The Blessing of a Father: Isaac's "Blindness"?

The choreography of Yaakov’s “theft” of Esav’s blessing is well-known. Favored by Rivkah , he conspires with her to take advantage of his father’s failing eyesight to win Yitzchak’s blessing, leaving Esav, favored by his father, to go without the honor of the first-born. This reading of parshat Toldot makes central the animosity between the two sons, an animosity that originated in the womb and continued unabated through adulthood.

But perhaps our reading is too focused and misses a more enduring lesson. While we know that it was common at that time for the first-born to receive the blessing, certainly Isaac – wise, caring and experienced in the nuance of difficult sibling relations – understood how blessing one or the other could only have exacerbated the ill-feelings between his sons.

The Malbim asks bluntly: “Why was Yitzchak so insistent on blessing Esav? Did he not know that Esav was a man of the field and Yaakov was a ‘simple man’? Furthermore, could he not have blessed both equally?”

Some, including the Abravanel, accuse Yitzchak of being unaware of the profound differences in the characters and personalities of his sons. Perhaps old age or the abundance of love had “blinded” him to these realities. After all, the Abravanel notes, the Torah itself reports that as Yitzchak aged, “his eyes were dim,” suggesting “that his powers of judgment grew dim and he was not able to see reality.”

In understanding his “blindness”, the Midrash goes even further:

When Abraham sacrificed his son on the altar, the ministering angels wept, and the tears dropped from their eyes into his eyes and were impressed into his eyes. As soon as he became old, his eyes therefore became dim. Another explanation: When Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac on the altar, he sent his glance on high and beheld the Divine Presence.

To the Midrash, Yitzchak’s “blindness” was not the result of aging but rather his earlier, all-consuming religious experience of the Akedah. Yitzchak could see God but because he could, he could not possibly see or comprehend that his own son Esav would go astray.

Surely our own experience bolsters this view. Just as contemporary spiritual leaders are blind to how fine, observant Jewish families can give birth to “Esavs”, who move further and further away from observance, customs and the derech, so too Yitzchak could not comprehend how his firstborn, Esav, asker of sensitive and detailed Halachic questions, could be anything but a good son.

Despite sharing such experience, we must ultimately reject this reading of Yitzchak. If it were accurate why would the Torah inform us in such emphatic terms that when Esav went out to marry the Hittite wives, there was “a bitterness of spirit unto Isaac and to Rebecca”? The Midrash emphasizes that the verse mentions Isaac before Rebecca as being revolted by Esau’s choice of wives, because of his strong convictions and exclusive heritage (veze shehaya ben kedoshim haya makpid al tinofet akum). Hardly the response of a misled or confused father!

Yitzchak strongly and openly communicated his awareness, understanding, and disapproval, of Esav’s behavior and yet… he still wanted to convey his blessing to this son, this son who was a source of such distress!

Ironically, the Radak explains that rather than being a reason not to bless Esav; it is precisely because of his awareness of Esav’s traits, and inadequacies, because he did fully understand Esav’s rebellious and antagonistic nature, that he felt the need to bless him in the hope that Esav would mend his ways.

“He thought,” says the Ohr Hachayim, “that through the blessings he will change for the better and mend his ways.”

In this context, we can begin to better understand how the angelic and Divine tears of the Akedah affected Isaac and informed his decision about the blessing of his son. Only one who has become a tzadik emet can truly “see” the genuine qualities of each individual and distinguish between the Yaakovs and the Esavs; only he is able to communicate to each his deserved blessing.

Therefore, rather than interpret the Midrash as depicting Yitzchak as so overwhelmed by the Akedah experience that he would be unable to see the differences between his sons, we understand it as giving Isaac the necessary capacity to “see” fully, to bless. Because of the Akedah, Yitzchak achieved the level of gevurah, the pachad Yitzchak, which he needed to fully distinguish between good and evil and to bless. (Ramchal)

Ultimately then, to bless is to recognize. When we bless God we recognize that He has the capacity to “bring forth bread from the earth”; He has “commanded us to eat matzoh,” In distress, when we utter “baruch Dayan Ha’emet”, we recognize God’s role in judgment. So it is with every blessing. In blessing, we do not “convey” anything to God. Rather, we recognize God’s glory and power in providing that for which we bless.

