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The Fruit of Eden and the Fragrance of Esav (Toldot)

In the episode of Yitzchak blessing his two sons, Yaakov and Esav (Gen. 27), one detects faint echoes of a much earlier Biblical account: that of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3). Perhaps most instructive in this respect is Yitzchak’s comment regarding Yaakov, while the latter is disguised as Esav: “See, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field which Hashem has blessed” (Gen. 27:27). The image of a “field blessed by Hashem” certainly seems to recall the Garden of Eden—and indeed, Rashi makes this connection explicitly (שם ד”ה וירח ועי’ ש”ח שם). But this is not the only detail in our Parshah that is redolent of Eden. Consider:  

  • Motif of blindness / discovery. Adam and Chava are figuratively “blind” until they eat from the fruit of Eden, at which point their “eyes are opened [ותפחקה עיני שניהם]” and they discover that they are “naked” (Gen. 3:7).
  • Yitzchak’s eyes are “dimmed from seeing [ותכהין עיניו]” at the beginning episode (Gen. 27:1)—but his eyes will be “opened,” figuratively, when he discovers that he has been duped.
  • Characters deceived by “charm.” The fruit in Eden is described as “charming [נחמד],” and Chava is tempted to eat it for this reason (Gen. 3:6). Rivkah dresses Yaakov in Esav’s garments, which are “charming [חמדת],” allowing him to conceal his identity (Gen. 27:15).
  • Wife serving food to husband. Chava serves Adam fruit that is “good to eat” (Gen. 3:6). Rivkah prepares “delicacies” for Yitzchak to eat (Gen. 27:14).
  • Garments of “skin.” Hashem “dresses [וילבשם]” Adam and Chava in a cloak made of “skin [עור]” (Gen. 3:21). Rivkah “dresses [הלבישה]” Yaakov in goat “skin [ערת]” (Gen. 27:16).
  • Motif of deception and the “heel.” In consequence for deceiving Adam and Chava, the snake receives this curse from Hashem: “And I shall place hatred between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed. He will crush your head, and you will bite his heel [עקב]” (Gen. 3:15). After Esav is deceived by Yaakov, he cries: “It is for this reason that he was named Yaakov [יעקב]! For he has deceived me [ויעקבני] twice: he took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing” (Gen. 27:36).
  • Motif of “curse.” After Adam and Chava eat from the fruit of Eden, Hashem proclaims curses [א.ר.ר] upon Adam, Chava and the snake (Gen. 3:14-19). When Yitzchak blesses Yaakov he declares: “those who curse you shall be cursed [ארריך ארור]” (Gen. 27:29).
  • More specifically: motif of a curse that comes on account of “heeding the voice” of a woman. Hashem informs Adam that the curse addressed to him has come “because you listened to the voice of your wife [כי שמעת לקול אשתך]” (Gen. 3:17). Rivkah introduces her plan to Yaakov with the words “listen to my voice[שמע בקלי]” (Gen. 27:8)—and when Yaakov protests that should he be caught, “I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing” (Gen. 27:12), Rivkah replies: “Your curse is upon me, my son; just heed my voice [שמע בקלי]” (Gen. 27:13).
  • Relationships of hostility, dominance. As a result of the sin of Eden, “enmity” festers between the Chava and the snake (Gen. 3:15) and her Adam seeks to “dominate” her (Gen. 3:16) As a result of Yaakov’s actions, Esav “loathes” him (Gen. 27:41) and agitates to “break [Yaakov’s] yoke off of his neck” (Gen. 27:40).
  • Banishment to the east. As a result of the sin of Eden, Adam and Eve are sent to the “east [קדם]” of Eden (Gen. 3:24). As a result of Yaakov’s actions, he is forced to flee away from home (Gen. 27:42-28:5) and towards the land of the “east [קדם]” (Gen. 29:1).  
  • Return home prevented by “sword.” Adam and Chava’s return to Eden is prevented by a rotating “sword [חרב]” of fire that blocks the path to Eden (Gen. 3:24). Yaakov’s return home is prevented by Esav, who “lives by the sword [חרב]” and plots to “break [Yaakov’s] yoke off of his neck” (Gen. 27:40).

