“Isaac loved Esau because of the game in his mouth, but Rebecca loves Jacob.” The sages of all generations have tackled the many questions that arise from this verse: Why did Isaac love Esau? Was he not aware of Esau’s conduct? Why did he want to bless Esau and not his brother Jacob, a tent-dweller dedicated to Torah? And why, after learning that Jacob had “stolen” the blessings did Isaac respond, “Indeed, he shall be blessed”?
Following in the footsteps of the sages, we too will meditate upon these questions in the light of traditional Chassidic interpretations.
Abraham: Spreading light
The key to understanding parashat Toldot lies in the persona of Isaac and in his unique way of serving God. In order to understand how this is so, we will compare the two patriarchs, Isaac and Abraham.
During the first moments of creation, when the world was steeped in darkness, God said, “Let there be light” and the sages teach us that Abraham’s advent similarly illuminated the world with a new light. Abraham wandered from place to place, teaching monotheism to people entrenched in ignorance and vanity. He called out in God’s Name, teaching them faith in God and all-encompassing love. But, what weight does Abraham place upon mundane reality? The mundane seems to trouble him very little. The world is still far from recognizing God, from following God’s will and Abraham’s main mission in life remains to fill reality with as much light as possible. If, “a small amount of light can dismiss a great deal of darkness,” then even more light can dismiss huge amounts of darkness, illuminating all of reality with Divinity. Abraham ensconced everyone he met in the light of his “mitzvah campaigns” and enlightened them with his Torah, mitzvot and good deeds. Abraham’s only interest in the big wide world is to help it discover God’s oneness, the secret of the Divine nothingness.
Perhaps it is unclear how Abraham’s method could eventually lead to the ultimate rectification and to the advent of Mashiach, but it is obviously true that the world has to be awakened and illuminated. In fact, this is the teaching that the Ba’al Shem Tov learnt from Mashiach himself. The Ba’al Shem Tov asked, “When will you finally come, sir?” and Mashiach replied, “When your wellsprings [i.e., the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Chassidic teachings] are disseminated outwardly.”
Isaac: Digging wells
Isaac’s service of God was totally different from Abraham’s, so much so that it is surprising that Isaac is Abraham’s son. Indeed, the Torah makes a point of stating that Isaac is Abraham’s son, as the verse states, “This is the chronology of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham bore Isaac,” as if there is a need to emphasize that despite the essential difference between them, surprisingly enough, Abraham did indeed bear Isaac.
Isaac did not illuminate the world with mitzvah campaigns. In fact, they seem to have no place in his life. Isaac dug wells. If we meditate on the deeper meaning of digging wells, we can say that Isaac saw the crude material world for exactly what it is, but he also perceived God’s existence in everything, even in coarse matter. Isaac’s goal was to expose the fact that, “God is all, and all is God.” Even the brightest light can only illuminate reality from outside but Isaac desired to penetrate the inner substance of the world and uncover the Divine spark that vitalizes it. Isaac’s consciousness was at the highest realm of truth and he recognized that there is truly “nothing apart from Him.” Although the physical world appears to be an entity separate from its Creator, appearances are misleading. The true nature of reality is exactly the opposite—it is one with God— and the truth must be revealed. Isaac digs and drills deeper and deeper into the earth to reveal that the earth which seems so dry, barren and far-removed from the Divine, is actually a fresh-water well waiting to be revealed; dark and dry reality actually conceals God Himself.
This then is why Isaac loved Esau. He knew that Esau was a full-blooded and tempestuous man of the field, that he lived and breathed the crudeness of the mundane, and that is exactly what Isaac loved about him. Isaac’s greatest desire was to take hold of a hunk of material reality and reveal how it—the created substance of reality (היש הנברא)—perfectly reflects the Divine—the true substance of reality (היש האמיתי). That is why Isaac wanted to bless Esau. Isaac believed that by the power of his blessings, Esau would be transformed into a new man and his very crudeness would expose the true Divinity that vitalizes the world. Whereas Abraham illuminated reality with candles and flashlights, Isaac was searching for the main power switch that would convert night into day in one fell swoop.
Jacob: Long-term clarifications
Having contrasted Isaac with his father Abraham, let us continue to compare between Isaac and his son, Jacob. Jacob’s mission of Divine service was neither to illuminate reality from above, like his grandfather, Abraham, nor to follow Isaac’s philosophy by digging and delving into reality to reveal that everything is Divine. Jacob sets out to clarify and refine reality. On the one hand his philosophy is similar to Isaac’s, because he sullies his hands with physical reality and is not content with illuminating it from the outside. Yet Jacob’s goal is to refine darkness by gradually identifying and gathering more and more sparks of holiness that have fallen into the physical world, and to redeem and elevate them as he did when he salvaged his own herd from Laban’s flocks.
