- Rigorous Evaluation
How could Isaac be deceived by Esau? Surely the Isaac who could uncover spiritual wellsprings beneath the land of the Philistines could perceive the emptiness beneath Esau’s pious exterior. Concerning Isaac’s sympathy toward Esau, the Zohar says “Every type loves the same type.” These are truly astounding words, and they force us to delve into the parallels between Isaac and Esau.
Isaac’s attribute was the inner strength to refine and perfect. Such a quality is particularly relevant when one is faced by the common sort of situation which is a mixture of good and evil depending on how, why, and with what intentions it is done. A slap in the face can be violent and cruel ~ unless it is done to revive a fainting person or prevent someone from an evil deed.
In this sense, we can understand why Jacob was punished for denying Esau the opportunity to marry Dinah. Jacob was justified ~ even obligated ~ to protect his daughter from Esau, but when he hid her, it should have been with a feeling of compassion for a brother who might thereby be losing a final opportunity to repent under the influence of a righteous wife. Instead, Jacob may have felt too much animosity toward Esau who had defiled the sanctity of the Abrahamitic household, deceived his father, sworn to kill his brother, and come after more than thirty-four years with an army of more than four hundred men to murder Jacob and his family. Where was Jacob’s sin? At most it lay in the most delicate assessment of feelings. Such purging of emotions and motives is the function of Gevurah-Strength, the attribute of Isaac.
Isaac and Shechitah
For this reason, Isaac in particular was commanded to be zealous in observing the commandment of shechitah ~ the ritual slaughtering of animals while minimizing pain for the animal and doing it with respect and compassion. When he dispatched Esau to prepare game for him as a prerequisite to receiving the blessing, Isaac cautioned him to sharpen his implements carefully in order to prevent any possibility of improper slaughter. (Bereishis Rabbah 65:8)
Shechitah also gives meaning and holiness to the animal which becomes the vehicle for performance of the commandment. Thus, shechitah is a prime manifestation of the inner strength represented by Isaac. It is the means by which holiness can be extracted from an activity that would otherwise be simply a form of the law of the jungle: The big animal kills the smaller animal and man, the most cunning and powerful animal of all, slaughters whatever it pleases him to serve on his table or make into clothing for his body. In the hands of an ordinary killer of animals, that is all slaughter would be, but shechitah is different ~ it is symbolic of Isaac.
Shedder of Blood
The Talmud teaches (Shabbos 156a) that one who is destined to shed blood has alternatives. He can become a mohel ~ one who performs the Jewish rite of circumcision, bringing infants into the covenant of Abraham or making the flesh of animals permissible as food for the servants of God. Otherwise he would shed blood some other way ~ as a murderer.
Esau was this sort of person and Isaac knew it. Even at birth and before, he had all the symptoms of a violent, sinful person. As an embryo he fought to approach the temple of idols, he was born with the redness that is symbolic of bloodshed. As a youngster he was drawn to the excitement of the hunt. But this was not to say that he was destined to be evil and that there was no way for him to avoid becoming the epitome of violence. King David too had the redness of bloodshed, but he surmounted all obstacles to become the Sweet Singer of Israel. Esau could have become a righteous person. It would have demanded great strength on his part. It would have demanded the Gevurah personality of an Isaac. Indeed, Esau had such strength. The test was whether he would utilize it to direct his impulses toward the good or whether he would use his strength to satisfy his cruel, bloodthirsty nature.
Eating is one of the acts that can be controlled only by inner strength. Of all man’s animal impulses, probably none must be indulged in so often, so publicly, and so lends itself to abuse. An Ordinary meal can be a means of serving God no less than an offering brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. But the elevation of eating to the status of an offering requires a person to assault his own nature no less than the hunt requires a huntsman to trap and attack his game.
Had Esau attempted to achieve such ends, even a partial success would have mattered greatly because he would have been fighting against his nature. He had physical strength and courage to unusual degrees. He fought mighty kings and fierce animals and conquered them all. If that could have been directed inwardly ~ O what he could have become and even if he were not perfect, if he were merely making the struggle ~ then, in his way, he would have been like Isaac in the fields of Philistia, removing the earth from wells of spiritual water. This concept is symbolized by Esau’s occupation ~ the hunter of game. In spiritual terms, a hunter’ is one who seeks to extract holiness from the ‘jungle’ of evil. Isaac perceived in Esau a man who was fighting against his imperfections and who chose to do it by turning his violent nature to refining the bloody instinct of the huntsman through shechitah and self-control.
II. Isaac’s Altar
Because Isaac dedicated himself to the enormously difficult task of analyzing and perfecting personal behavior, shechitah and the preparation of food takes up a large part of the few chapters devoted to his life.
As Isaac prepared to draw his son into the covenant of Abraham, how could he better bring him nearer to the service of God than by having him bring an offering to God with all the holy connotations contained in such a deed? That is precisely what Isaac did. He asked Esau to bring an offering, prepare it well and slaughter it properly, to place it upon an altar and pour libations (the pouring of a drink as an offering) before God. For Isaac’s food was an offering and his drink was a libation.
Further, Isaac was signaling to him that his work of sanctifying his cruel instinct ~ the task Isaac thought was his ~ should be carried further by bringing nobility, control, purpose and holiness into his life and upon his table.
Sixty-seven years after the blessings were given, Jacob prepared to descend to Egypt with his family. He was afraid of what the future would bring, and before he departed from Ertez Yisrael, he went to Beer Sheba, the place that had been important in the lives of his father and grandfather. There, ‘he slaughtered offerings to be God of his father, Isaac’ (46:1). Commentators find it noteworthy that only Isaac, and not Abraham, is mentioned in connection with Jacob’s offerings. Jacob was embarking on a task that was uniquely suited to his legacy from Isaac. The uniqueness of Isaac was his strength in taking the grain of good from its shell of evil. He had done it in Philistia and had symbolized it by his particular responsibility for the sanctity of shechitah and of eating. Jacob was about to descend to Egypt, the most corrupt, perverted country then on earth. His task and that of the succeeding generations of his children would be to remain pure even in Egypt and to draw out of that accursed place the scattered sparks of holiness that were there. Jacob was about to begin an Isaac-like mission ~ and he brought his offerings to God Who gave Isaac the strength to succeed. Jacob would need the qualities of his father more than of his grandfather to succeed in Egypt.
Sforno there adds the thought that Jacob thought of Isaac at that juncture because Isaac had been forbidden by God from going to Egypt. Jacob sought mercy as what he was about to do was what his father was commanded not to do. Why, indeed, was Jacob able to go? Not because Isaac was inferior to him, but because Isaac had preceded him. Isaac had come upon the stage of history with the mission of perfecting Abraham’s legacy. Abraham’s expansive goodness required Isaac’s introspective strength to perfect and purge it. Isaac had succeeded in uncovering holiness that was buried after Abraham’s death, in bringing sanctity to potential bloodshed and holiness to potential gluttony. By responding to God’s awesome challenge, he had even purged Esau from the seed of Abraham. His mission done, Jacob had within him the combined attributes of Abraham and Isaac. He was suited to descend to Egypt and conquer the evil and impurity of that shameful land because Isaac had prepared the way for him.