In light of these parallels, the events of Parshat Toledot might best be understood as a regression back to those of Parshat Bereishit, as follows:

  • In both episodes, Hashem reveals to one spouse information that is relevant to both. In Bereshit, Hashem commands Adam: “Of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you must not eat” (2:17). In Toledot, Hashem divulges to Rivkah: “Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides shall be separated. The might shall pass from one regime to another, and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 27:23).
  • Neither Adam nor Rivkah accurately transmits to his or her spouse the information that he or she has received. Adam tells Chava that Hashem prohibited even touching the Tree of Knowledge (Gen. 3:3), whereas Hashem had merely prohibited eating from it. Rivkah does not tell Yitzchak anything at all about the prophecy she has received.
  • This breakdown in communication either reflects, or results in, Adam/Rivkah’s lack of confidence in the judgment of Chava/Yitzchak: Adam presents to Chava a stricter form of the prohibition than that which he had heard from Hashem because he wants to provide his wife with a “safeguard” against sinning (see Rashi to 3:3). Rivkah hears that Yitzchak is preparing to bless Esav and fears that he is about to bestow the covenantal destiny upon the wrong son—after all, he is not privy to the prophecy that she is. (In fact, the blessing that Yitzchak bestows upon Yaakov—whom he believes is Esav—is a blessing for material wealth and political power (Gen. 27:28-28). The spiritual blessing is bestowed upon Yaakov—when he is not pretending that he is Esav—at the start of the next chapter (28:1-4). Apparently, Yitzchak had intended all along to bequeath the covenantal destiny to Yaakov, not Esav. (For more on this topic see R. Ezra Bick’s article on the Virtual Beit Midrash).
  • Ironically: The measures taken by Adam/Rivkah to protect Chava/Yitzchak from their own judgment wind up causing more harm than good. When Chava touches the tree she finds that, contrary to Adam’s warning, no harm befalls her; so she decides to eat from the fruit as well, assuming (incorrectly) that this, too, will bring no harm (Gen. 3:4-6 and Rashi to 3:4). As a result of Rivkah’s efforts to prevent her husband’s “mistake,” Esav ends up vowing to murder Yaakov, and Yaakov is forced to flee from home, spending decades away from his mother and father (see Gen. 31:38-42; 35:27-29).

At the heart of these episodes, then—and, more broadly, of our Sefer as a whole—lies the issue of trust. In the Torah’s first book, Hashem creates man and entrusts him with the care of His universe. To succeed in this task, man must mimic his Maker: just as Hashem trusts him, he in turn must trust in his fellow men and women, and must be willing to partner with them in the mission of לעבדה ולשמרה.

This can be supremely difficult, especially when we possess—or think that we possess—truth, knowledge, insight or perspective of which those around us are apparently ignorant. With the purest of intentions, we may in such moments find ourselves intervening in the affairs of others, as a way of “protecting” them from their folly.

Yet inasmuch as Hashem does not deprive us of the freedom to make our own decisions, though He often recognizes those decisions to be contrary to our best interests, we too must resist the urge to usurp the free will of spouses, siblings, friends, and even of grown children, or of aging parents. To do otherwise is to undermine the independence of our loved ones—and as the episodes of Adam, Chava, Yitzchak and Rivkah highlight for us, heavy-handedness of this sort rarely produces its intended outcome, anyways. More often than not, all it results in is confusion, resentment and estrangement.

Instead of control, then, we must opt for communication. The goals we set for our relationships are not matters to be delivered unilaterally; they are matters that we discuss together, patiently, in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect. Only thus can we shape our collective destiny in a manner that is truly covenantal.

Shabbat shalom!


