Chapter 25

19 Isaac son of AbrahamAbraham was the father of Isaac: The Midrash interprets this seeming tautology to mean that Isaac took pride in being Abraham's son and, conversely, that Abraham took pride in being Isaac's father.1

Taking pride in the achievements of our forebears, although praiseworthy, is not sufficient. We must conduct ourselves in a manner that enables our forebears to take pride in us, as well.2

In this verse, the second mention of Abraham's name occurs immediately after the first, whereas the second mention of Isaac's name occurs a number of words after its first mention. This alludes to an important lesson, both in educating the young as well as in how we are to conduct our personal interactions.

As we have seen, Abraham embodies kindness, while Isaac embodies severity. Despite the necessity of sometimes employing disciplinary measures, we should never do so twice in succession. There must always be an interval of kindness between every two such occasions.3

This is why Isaac's name never appears twice in succession throughout the entire Torah. In contrast, the names of Abraham (signifying kindness) and Jacob (signifying harmony) do appear consecutively.4 Similarly, the Name of God that indicates His severity (Elokim) never appears twice in succession in the entire Torah, whereas the Names that indicate His kindness (Havayah5 and Keil6) do.7

The names of both patriarchs mentioned in this verse each appear twice; these four mentions allude to the four types of motivation to fulfill God's will:

  • Isaac (severity/fear): doing God's will out of fear—either out of fear of punishment or out of fear of the spiritual defilement caused by sin. This is referred to as the lower level of fear (yirah tata'ah).
  • [Son of] Abraham (kindness/love): doing God's will and loving Him in order to receive material or spiritual reward. This is called "small love" (ahavah zuta).
  • Abraham: doing God's will and loving God without regard for reward. This is called "great love" (ahavah rabbah).
  • [was the father of] Isaac: doing God's will out of a humility born of the awareness of God's loftiness and infinite greatness. On this level, one is not motivated by fear of the repercussions of contravening God's will but rather by revulsion at the very act of contravening the will of the infinite God. This is the higher level of fear (yirah ila'ah). This level transcends the level of "great love," since in the latter, some vestige of the self that experiences love remains. In this fourth and highest level, we have risen to a state of true selflessness.

The sequence in which Abraham and Isaac's names are mentioned reflects the order in which we climb the ladder of spiritual development, first serving God out of self-interest8 and eventually maturing to a relationship built on self-transcendence.

We tend to limit our relationship with God to being either love-based or fear-based, since we all possess a natural propensity toward one or the other. This verse teaches us that as heirs of Abraham and Isaac, we are both able and obligated to fulfill God's will out of all four levels of motivation, regardless of our natural predisposition.9

Abraham was the father of Isaac: As we have seen,10 God miraculously made Isaac resemble Abraham so that it would be obvious that Abraham was his father. The Torah's only allusion to this fact, however, is in this verse, which the Midrash11 interprets as testimony to the fact that "Isaac was the son of Abraham," for their uncanny resemblance made it self-evident that "Abraham was the father of Isaac."

The Torah alludes to this miracle only at this point, when Isaac is already a grown man, for it was only once Isaac had matured and formulated his own unique style in fulfilling his Divine mission—which was very different than that of his father's—that his fidelity to his father's ideals came into question. Unlike Abraham, Isaac did not actively engage in outreach; rather, people were drawn to him by virtue of his being a paragon of virtue. This gave the impression that he was more of an innovator interested in forging a new path than a perpetuator of his father's legacy, lending weight to the arguments of those scoffers who questioned his legitimacy. In fact, since Abraham personified kindness and Isaac severity, it could be argued that Ishmael—who personified at least a fallen version of kindness12—should be considered the true perpetuator of Abraham's message to the world.

This is an additional reason why the Torah alludes at this point to Abraham's incontrovertible paternity of Isaac. Having just finished detailing the line of Ishmael, it now emphasizes that Abraham's moral legacy was perpetuated specifically by Isaac. For, as we have seen, the true way to actualize kindness is by tempering it with severity.13

21 Isaac pleaded with God: According to the Midrash, Rebecca's inability to bear a child was not caused by ordinary infertility but rather due to the fact that she was born without a womb.14 Only direct Divine intervention could enable her to bear a child. This is why Isaac and Rebecca did not merely pray for a child; they pleaded for one. They increased the intensity and frequency of their prayers to elicit a level of Divine beneficence so sublime that it would engender the creation of a new, supra-natural reality.

