by Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi FilberYeshivat Machon Meir
Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) in his commentary “Ha’amek Davar” (Genesis 24:35) explains why Rebecca and Isaac did not succeed in resolving their differences of opinion regarding Esau and Jacob. The reason is that at their first encounter, when Rebecca sat on the camel and saw Isaac who was still standing in prayer, he was then like a very awesome angel of G-d. From then on, fear and distance were fixed in her heart in her relationship with Isaac. It was not the same as the relationship between Sarah and Abraham, or Rachel and Jacob. In both of those cases, neither spouse avoided making suggestions to the other. In the case of Rebecca and Isaac, however, even though they had differences of opinion, Rebecca could not find the courage to make her opinion know to Isaac. That is how it happened that Isaac actually loved Esau and Rebecca loved Jacob.
Why did each have the preference that they did? Several explanations have been given for this: According to Malbim there are several reasons for why Isaac’s love was given to Esau. One is that Esau was the firstborn, and Isaac had never heard G-d’s prophecy to Rebecca that “The older one will serve the younger one” (Genesis 25:23. According to the Netziv, Rebecca, in her fear, did not tell him this prophecy). Isaac therefore thought that Esau the firstborn was fit to be the heir.
The other reasons for his love of Esau involve the way we interpret “tzayid be’piv” in Genesis 25:23. One rendering is, “Isaac loved Esau because Esau was a trapper with his mouth.” Esau would verbally ensnare his father, “displaying his [split] hooves like a pig,” as the Rabbis say [a pig has split hooves, but is still unkosher because it does not chew its cud].
Or the verse may be referring to Isaac’s mouth: “Isaac loved Esau because he would eat of his venison.” Esau would feed Isaac, thereby fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring one’s father. Rebecca, by contrast, knew the prophecy about the “older serving the younger,” and she also knew of Esau’s hypocrisy, so she loved Jacob.
The Dubna Maggid explains Isaac’s mistake as being due to his having been born in the home of righteous people -- Abraham and Sarah. That was a home in which nothing but total truth was ever uttered. Therefore, when Esau came to his father with questions such as, “Dear father! How do we tithe straw?” or, “How do we tithe salt?” Isaac was impressed and he said, “With this son I can rest assured that he will be intensely scrupulous in mitzvah observance.”
Rebecca, however, was born in the home of Laban the Aramean. Hence she had familiarity and expertise in the language of liars and hypocrites. She understood Esau’s slyness, his verbal deception. Rabbi Mendl of Kotzk would say, “People think that Esau was a coarse farmer who wore a checkered shirt, went barefoot and herded pigs, but that is not how he looked. Esau had a beard and side-curls. He was a community leader who spoke words of Torah at the third Sabbath meal. That is how he managed to deceive people.”
According to other commentators, Isaac knew precisely who Esau was, and he knew the difference between Jacob and Esau, but he loved him all the same. “Midrash HaGadol” explains why:
“‘Isaac loved Esau’: Did not Isaac know that Esau’s deeds were repugnant? And surely King David said, ‘Do I not hate, O L-rd, those who hate You?’ (Psalm 139:21). Why then did he love him? The truth is that he loved him only to his face in order to draw him near. He reasoned that if Esau’s deeds were so corrupt when he showed him love, how much more so that they would be corrupt if she showed his hatred and distanced him. The Rabbis said, ‘The right hand should always draw near and the left hand repel.’ That is why it says, ‘Isaac loved Esau.’”
S’forno comments, “‘Isaac loved Esau’ -- He loved Esau IN ADDITION, even though he without a doubt knew that Esau was not as righteous as Jacob.”
Finally, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains Isaac and Rebecca’s preferences in terms of “opposites attracting.” Isaac, who was a “perfect offering on the alter,” isolated in his home and set apart from bustling society, was attracted precisely to the personality of Esau, with his boldness. Rebecca, who came from the home of Bethuel, saw in Jacob the righteous figure so far removed from all the concepts of her father’s house. She was therefore attracted precisely to Jacob.