More “unfinished business:” In last week’s article, “Unfinished Business,” we highlighted the cases of three patriarchs—Avraham, Yaakov and David—who extract formal commitments from their sons before their deaths. In each of these cases, we suggested, the function of the patriarch’s request is to task his son with upholding an ideal that he himself was unable to abide by during his lifetime, due to extenuating circumstances. Yet fulfilling these “last requests” is not the only way in these sons tend to their fathers’ “unfinished business;” in fact, each of these sons spends a significant portion of his life perfecting the work of his father. Yitzchak, whose biography is recounted in this week’s Parshah, offers perhaps the best case in point. For more on this, please click here.


5 Comments

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great essay!!! The ‘unfinished business’ section ‎was fantastic. I had never contemplated the approach that Yitzchak takes with his sons in contrast to Avraham’s approach. Thank you so much for your efforts and Shabbat Shalom!

  2. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    Wonderful! This parallel opens up so much as to what’s going on behind the scenes – thereby clarifying pshat. Feels right on the money 🙂

    And by the way, the double entendre of “lies the issue of trust”, whether meant or not, brought a smile to my face.

  3. EWZS says:

    Thanks so much for the excellent and stimulating analysis. There is also a very important theme that connects the two stories of the brachot and the etz hadaat and which relate to your other theme regarding blessings before death. In particular, both stories must be understood as flowing from *misplaced fears about impending death.”

    The heart of the debate between the Nachash and the Isha is a debate about whether touching the tree will indeed lead to her death as she has (apparently) been led to believe. The key (as you suggest) is that she has a *misplaced fear of death*– she should fear eating from the tree, but instead she fears even touching it.

    Yitzchak too has a misplaced fear of death. In particular, the impetus for giving a bracha to Esav is ״לא ידעתי וים מותי״ This is misplaced because we know that in fact he was nowhere near death– there were several decades and perhaps as many as 100 years between the time when this occurred and his eventual death, at 180 (See 25:20, 26:34 and 35:29)! Note also that no characters discuss the prospect of death after Gan Eden until the beginning of Toledot, when all of a sudden discussions of impending death burst forth as a major theme. Besides Yitzchak’s fateful citation of his prospective death, Rivka mentions her own mortality in her frustration with the turmoil in her belly (Gen 25:22), Esav cites his eventual death as a justification for selling the birthright (Gen 25:32) and then she mentions the prospective losses of two loved ones (Yaakov and Yitzchak or Yaakov and Esav?) as rationale for Yaakov’s emigration (27:45) and she mentions her own death again (27:46) as rationale for Yaakov’s avoiding Cananaite women.

    (This theme peaks at this point, though we see recurrences of it again, in the case of Rachel’s plea for children (30:1) and perhaps in the brothers’ discussion of whether or not to kill Yosef. This theme also reemerges in very powerfully in Shmot, in the children of Israel’s complaints against Moshe and G-d– e.g., 5:21 and 16:3)

    I’m not sure what’s going on but it is perhaps not too difficult to understand why this theme has reemerged here. In particular, the Isha’s death would have meant the end of humanity (true for Adam as well, but perhaps not so clear to them, as reflected in her later overvaluing her role in childbirth; see 4:1). This is quite a burden to carry. Similarly, it is quite understandable why Yitzchak would have been worried about his mortality– he was the sole heir of a tradition. Moreover, that tradition was just one generation old and its progenitor had left no succession blueprint . To recall, Avraham had recently died (when Yitzchak was 75 [see 21:5 and 25:7]; he was now at least 80 [see above]) and had apparently refrained from giving Yitzchak andy guidance– no brachot! not even any dialogue after the brief dialogue of the akeydah!–as to how to continue the tradition. Thus Yitzchak had every reason to be very nervous that the tradition would die with him and he would have been unclear when and how to ensure succession. This apparently led him to jump the gun, throwing Rivka for a loop (perhaps she had always meant to share with him the nevuah she had received and her insights about the two boys but didn’t think there was anything pressing) and putting her into motion. It is possible also that Yitzchak’s obsession with death and continuity infected the rest of the family (but not Yaakov– why not?) and they drew different conclusions from it. In particular, it seems to have made Esav blasé about the fleeting value of family rights and obligations (our omniscient narrator says so explicitly on 25:34). And perhaps (this is harder to discern) Rivka draws the right lessons from it– she seems to think that her life acquires meaning insofar as she contributes to the maintenance of the family tradition and ideals. Relatedly, perhaps a key lesson is that Yitzchak should have been less worried about the tradition dying with him because Rivka could keep it alive! After all, this woman was a paragon of chesed like her father-in-law and broke away from her idol-worshipping family like he did, and she was apparently a n’viah to whom G-d speaks directly and not even in a dream! (like Avraham and Moshe but . So perhaps just as Adam should have trusted the Isha with the full truth, Yitzchak should have trusted (a) G-d, that the tradition/covenant would not be threatened by his own death (after all, G-d had promised him this explicitly in the two revelations in ch. 26); and (b) that Rivka could lead the family if necessary. Certainly by the end of the parsha, Yitzchak has learned to let Rivka lead.