The Talmud15 thus associates the word for "plead" (יעתר) with the word for "pitchfork" (עתר). Just as a pitchfork overturns the grain and moves it from place to place, so do the prayers of the righteous "overturn" God's attitude toward us, changing it from severe to merciful.16

22 When she passed by a temple of idol worship, Esau would try to get out: How could the child of two entirely righteous individuals possibly possess a propensity for evil, even in utero?

The answer is, paradoxically, that it is precisely because the patriarchs and matriarchs were paragons of spiritual perfection that some of their children were born with seemingly problematic propensities. Perfection implies completeness, so the patriarchs and matriarchs' spiritual perfection had to comprise all possible paths of spiritual self-refinement.

These diverse paths in spiritual self-refinement can be grouped into two general categories: that of the innately pious, who are not tempted by evil, and that of those who behave righteously despite their attraction to materiality.17 Thus, all three patriarchal couples bore both types of children: Abraham and Sarah bore Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebecca bore Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and Leah bore Issachar and Zebulun (the difference being, of course, that Zebulun channeled his attraction to materiality for holy purposes, whereas Ishmael and Esau did not). In our case, Jacob personified the naturally-pious type and Esau personified the type challenged by an inborn evil inclination.

Thus, Esau's God-given mission in life was to demonstrate that a person with a strong propensity for evil is capable of overcoming temptation and remaining righteous. God intentionally created him with an inborn penchant for idolatry in order that he overcome it. And in fact, until he turned thirteen,18 Esau's propensity toward wickedness did not lead him astray. He channeled his innate cunning toward outsmarting his evil inclination, co-opting the material and sensual aspects of life for holy purposes. It was only when he turned thirteen that he rejected the ideals of his father and grandfather. He became a "man of the field" and an expert in ensnaring in the negative sense.

The patriarchs themselves seemingly personified only the first type of spiritual self-refinement, that of the innately pious. Upon closer examination, however, we see that they also personified something of the second type. They, too, had to overcome many challenges, albeit from without—hostility toward them and persecution by others.

As we have seen, the lives and experiences of the patriarchs presage our own, endowing us with the strength to overcome our challenges. Their success in overcoming their own challenges is what gives us the strength to overcome our challenges, both external and internal.

In addition, Esau's intended existence—and as he indeed lived until age thirteen—serves as a model for how we should interact with the "field" of life, i.e., our mundane pursuits, the challenging arena outside the protective cocoon of the synagogue and of studying the Torah. Our task is not only to emulate Jacob by being "dwellers of tents," but to also emulate Esau by becoming "hunters" in the jungle of mundaneness and transforming even that untamed domain into a home for God. Nonetheless, we must first be "dwellers of tents," immersed in the study of the Torah and the fulfillment of God's commandments, in order to garner the necessary strength with which to engage in "hunting" and, in turn, transforming the "field."19

According to Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz,20 Rebecca understood on her own that she was carrying twins, and assumed that one of them was wicked since it kept trying to escape her womb whenever she would pass by a temple of idol worship. As such, she felt she would have no advantage over Hagar, who had borne the wicked Ishmael. (As for the righteous child in her womb, she attributed that merit to Isaac.) She approached the sages of the academy of Shem and Ever to ask if her prayers had been at all effective beyond simply enabling her to conceive.

The prophet consoled her by telling her that although one of the twins would indeed be wicked, he would have noble descendants, many of whom would even convert to Judaism and become prophets and sages. She would thus be superior to Hagar, since Ishmael would have no such descendants. And indeed, throughout history, most converts to Judaism have been descendants of Esau; almost none have been descendants of Ishmael.21

The historical fact that most converts to Judaism have been descendants of Esau is one manifestation of the sublime Divine energies that he possessed, as we shall explain.22

Which one would inherit the blessings of the physical world and which one the blessings of the World to Come: This is a further indication that Esau was not innately evil, for had he been so, he would not have been interested in the World to Come. True, his focus was on this world, but he saw the World to Come as a source of inspiration and guidance in accomplishing his goal of refining the world. Jacob's focus, in contrast, was mainly the World to Come, the goal of the constant ascent in Divine consciousness. But he wanted this world also, since he knew that answering the challenges of this world enables us to attain higher levels in the World to Come.23

23 When one rises, the other will fall: Metaphorically, Jacob and Esau represent the two opposing drives that exist within us all. We each possess an inner Jacob—our Divine soul with its Godly drives, and an inner Esau—our animating soul with its selfish drives. When our Divine soul asserts itself, it weakens the materialistic tendencies of the animating soul.

