Rabbi Dror Berma
Former Rosh Kollel in London (2000-2002)
Our parsha relates how Rivka instructs Yaakov to disguise himself in order to receive the bracha which Yitzchak had intended to bestow upon Esav. When Yaakov leaves and Esav subsequently enters in order to receive the bracha, Yitzchak understands that something went wrong. The Torah then states:
“And Yitzchak trembled a very great trembling, and he said, ‘Who, then, is the one who hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate of everything while you had not yet come, and I blessed him; he, too, shall be blessed.” (Breishit 27:33)
This pasuk leaves us with two troubling questions. First of all, Yitzchak realizes that his plans went awry. The bracha which he had intended for Esav went to someone else. Yitzchak is justifiably aggravated, but why should he tremble? Furthermore, why does the Torah stress that it was “a very great trembling”?
This is the first time that we hear about Yitzchak trembling. For example, even when Avraham took him on a three-day’s journey together with the wood and the slaughtering knife, Yitzchak does not tremble. Avraham then binds him to the mizbe’ach (altar) and picks up the knife in order to slaughter his son, but the Torah does not report that Yitzchak trembles. In fact, even when Yitzchak faces famine and is forced to go to the land of the Philistines, where his life was in danger and his beloved wife was threatened with rape – we are told that he is afraid and therefore says, “she is my sister” – nonetheless, he does not tremble.
Our second question is connected to the first. If the “mistake” with the brachot caused Yitzchak to tremble, why did he rush to ratify the “mistake” by asserting, “he, too, shall be blessed”? Would it not have been more logical to first calm down, then investigate, and only afterwards react accordingly?
Chazal address this very issue and provide several explanations. We will focus on R’ Yochanan’s statement:
“R’ Yochanan said, ‘One who has two sons, one exits and one enters, does he tremble? This is puzzling. But at the time that Esav went in to his father, gehenom entered with him…’” (Breishit Rabbah 67)
Mostly, Yitzchak follows in his distinguished father’s footsteps. He believes in Hashem; he digs the same wells which his father had dug; he returns to the places where his father had been; and he continues along his father’s chosen path.
Yet, there is a significant difference between Avraham and Yitzchak. When Sarah requests that Avraham banish Hagar and Yishmael, Avraham agrees; Yishmael and Yitzchak are not to be equals. Avraham displays a clear preference for Yitzchak over Yishmael, and he sends Yishmael away. Moreover, although Avraham was a man of chessed (loosely, benevolence), he also knows how to wage war. He chases after the four kings and rescues Lot. But when Lot’s conduct proves to be incompatible with Avraham’s path, Avraham separates from his nephew. Furthermore, according to the Midrash, Avraham destroys the idols in Oor Casdim and confronts Nimrod.
Yitzchak works differently. He endures the Philistines’ harassment and simply digs new wells. Then, when they want to sign a treaty with him – after fighting and driving him away – he agrees and makes peace with them. And finally, Yitzchak, who saw what Yishmael had done and how he was banished, chooses to love Esav and reach out to him. Apparently, Yitzchak wants both his sons to continue his legacy: one in the field and one as “a dweller of tents.”
The Torah notes that the entire incident with the brachot is based on the fact that:
“It was when Yitzchak was old, and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Breishit 27:1)
Chazal point out that normal blindness does not adequately explain Yitzchak’s behavior. A blind man can distinguish between the righteous and the evil, between one who worships and serves Hashem and one who does not. However, Yitzchak’s blindness is more fundamental. He perceives the world in an idealized light. During the Akeidah, the malachim’s tears fell into his eyes and remained there, dazzling him and preventing him from seeing the external present. Although he can peer far into the future, he is blind to what is happening in front of him. He hopes to pass on his father’s legacy to both his sons but does not notice that Esav is inclined to wickedness.
When “Esav went in to his father, gehenom entered with him…” Suddenly, Yitzchak senses that his beloved wife and his righteous son have joined together and acted deceitfully. Not only are they unable to speak to him openly, but HaKadosh Baruch Hu seems to approve of their actions: the “smell” of gehenom enters the room together with Esav. For one who deeply believes in a certain path and is even willing to give up his very life and to be moser nefesh for its sake, there is no greater pachad (fear) than the revelation that that path is perhaps erroneous.
Yitzchak’s powerful gevurah (valor) is the answer to our second question. In that one instant, Yitzchak grasps that his chosen path actually leads to gehenom, and with one sentence, he corrects his mistake and ratifies the brachot which he had granted Yaakov. True gevurah is the ability to carry on – even when life is bewildering and even when things which were comprehensible and anticipated suddenly dissolve and collapse.
May we be privileged to learn from Yitzchak how to cope and reexamine our preconceptions – without losing our basic brit (covenant) – even when our ideological world takes a sudden and heavy beating:
“And God remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Yaakov.” (Shmot 2:24)