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The phrase morat ruach is commonly translated as bitter distress - from the Hebrew word mar, meaning bitter. Rashi however relates morat ruach to a similar-sounding noun meaning rebellion: Esau's wives openly practiced idolatry with the rebellious and malicious intent of causing maximum pain to Isaac and Rebecca.
Sforno expresses the parents' feelings dramatically. With reference to a similar usage in Judges 13:5, he renders their attitude and behavior of morat ruach as "a razor and knife that cut short the spirit in the lives of Isaac and Rebecca".
But in spite of this, Isaac tried to give the blessing to Esau. He did not, as Sforno emphasizes, recognize Esau's behavior as intrinsically wicked, nor did he protest against the conduct of the wives. It appears that he suffered in silence, continuing to create space for them within his household in the hope that things might presently work out.
What finally caused Isaac to see things differently? According to Sforno, it was his lack of success in giving the Blessing to Esau. He recognized the Hand of G-d in the success and rightness of Jacob's deception when he took what was intended for Esau, with the words "Yes, let him (Jacob) remain blessed" (27:26). Isaac read his failure as G-d saying that Jacob was worthy to succeed him and that Esau was unworthy to succeed him.
It appears that Isaac and Rebecca brought up their very different sons by creating the space for them to develop as individuals. Jacob was a person who 'lived in tents' - understood by the Rabbis as one who studied, and received the Tradition from his father, and later 'in the School of Shem and Ever'. His source of instruction was interacting with the worthy fathers of the Tradition. In contrast, Esau was a man 'who knew hunting, a man of the field' - Isaac accepted that his education came from the Creation; the outside world was his teacher. He would distill the sacred truths from the experiencing reality - at the cost of many false starts and turns. Both approaches are valid - one suits one type of person and the other suits another. Everyone can potentially become the best possible person within his ability range, but not everyone can be a leader and bearer of a tradition.
The issue is when to stand by and when to intervene. The line between letting the individual learn from his/her mistakes, and what is not to be tolerated can be difficult to draw - all the more so in the days before the Torah was given with its explicit prohibition of marriage to a Canaanite (Deut. 7:3).
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