    Overall, this reinforces the theme of trust that you developed, leavened by the idea that one needs to trust G-d that things will be ok despite our mortality. As Charles De Gaulles family put it, “The cemeteries are filled with indispensable people.” And perhaps there is also a lesson here about having *too much trust.* In particular, one wonders what would have happened if Avraham had spent more time with Yizchak instructing him on how to think about keeping the family tradition going rather than just handing him the keys and going off to a quiet retirement with Keturah. But maybe he knew that it was time for Yitzchak to make his own mistakes and learn from them. After all, he might have reasoned, “G-d could have warned Adam about clearly communicating with the Isha, and he could have warned them about the wily snake. Apparently, part of a parent’s job is to let children figure things out on their own.”

    Thanks again for the stimulating analysis and sorry for the long response.

    • alexmaged says:

      Thank you for your comments and your valuable insights, Ezra!
      Re: “death theme”—
      Is there a pattern to trace from Rivkah’s למה לי חיים, to Rachel’s אם אין מתה אנכי, to Yaakov decreeing death upon whoever stole the idols, to the brothers decreeing death upon whomever stole Yosef’s goblet? In these episodes (and others in between), the members of Yaakov’s family seem to be risking their very lives as a way of communicating “I mean business.” We discussed this idea directly in last year’s article on Mikketz, “The Gift of Life:” https://whatspshat.org/2014/12/19/mikketz/
      Another related phenomenon (this one within Toledot): four times in the Parshah, the members of Yaakov’s family turn inwards and ask “why?” למה זה אנכי; למה זה לי בכרה; למה אשכל שניכם יום אחד; למה לי חיים. As you observe, these all touch upon questions of mortality in one sense or another. Was planning to discuss the relationship between them this past week, but it looks like it will have to wait until next year!
      Finally: Great observation re: explicitly confronting Q of one’s own death seeming to be something that starts with Yitzchak and his family (in this regard, it’s interesting to hear the resonances of דעת and מוות from the tree episode in Yitzchak’s words, לא ידעתי יום מותי). Wonder whether part of this may have to do with the trauma Yitzchak sustained at the Akeidah. Before this, nobody (at least in peshat) came that close to death within their lifetimes…
      At any rate: עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה. May we merit to be sustained from Torah, the source of life, ad me’ah v’esrim!
      Have a great week 🙂

  4. EWZS says:

    Hi Alex. You wished me a good week and now it’s almost ten days later. Thanks for taking the time to engage. I liked your essay on miketz very much (it dovetails nicely with some themes R. David Fohrman develops on Yaakov and his children) and also your point that Yitzchak’s misplaced fear about his mortality was likely influenced by his experience at the akeyda. I have a tendency to be too rational/forward-looking rather than behavioral/backward looking. I do still think that Yitzchak’s nervousness must be understood in terms of his worries about succession planning for the “family business,” but agree that is worries must have been influenced by his near-death experience. I wonder also if his anxiety might be understood in the context of his attachment to his mother (see Gen 24:67) and perhaps also his attachment to Hagar’s experience of abandonment ( 24;62, 25:11).

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