30:16 — “Sakhor sekhartikha be-duda’ei beni.”



[36]Gen. 25:34 — “Va-yivez Eisav et ha-bekhora” — “Eisav treated the birthright with contempt.”


[37]Gen. 27:43 — “Ve-ata beni, shema be-koli, ve-kum berah lekha el Lavan . . . .”


[38]The parallel and contrast between Ya’akov and Moshe is illuminating: both flee their country to avoid a murderous pursuer; both immediately encounter shepherds gathered at a well; both encounter women shepherds there; both provide water for the women shepherds’ flocks; both move into the household of the father of the women shepherds; both marry the women shepherds; both become shepherds for their fathers-in-law; both have children in this household; both experience prophetic revelation there. But while Ya’akov leaves without saying a word to Lavan, Moshe takes care to ask Yitro for permission to leave.


[39]See Seforno 31:36, Abravanel 31:31-32.


[40] Lavan’s attempt to save face is surely calculated by the Torah to make us smile: the very man whose daughters testify that their father considered them “foreigners” (“nakhriyyot”), that he had literally “sold” them away and usurped their inheritance, now apparently feels so tenderly toward his daughters that he insists on establishing a special covenant with Ya’akov for the protection of their rights.


[41]See Ibn Ezra 32:7, perhaps Ramban 32:7.


[42]One other aspect of Ya’akov’s preparation for this confrontation is his prayer:


Ya’akov said, “God of my father Avraham, and God of my father Yitzhak, the God who said to me, ‘Return to your land and birthplace, and I shall be good to you’: I am unworthy of all the kindness and support You have given to your servant, for I crossed this Jordan [river] with only my walking-stick, and now I have two camps! Please save me from the hand of my brother, the hand of Eisav, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, mothers upon children; and You have said, ‘I shall be very good to you, and make your descendants like the sand of the sea, too numerous to count’ ” (Gen. 32:10-13).


                This prayer, composed as Ya’akov enters Cana’an, is the second of Ya’akov’s prayers reported by the Torah. The first prayer came twenty years before, as he fled Cana’an for Lavan’s house in Haran. Comparing the two prayers illuminates Ya’akov’s growth:


Ya’akov swore an oath, saying, “If God will be with me, protect me on this road I follow, give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, return me safely to my father’s house, and be my God, then this stone, which I have set up as an altar, will become a house of God, and whatever You give to me, I will give to You a tenth” (Gen. 28:20-22).


                Many commentators are deeply troubled by this prayer/oath. Are these favors which Ya’akov asks of God (protection, food and shelter, safe return home, religious relationship) not the very same favors which God has just promised to Ya’akov in that night’s dream-vision of the ladder? Why does Ya’akov need to make this oath? Perhaps, though he believes the promises, Ya’akov conceives of the God-man relationship as a reciprocity, on a subtle level. He responds to God’s generosity and protection by promising to “reciprocate”; God should keep this deal because, as it were, He has something to gain from it as well.


                Twenty painful years later, Ya’akov’s conception of his relationship with God has shifted dramatically. The prayer he utters as he contemplates facing Eisav reflects this shift: in the first prayer, he had something to offer God in return for His help. He “deserved” Divine assistance, as it were, because he had promised to “pay” for it, at least symbolically. But now, beseeching God for protection, Ya’akov emphasizes that he deserves nothing; he acknowledges all that God has done for him as complete hesed, and rests his appeal solely on the promises God has made to him and on the relationship God had established with “my father Avraham” and “my father Yitzhak.” The prayer communicates not only his desperate request for help, but also his recognition that nothing he can offer God can in any way reciprocate.


[43]See Radak 32:4.


[44]I am grateful to Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh for pointing out the “panim” pattern to me.


[45]Abravanel 32:8.


[46]See Alter, p. 181, who also sees Ya’akov’s struggle as a stuggle with himself.


[47]Abravanel 27:1.


[48]The classic example of this type of berakha is the series of berakhot which Ya’akov offers to his sons at the end of Genesis. On one hand, the Torah describes this as blessing — “This is how their father spoke to them and blessed them, each man according to the blessing that he blessed them” (49:28). On the other hand, Ya’akov himself characterizes the blessings as prediction of the future — “Ya’akov called to his sons and said, “Gather together, and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days” (49:1).


[49]See also Fokkelman, p. 57, who understands that in this “blessing” Yitzhak only predicts blessing, and does not actually bless Ya’akov. Note, however, that Fokkelman believes that Ya’akov receives the promised blessings from God during the dream-vision of the ladder.


[50]See Rashi, Shemot 6:3, Rashbam Shemot 6:3,


[51]Abravanel 33:11 suggests this interpretation but does not accept it fully.


[52]It seems likely that this attempt to return the berakha is only symbolic, and that the berakha itself cannot be transferred, as Yitzhak makes explicit when he realizes that he has blessed Ya’akov instead of Eisav: “I have blessed him, and he will indeed be blessed.” Abravanel (27:33) explains that once a berakha is given, it cannot be rescinded.


[53]See also Alter, p. 186, who understands Ya’akov’s gift as an attempt to restore the stolen blessings to Eisav.

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