In Chassidic terms this is called the “service of clarifications.” Almost all our Torah study and performance of mitzvot is aimed at achieving this end—to elevate reality piece by piece. This service is by nature protracted and demands patience, as Jacob said to Esau when he tactfully refused his invitation to join him on his journey to Se’ir, “I will move on at my own slow pace… until I reach my master at Seir.” As alluded to by the numerical value of, “I will move on at my own slow pace” (אתנהלה לאטי), which equals “Israel” (ישראל)—the name Jacob received from Esau’s own archangel, suggesting that Esau’s essence succumbs to Jacob’s plan—Jacob’s method is to progress slowly and gradually, until reality has indeed been refined and all its good points have been gathered together like flocks at a well. This is Jacob’s program for bringing redemption; a long-term plan that slowly but surely refines reality until all clarifications are complete and we merit the advent of Mashiach.
Delivering a knockout?
But let’s get back to Isaac. He is not at all impressed with Jacob’s service. Isaac does not see Jacob’s plan as fulfilling the purpose of life, because even after all reality has been refined and all the fallen sparks of holiness have been gathered up, the lowest reality itself remains dark and distant from the Divine. In fact, what has happened is that it is now completely empty of all the good that it previously contained and there is nothing left to be done with the empty shells and the refuse that have been left behind during the refining process. Rather, Chassidut teaches us that Isaac’s service was not the service of clarifications but the service of unifications, meaning that his goal was to unite the mundane (all of it) with God Himself.
Whereas Jacob carries on slowly but surely, Isaac’s philosophy is to overcome lower reality in one fell swoop by dealing it a triumphant blow, one hard punch that will knock it out and turn it all into pure Divinity. In our case, this blow is in the form of the superlative blessing that Isaac intended to give to Esau; a blessing that was intended to penetrate so deep into Esau’s psyche that it would reveal the essential Divinity that vitalizes his coarseness. Jacob can continue to sit in his tents, which is all well and good, but Esau’s reformation was Isaac’s primary goal.
But Isaac’s plan went awry and Jacob stole the stage with his mother Rebecca pulling the strings behind the scenes. Rebecca’s soul-root is the same as that of Isaac, which is why they are the Torah’s perfect couple. Yet, although Rebecca was aware of the ultimate goal, revealing that “all is God.” But, she also knew that Isaac was already living that future reality and could not see Esau for what he really was. Rebbeca realized that to reach her and Isaac’s common goal in practice, they would need to involve Jacob. Rebecca did see Esau for what he truly was and concluded that Esau could not be blessed “as is.” She believed that Isaac’s blessing, as potent as it may be, would not transform Esau, who would adamantly refuse to change. The blessings would only infuse him with even more power to continue down his virulent path. The full force of Isaac’s knockout punch would not finish Esau off, and history would have to go many more rounds with him.
Before reality can be transformed it must be refined, because there are some of its aspects that must completely disappear, as the prophet says, “I [God] will remove the unclean spirit from the earth.” In the future we will indeed reach Isaac’s level. At the same time, Esau himself—the good in him—will have been refined. Then, “the redeemed will climbMt.Zionto judge theMountainofEsau.” But in the meantime, we need to follow Jacob’s method.
Jacob was also well aware of this and he was aware that at the end of his long journey he would reach Isaac’s level. He too agreed that there is good in his brother Esau, which is why he wore his clothes, “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau.” Once Isaac understood the message that Rebecca and Jacob had conveyed to him, he acknowledged the truth of their insights and confirmed his blessing to Jacob, “Indeed, he [Jacob] shall be blessed.”
“We want Mashiach, please!”
Every Jew carries in him the essence of all three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But there are individuals in whom Isaac’s soul-root manifests in particular. In our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe led a mass-arousal to usher in the true and complete redemption. The Rebbe constantly stressed that redemption is right here waiting to make its entrance and all we have to do is open our eyes to see it. The Rebbe repeatedly proclaimed: “Mashiach, Now!” He also stressed that Esau himself is now ready for redemption and all that remains for Mashiach to arrive are our final actions.
Of course, the Rebbe knew (better than us) that Isaac eventually submitted to Rebecca and Jacob’s philosophy, but he also saw us as an updated version of Isaac. Thousands of years have passed since Isaac let Jacob lead the way, and we have already come a long, long way with his service of clarification. Indeed, the Rebbe explicitly stated that “the service of clarifications is over.” Jacob’s service has reached its final stage and we are close to achieving Isaac’s goal.
Nonetheless, the Rebbe did not speak of knocking reality out with a single blow. Rather, he taught that redemption should be brought about with pleasant and peaceful ways. Even when the Rebbe cried, “Mashiach, now!” he was not suggesting we forcefully overpower reality. He sent us out to influence the world in a way that the world could understand and accept.
This can be illustrated with a linguistic twist. One word that sounds similar to and means the same as the English “now” (in “Mashiach, now!”) is נא, as in the phrase, “Now I know” (הנה נא ידעתי), but this word, which is an almost precise transliteration of “now,” also means “please,” as in the phrase, “Please say you are my sister” (אמרי נא אחותי את). Apparently, the Lubavitcher Rebbe not only wanted “Mashiach, now!” he also wanted “Mashiach, please!” When we say, “We want Mashiach now!” we also mean, “We want Mashiach, please!” If our request for Mashiach is accepted, then there is nothing to hold him back from appearing at this very moment.
From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class of 28th Cheshvan, 5773