The Divine soul overcomes the animating soul in the same way that light overcomes darkness. Light does not have to actively exert itself to disperse darkness—the darkness simply fades away. Similarly, as soon as we let the holiness and goodness of our Divine souls shine, by studying the Torah and observing the commandments, the selfishness of the animating soul disappears.24

24 Her pregnancy reached full term: Two generations later, another set of twin boys was born, to Rebecca's grandson Judah and his wife Tamar.25 But since both of Tamar's twins, Peretz and Zerach, were righteous, God rewarded her by shortening her uncomfortable pregnancy to seven months.26

On a deeper level, however, Rebecca's complete nine-month pregnancy can be seen as a manifestation of the completion embodied in the unification of the two paths of self-refinement embodied in her twins. As we have seen,27 Jacob and Esau personified the two general types of virtuous people—the innately virtuous (Jacob) and those who must overcome their animalistic inclinations (Esau) to become virtuous. This latter type, in one aspect, is superior to the former, since it must evince greater commitment to goodness by transforming even the unholy aspects of creation into holiness. Tamar's twins, in contrast, were both inclined to goodness. Her pregnancy was therefore "incomplete" in this regard.28

25 The first one emerged: As we have seen, Esau is a metaphor for our animating soul. Just as Esau emerged from Rebecca's womb before Jacob, so, too, does our inner Esau get a head start on our inner Jacob: whereas our Divine soul manifests itself gradually, only becoming fully manifest when we reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah, our animating soul is fully manifest from birth.29

Yet, "his hand was grasping Esau's heel": Our inner Jacob, our Divine soul, grasps at our inner Esau, our animating soul. The purpose of its descent into this world is to refine the animating soul and actualize its inherent potential for goodness.30

Moreover, Esau's heel symbolizes the lowest levels of Esau, meaning the lowest levels of animalistic materialism. Our Divine soul strives to elevate and refine even those aspects of life normally considered intrinsically outside the realm of holiness.31

27 Esau became an expert in ensnaring him into thinking he was exceedingly pious: The Torah mentions this negative characteristic of Isaac's son in order to warn us to always be on guard against the machinations of our own inner "Esau," our evil inclination. Not always does the evil inclination counsel us to deliberately defy God's will. At times, it may offer an ostensibly pious excuse for not doing a specific good deed; at other times, it may provide a seemingly righteous and justifiable reason to perform a specific misdeed. We must train ourselves to see through these ploys and recognize them for what they are: obstacles to the fulfillment of our Divine mission.32

Jacob was a guileless man: The word for "guileless" (tam) also connotes completeness and perfection (temimut). As we have seen,33 although all the patriarchs possessed the quality of perfection, Jacob was the only one who embodied the highest implication of this word—unquestioning faith in God and unwavering commitment to Him under all circumstances.

Jacob left the Land of Israel to live in Charan, a degenerate, idolatrous environment.34 He was forced to flee his brother, who sought to kill him, and then to live with and work for the devious Laban for twenty years. He subsequently endured decades of painful separation from his beloved son Joseph, whom he thought dead. Yet throughout all his travails, he remained devout, his faith in God never wavering. Jacob thus personified unchanging, consistent truth.35

Thanks to this quality of consistent truth, Jacob succeeded—unlike Abraham and Isaac before him36—in raising all his children to follow the path of holiness. Specifically because his perfection lay in his overarching commitment to God, he was able to instill it in all his children, despite their diverse personalities.37

The fact that Jacob uniquely possessed this level of perfection was also reflected in his being born circumcised.38 As was discussed above, the act of circumcision effects three distinct changes of status in the person being circumcised: the negation of the status of being uncircumcised, the acquisition of the status of being circumcised, and the acquisition of the status of having undergone the act of circumcision itself. When a child is born circumcised, as was Jacob, the first two types of status are achieved automatically; all that is required is a symbolic drawing of blood from the organ so he can acquire the third status.

