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When Esau heard his father’s words (his confirming that Jacob would get the blessing) he cried a very loud and bitter cry (27:34).
The Book of Esther states that Mordechai, one of Jacob’s descendants, cried loudly and bitterly on hearing that Haman had successfully persuaded Ahasuerus to massacre the Jews throughout the Persian Empire:
Mordechai found out what had happened. He… tore his garments and wore sackcloth and ashes… and he cried a very loud and bitter cry (Esther 4:1).
The Midrash (Esther Rabba 8:1) brings the tradition that Mordechai’s anguish in weeping a ‘very loud and bitter cry’ many generations later was in turn for the distress that Jacob caused Esau, which had similarly caused him to weep a ‘very loud and bitter cry’.
Jacob certainly hurt Esau. Yet he also caused his aged father to experience considerable suffering in the same incident. For Isaac ‘trembled exceedingly’ (27:33) when he realized how his original intentions had been frustrated by Jacob’s impersonating Esau to get the blessing. The Midrash relates that at that moment he saw Gehinnom open underneath him (Gen. Rabba 67:2). What was special about Esau’s distress, rather than Isaac’s, that had to be compensated in this way?
To answer this question, look some of the details the Torah includes which shed light on Isaac’s personality.
The Rambam (Hilchot Avoda Zara 1:2-3) brings the tradition that each of the Patriarchs maintained a circle of disciples, teaching them about G-d and His will. Abraham had many students (c.f. Gen. Rabba 84:4), but Isaac had only one – Jacob. This gives an insight into the way that Isaac differed from Abraham: Abraham could accept everyone in his orbit; Isaac could not.
The Torah implies that Esau was not student material: ‘the children grew up and Esau was a hunter, a man of the field’, whilst Jacob was, ‘a … man who lived in tents’ (25:27) – an expression, according to Gen. Rabba (63:10) meaning that he spent his time in study.
It follows that Isaac displayed traits that many generations later were associated with Shammai. The Talmud quotes one of his favorite dicta: ‘Make Torah your main occupation’ (Ethics of the Fathers 1:15). Only Jacob was suited to this calling; Esau was created in a very different mold.
This idea is also implied in a story brought by the Talmud (Shabbat 30b-31a) where a man approached Shammai to convert to Judaism on the condition that he would ‘teach him the whole Torah whilst standing on one leg’. Shammai would only accept a convert on his understanding of the Torah’s requirements. So he threw him out, ‘chasing him away with his builder’s stick’. Hillel temporarily accepted the applicant on his own terms – ‘what you do not want to be done to yourself, do not do to other people: The rest is commentary. Go and learn!’ Thus Hillel’s scope managed to even encompass a person who appeared to be ridiculing him, and the principles of the Torah – and the Talmud testifies that he did eventually convert and he was very pleased that he did so.
Isaac later on shows the trait associated with Shammai when there was a famine in the Holy Land. The Torah relates that G-d appeared to him saying, ‘Do not go down to Egypt: …live in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you’ (26:2-3). The Midrash (Gen. Rabba 64:3) explains that Isaac, unlike Abraham and Jacob was not allowed to leave Israel for the following reason. Abraham had specified Isaac to be a burnt offering: his status for life was comparable to something holy – forbidden to leave the Holy Land. However Isaac took this further. Not only did he never leave Israel, but he went further – the narrative implies that he did not even make any contacts outside the Land. This had consequences: Abraham used all the means at his disposal to arrange a suitable partner for his son Isaac, so that he would not marry into a local family. Isaac, in contrast, did not take similar precautions to prevent Esau espousing local women – as the text relates, ‘Esau took Judith the daughter of Be’eri the Hittite…’ (26:34) - the Hittites being one of the ‘Seven Nations’ G-d regarded with especial disfavor in regards to the Israelite conquest of the Holy Land. And the next verse shows that his daughters in law brought him no joy.
From this, it appears that Isaac had always taken the stricter view – in the spirit of the School of Shamai – a particularist, rather than a universalist approach. It was not that he did anything wrong, but that he presented the Torah in a way which was only suitable for people of his own temperament. This was fine in relating to Jacob’s spiritual needs, but less successful with Esau’s. Similarly, both Shammai’s and Hillel’s schools were within the bounds of Torah teaching, but there were situations where the teaching of Hillel’s were more in tune with the current situation.
This can explain why Isaac trembled – and ‘saw Gehinnom open underneath him’. It was right that he should have trembled and seen at that moment the consequences of his ‘correct, but not always appropriate’ bringing up of his children. His own holiness – great as it was - had stood in the way of relating to people, and especially his oldest son, on a mundane level. When Jacob succeeded in obtaining the blessing from his father, Isaac realized at that second – in that moment of truth – that he and not Esau was worthy. And Isaac trembled – seeing Gehinnom opening under him – in only then seeing that his best meant, but inappropriate bringing up of his son Esau contributed to making him unworthy of receiving that blessing…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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