God, in His kindness, allowed the few deserving of each generation to be endowed with the capacity to bless – to recognize. Just as mortals are able to develop the spiritual vision, to become more attuned to God’s wonders, attributes, and strengths, so the tzadik – a mortal, yes, yet removed from the pleasures, id, and ego of worldly experience – is able to bless, by recognizing the uniqueness, individuality, needs, abilities, and capacities of every man.

The tzadik’s blessing, never random or casual, is a result of his uplifted spiritual level, a result of his avodah, a manifestation of his glance on high beholding the Divine Presence.

Yitzchak recognized Esav. He was not blinded or deluded. He knew him exactly what he was. He recognized that a blessing for him meant “dew of heaven, fat places of the earth, plenty of corn and wine,” the rewards of the physical. He knew that wealth and power could eventually destroy him. Rather than recoil, it was because of this knowledge that he continued to bless him. “Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesses you.” This is not the confusion of an aged or alienated father, but the recognition of a tzadik emet, one who knows that human nature is not easily changed, but can be cultivated and nurtured positively.

Yaakov, by this understanding, was not in need of a blessing. From the womb he was to be the continuing link in the chain of the Avot. His destiny was already foretold to Abraham, and to Isaac. It is Yitzchak’s wish, then, that Yaakov’s full potential be realized, just as God had promised. To Yaakov, then, Isaac merely reiterates God’s blessing:

And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee . . . and give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land of thy sojournings, which God gave unto Abraham.

In conveying a bracha to Yaakov, Yitzchak recognizes and acknowledges that which God had already promised. In blessing Esav, Isaac exercises his own responsibility as a parent, to recognize Esav for what he is, and channel his characteristics positively and constructively.

The Ramban, in Parshat Ekev, posits that every bracha found in the Torah is an expression of support. A bracha is a prayer that conditions and circumstances during one’s lifetime will allow the individual to reach his or her full potential. Yaakov is an ish tam yoshev ohalim. He requires no bracha, just reinforcement. Esav, however, possesses an evil essence. He needs a bracha; he needs support if his conditions and circumstances will be overcome, and that he will be able to indeed accumulate the fat of the earth, the corn and the wine. Yet, at the same time, “Let nations serve thee, be Lord over thy brethren, curseth be everyone that curseth thee” (see Ohr Gedalyahu—Bereshit, pp. 83-84).

As if to emphasize this point, the Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer depicts Isaac summoning Esau for the blessing on the night of Passover:

The nightfall of the festival day of Passover came, and Isaac called unto Esau his elder son, and said: “O my son, tonight the heavenly ones utter songs, on this night the blessing of the dew is bestowed. Make me savory meat whilst I am still alive and I will bless thee.”

Why on the night of Passover? Because on the night of the Seder we are forced to understand, more than on any other occasion, that there are at least four types of children who will grow into different types of adults. The perceptive parent, skilled teacher, and genuine tzadik emet, in order to teach and bless effectively, need to recognize that they must fit the manner of parenting, study, and blessing to the quality and capacity for understanding and feeling of each individual child. The Haggadah speaks of four sons to indicate that each one is to be taught and instructed in a manner suitable for him or her, as long as the goals and aims are all positive.

Isaac recognized Esav. He knew him to be a cunning hunter; his course was violence. He, more than Yaakov, required blessing and support.

Let then his hunt be used for the Passover sacrifice on the night when “the treasuries of dew are opened.” After all, his desire is for “dew of heaven, fat of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.” The tzadik emet knew the nature of his son.

He recognized.

He blessed.