As we saw, the first two aspects of circumcision allude to the first two types of perfection, which were attained by Abraham and Isaac. The third aspect, the act of circumcision itself, alludes to the type of perfection that only Jacob attained. Thus, the fact that Jacob was born circumcised and thereby automatically satisfied the first two aspects of circumcision indicates that he was uniquely connected to the third aspect, which alludes to the third type of perfection, which he alone attained.39

He went to live in the tents of Shem and Ever to study the Torah: Not only did Jacob devote himself to the study of the Torah; he also took pains to ensure that the study of the Torah continue to thrive and grow. Later in his life, he established a center for Torah study in Egypt before moving there.40 By studying Torah himself as well as establishing study centers for his children, he ensured that all of his children remain loyal Jews.

As long as we follow in Jacob's path—both scheduling fixed times to study the Torah ourselves as well as having our children educated in schools whose primary focus is the study of the Torah—we can be certain that all of our children will remain loyal Jews. Furthermore, we are assured that we will merit to see them succeed, not only spiritually but materially as well.41


[28] Isaac loved Esau for the game he provided: Metaphorically, "game" refers to the sublime "sparks" of holiness that Esau possessed, including the sparks of the lofty souls of future converts to Judaism who would become great Jewish leaders. Counted among Esau's descendents are the prophet Obadiah;42 the great sages of the Mishnah—Shemayah, Avtalyon,43 Rabbi Akiva,44 and Rabbi Meir45—and Onkelos,46 the author of the standard Aramaic translation of the Torah. Isaac sensed this great potential for holiness within Esau, and loved him for it.

Esau's latent holiness, being his greatest asset, is symbolized by his head, while his wicked, lowly behavior is symbolized by his body. For this reason, Esau's severed head was buried in Isaac's bosom,47 for once it was isolated from the wickedness of his body, it was indeed suitable to rest in Isaac's proximity.

As we will see,48 Isaac's lifelong mission was to dig beneath the surface and reveal the dormant potential in that which appeared to be lowly and unredeemable. It was precisely for this reason that he loved Esau so greatly and wanted to give him his blessings, for he felt that by showering him with love and blessings, he would awaken and unleash the potential for holiness hidden deep within him.49

Chapter 26

2 Do not go down to Egypt: The true home of the Jewish people is the Land of Israel, for God made this land uniquely conducive to feeling His presence. It is for this very reason that the sages of the Talmud state that, while in exile, the Jewish people are considered "children that have been banished from their Father's table."50 Therefore, even though the circumstances of exile may compel us to temporarily live outside the Holy Land, we should never forget that the lands of our Diaspora are not our true home. We should yearn constantly for God to restore us to "His table"; indeed, the daily liturgy ensures that we pray—and even demand51—several times a day that He do so.52

It was because Isaac was consecrated as an ascent-offering that God did not allow him to leave the Holy Land. The more we emulate Isaac's holiness, the more deeply will we feel how the Holy Land is our home and how incongruous is our exile from it.53

2 Isaac had considered going down to Egypt, just as his father Abraham had: Having been raised by his father to believe in Divine providence, Isaac assumed that the famine was meant to induce him to journey outside the Land of Israel in order to disseminate Divine teachings there, just as his father had done.54

But God told Isaac not to leave the land, thereby affirming that his particular mode of bringing Divine awareness to the world differed from Abraham's. Abraham taught through outreach, traveling to his audience and tailoring his message to his listeners' ability to grasp. Isaac, in contrast, was to focus on intensifying his own Divine consciousness and that of his own immediate milieu. The force, clarity, and vigor this inner work would give Isaac a magnetic charisma that would draw the outside world to him and make them aspire to emulate him.

And, indeed, the subsequent events proved this the case. As we will see later, Avimelech, king of Philistia, sought to make Isaac his ally, telling him that "we have seen that God is with you."55

Abraham is the paradigm of those who sanctify the world from within; Isaac is the paradigm of those who sanctify the world from without, sequestered in synagogues and centers of Torah study. The latter should intend, as did Isaac, that their insular activities affect the world around them.

Since the patriarchs are the fathers of us all, each type of person must take time out to sanctify the world through the means that that is primarily the domain of the other type. Torah students must take time off from their studies to teach and help others, and working people must take time off from their jobs to study the Torah. But even when working people take time out for study, they should do so with the intent of spiritualizing the material world, only this time through an insular-type activity.56


[2] Outside the Land of Israel, in a place where people are not yet conscious of God's presence: Abraham's educational efforts in the Land of Israel had succeeded in disseminating Divine awareness among its inhabitants.57 Although the effect his efforts had on their behavior was minimal, they were still considered God-fearing in contrast to those living outside the Land of Israel, who possessed only the slightest awareness of God and whose behavior was commensurately ungodly. It was therefore inappropriate for the saintly Isaac to leave the Land of Israel to dwell among them.

