The scene is terrible, traumatic. Jacob is about to deceive his father with his mother’s help. Isaac, who can barely see, questions Jacob again and again. Is he really Esau? He doesn’t sound like Isaac’s eldest son, but he does smell like him, and his hands are hairy, as are Esau’s. Despite his doubts, Isaac eats the meal. He gives Jacob the blessing he had intended for his firstborn, beloved child.
Esau returns and discovers his loss. Bitterly, he asks whether Jacob got his name due to his naturally duplicitous nature. Ya’akov comes from a Hebrew root that means ‘heel,’ but may also describe the worst sort of sneaky behavior – coming up from behind, crushing the enemy under your heel, circumventing, overreaching. Jacob is, means, “crooked.” Esau cries out in anguish: “Father, have you no blessing for me?”
The Zohar teaches that when a soul is about to be born, it chooses its parents. And then, the Zohar explains, we are to go through life doing teshuva, facing and resolving not only all our failings from previous lives, but even the failings we experience at the hands of our own mothers and fathers.
Truth has been withheld from Isaac before. Surely, he knew. He asked only one question on that long walk to Mount Moria: “Father, where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
Isaac is wiser now, more inclined to question when Jacob – or is it Esau? – arrives at his bedside. Who are you? Are you really? How did you manage to return so quickly? Who am I really talking to?
Isaac was just a toddler when his elder brother was banished to the wilderness. Ishmael, like Esau, is described as an active, physically adept man – sturdy and fleet-footed. Ishmael will not be favored. Isaac will inherit.
Does Isaac see his brother in his impulsive elder son? Does Isaac feel compelled to do teshuva for his parents, who arranged Hagar’s pregnancy, who are responsible for Ishmael’s creation, who later make certain that it is their Isaac, not Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, that inherits all that his father has?
The child of an alcoholic often grows up to be over-responsible, to assure his or her family’s safety. There will not be unpredictable rages, irresponsible behavior. The family’s safety will be protected. Teshuva for the neglect of the parent becomes a lifelong – and worthy endeavor. The child who has been abused grows up to the same insistent responsibility: There will not be a repeat; her children will be guarded, cared for. No harm will befall them.
Does Isaac, the pawn in the story of his near-sacrifice – the helpless inheritor of his father’s legacy – does this man need to redress the wrong against a brother who did not deserve his secondary status?
Isaac does not succeed. Esau pays the price. But so does Jacob. Jacob, who lies and deceives others will be deceived himself – he will be tricked into marrying the wrong sister, forced to work double time to pay the bride price for the girl he really wanted to marry. Jacob’s own sons will deceive their father when he is old, claiming that their brother Joseph died in the desert when they had themselves sold him into slavery. The job of teshuva goes on, and continues, generation after generation.
We are often blind in the face of our own complicated motivations. But Judaism also insists that the world is created anew each day for a reason. We can make up for our parents’ mistakes. We can make up for our own. Teshuva, return, is a choice.
May it be our practice.