Family Dynamics

Sometimes family life can be complicated, but the family of Yitzchak and Rivka was particularly complex. At the root of the complexity was a prophecy: God informed Rivka that her two children, Esav and Yaakov, would be in conflict, that each would sire a separate nation, and that the younger of the two (Yaakov) would be superior.[1] As far as we know, Rivka never repeated this prophecy to her husband Yitzchak. Perhaps she reasoned that had God wanted Yitzchak to be privy to this "inside information," He would have shared it with him directly; Yitzchak was certainly no less a prophet than she.

Years go by; the boys grow up, and Rivka acts upon the knowledge of the future she has been given.[2] When she hears that Yitzchak intends to bestow blessings on Esav, she instructs Yaakov to go surreptitiously and take those blessings. Yaakov is afraid that his father will discover the ruse, and will curse him rather than bless him.[3] Rivka assures him that if a curse is forthcoming, she will be the one to bear the brunt of it.

As Yaakov voices his reservations, his inner world is revealed - and it is a place of spirituality: Yaakov fears his father, as a son should, but he does not fear for his own physical safety, nor does he consider what his enraged brother might do to him. He concerns himself only with blessings and curses, with the spiritual fallout of what his mother has commanded him to do; he gives not a thought to the fury or the physical strength of his brother the hunter.

On the other hand, it is altogether possible that Yaakov was not afraid of Esav's reaction because they had already made a deal: Years earlier, Yaakov had purchased the birthright from Esav. This is no trifling matter; the birthright - and more particularly the responsibilities it brought with it - weighed upon Esav like a millstone around his neck. Yaakov had offered him a way out, and he was convinced that Esav loved him for helping him escape the hated burden of being firstborn. Esav detested the birthright, and – at the time – was happy to be rid of it.[4]

Now, years later, perhaps Esav was embarrassed to admit to his father that he had sold the birthright and forfeited his right to the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Looking back on the bargain he had struck with Yaakov years earlier, Esav reconsiders his brother's act of kindness, and with hindsight construes it as having been self-serving, even conniving.  Esav manages to forget how eager he had been at the time to accept Yaakov's offer, and how, at the time, he had been only too eager to escape the onerous burden of responsibility.

Yaakov believed, quite sincerely in fact, that Esav was still grateful for relieving him of the birthright, but understood that Esav would have to save face rather than admit to his father what he had done years earlier. The plan to spare both Yitzchak and Esav from this dreaded confrontation was simple and ingenious: Yaakov would present himself as Esav, receive the blessings earmarked for the firstborn which were rightfully his, and neither Esav nor Yitzchak would be forced to confront the sad reality of Esav's negative attitude. There was only one possible problem with the plan: What if Yitzchak saw through the disguise?  This was Yaakov's only concern; he feared his father's curse, his disappointment, his hurt response – both to the ruse and to the secret it was meant to conceal.

Rivka allayed his fears; she assured him that if any curse was to come from this plan, it would be on her own head: "On me," she says – "alai" – spelled Ayin, Lamed, and Yud. The Vilna Gaon points out that these three letters form an acronym of the names of three people who tormented Yaakov later in life: Esav, Lavan and the tragedy of Yosef. Despite Yaakov’s clear conscience, despite his conviction that the blessings of the firstborn were rightly his, despite the fact that Rivka devised the scheme because she was convinced that she was acting to fulfill the prophecy with which she had been entrusted, and despite Rivka's assurance that Yaakov would be unharmed and any curse would fall on her own head – Yaakov’s fear was well founded, albeit not as he imagined: Esav was furious, and vowed to hunt him down and kill him. Lavan abused him for years. His own children did not fear or respect him; they abused their brother Yosef, considered murdering him, and sold him into slavery, leaving Yaakov to suffer and grieve for decades.

When Yaakov impersonated his brother and pulled the wool over his father's eyes, he inherited a life punctuated by pain.

[1] Bereishit 25:23.

[2] See Targum Unkolus Bereishit 27:13, and Commentary of Rashbam Bereishit 27:13.

[3] Bereishit 27:12.

[4] Bereishit 25:34.