In this vein, the Midrash58 relates that when Jacob left the Land of Israel to descend to Egypt, he thought, "How can I leave the land of my fathers, the land of my birth, and the land in which God's presence rests, to go to a land…where there is no fear of Heaven among the populace?"59

[5] Because Abraham heeded My voice: The word used here for "because" (עקב) is numerically equivalent to 172. The Talmud states that this alludes to the fact that Abraham heeded God's voice for a period of 172 years: he recognized God's existence at the age of three, and worshipped Him continually until his passing at the age of 175.60 Maimonides, in contrast, tells us that Abraham discovered God at the age of forty.61

At age three, Abraham was clearly not mature enough to understand the philosophical necessity of God's existence. His recognition of God was therefore limited to belief in, rather than knowledge of, God. Since for Maimonides, apprehension of God was superior to belief in Him, he therefore wrote that Abraham first recognized God's existence at the age of forty, since only at the age of full intellectual maturity, i.e., forty,62 can a person be said to know God—at least to the extent possible for the human mind.63

5 Because Abraham heeded My voice: The word for "because" in this verse (עקב) also means "heel" (just as the result of a cause is said to follow "on its heels"), and the word for "heeded" (שמע) literally means "heard." This phrase can thus be interpreted to read: "Abraham heard My voice down to his heel."

In general, there are two levels of hearing someone else's words: superficial hearing, by which the listener physically hears that which is said but does not absorb the message, and profound listening, by which the information is both heard and penetrates to the listener's mind and heart, as well.

Abraham's life of self-sacrifice for God enabled him to reach an even higher level of "hearing": God's voice and message not only penetrated his mind and heart; they also affected his whole physical body and entire life, even their lowest aspects, as represented by the heel.64

Abraham heeded My voice, and observed My restrictions, My commandments, My rules, and My instruction: The Talmud deduces from this verse that Abraham observed all the precepts of the Torah prior to their having been commanded at Mount Sinai.65 However, he observed many of them solely in a spiritual way, and not in the physical manner mandated once the Torah was given.66 What can we learn from Abraham's spiritual observance of the commandments, being that we are commanded to fulfill them physically?

When we encourage people to perform commandments and they subsequently do so at our behest, they have fulfilled the commandment physically. However, because it was our influence that brought them to do so, it is considered as if we had performed these commandments spiritually. Thus, in addition to the physical observance of the commandments that we ourselves fulfill, we must also imitate Abraham's spiritual observance, by influencing others to perform them.67

12 Isaac sowed grain in that region and in that year: As we know, whatever the patriarchs' involvement in the physical world, it was for purely spiritual purposes;68 they did everything solely with the objective of fulfilling God's will.69 In this case, Isaac's true goal in sowing grain was to be afforded the opportunity to give charity to the poor. Isaac wished to fulfill the commandment of tithing, which the Torah stipulates can only be performed with one's own produce.70

18 He re-dug the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham: Despite the fact that digging wells characterized Isaac's approach in fulfilling the Divine mission, he did not begin digging wells until after Abraham died. This is because as long as Abraham was alive, he was the spiritual leader of his generation and set the tone for how the Divine mission was to be fulfilled. Therefore, during Abraham's lifetime, Isaac assisted him in his work; only when Isaac assumed the mantle of spiritual leadership did he begin to innovate.71

Which the Philistines had blocked up after Abraham's death: As explained in the Overview, digging wells alludes to the process of self-refinement prerequisite to integrating Divine revelation. The Philistines succeeded in blocking up Abraham's wells because his methodology in spreading Divine awareness was antithetical to that exemplified by digging wells; he merely inspired others, but did not uncover their inner wellsprings of goodness. In contrast, Isaac's methodology in spreading Divine awareness was perfectly exemplified by digging wells: he made people take a candid look at themselves, forcing them to confront their psychological blocks standing in the way of living the Divine life, thereby uncovering their hidden goodness. He not only inspired others, but effected change in them. Therefore, the Philistines could not block up his wells.

Spiritually, the Philistines represent unbridled materialism. The root of the word for "Philistine" (פלש) means "to penetrate," "to break through borders." The Philistine's blocking up of Abraham's wells alludes to the victory of unbridled hedonism over Godly inspiration.

We often experience this dynamic during prayer. When we pray and meditate, we "dig wells" by clearing away the emotional and mental "dirt" that has "blocked up" the flow of fresh "water" extant within our souls. But when we conclude our prayers and re-enter the world of our mundane affairs, the inspiration of prayer vanishes; the well has once again been blocked up by our inner "Philistines," our ingrained relish for material satisfaction.

This happens if we fail to direct our inspiration during prayer toward correcting a particular character flaw, opting rather to revel in our uplifted state of inspiration. In contrast, when we focus on improving a specific character trait while praying, we effect a change in ourselves, enabling us to retain our commitment and inspiration even after re-entering the material world; our "wells" are no longer at risk of once again becoming "blocked up."72

The Philistines personified the evil of unrestrained levity and mindless frivolity. In this context, the word for "Philistine" implies "uncontrolled abandon." They were thus the natural opponents of Abraham and Isaac, who personified the joy that accompanies feeling close to God. The Philistines tried to appropriate the holy joy of Abraham and Isaac for their own, erroneously claiming that the service of God, which should be serious and solemn, cannot tolerate laughter and joyful release. These, they claimed, can only be used for empty levity and scoffing. This is why they plugged up Abraham's wells and claimed Isaac's for their own.73


[18] And gave them the same names that his father had given them: Or literally, "and gave them names (שמות) like the names (שמת) that his father had given them." The first time the word for "names" appears in this verse, in reference to Isaac's wells, it is spelled with the letter vav; the second time, in reference to Abraham's wells, it is spelled without the letter vav.

The image of the vav, a vertical line, represents a flow from a higher to a lower point. As we have seen, Abraham's inspiration did not permanently refine and transform his students. This fact is reflected in the missing vav—his inspiration did not "descend" into their consciousness. In contrast, Isaac's inspiration did effect a transformation in his students, which is why the vav is present in his wells.74

19 Isaac's servants…found a well of fresh spring water: There are three recommended steps we can take to prepare ourselves spiritually for prayer: giving charity,75 which inspires God to act charitably toward us and answer our prayers; immersing in a natural body of water or mikveh, which purifies us from spiritual defilement; and studying inspirational teachings of the Torah.76

These three types of preparation are derived from the parallel characteristic behavior of each of the patriarchs during their lifetimes: Charity is alluded to by Abraham's performance of deeds of kindness.77 Immersion in water is alluded to by Isaac's efforts in digging wells. Inspirational Torah study is alluded to by Jacob's devotion to the study of the Torah.78

20 The shepherds…quarreled with Isaac's shepherds, saying…the water is ours: Isaac's wells were then commandeered by the Philistines. Sometimes even our most well-intentioned efforts or spiritual labor boomerang, actually strengthening the forces that oppose holiness. We learn from Isaac that we should not be discouraged in the face of such unexpected setbacks, but rather to continue our endeavors, which are certain to eventually succeed.

In particular, "digging wells" can mean digging for the goodness within people who appear to be worth nothing more than stones and mud, in order to reveal the fountain of spirituality and holiness buried beneath their soulless exterior. Just as Isaac dug wells despite the opposition of the Philistines, we should not be discouraged from reaching out to those who deliberately, and even sometimes spitefully, oppose holiness. Even if our initial efforts meet with failure—or worse, our actions actually backfire—we, like Isaac, must continue digging until we uncover those hidden wellsprings.79

22 So he named it Rechovot ["open spaces"]: These three wells presage the three Temples that Isaac's descendants would later build. Isaac's first two wells, which were a subject of contention with the Philistines, foreshadowed the first and second Temples, which were ultimately destroyed. The third well, over which the Philistines did not contend, presages the third Temple, which will be built in the messianic era and will never be destroyed.80

This metaphor is particularly apt, as both the wells and the Temples were the result of a synthesis of both human and non-human effort. Although well water gushes out of a spring on its own force, it cannot do so unless the well has been dug. Similarly, although God rests His presence in the Temple, He cannot do so until a Temple in which to rest His presence is built. In order to elicit God's presence, the Temple must be built not only with physical materials but also with our good deeds. No matter how imposing or resplendent the structure, if the people who build it are not worthy, God's presence will not manifest itself in it.

Moreover, the worthiness of the people is what determines the permanence of the Temple. The more our Divine consciousness is such that we live our lives solely in order to fulfill God's will, the more perfect vessels we are for Godliness, being empty of any vestige of self. So too, the more selfless our motivation, the more the Temple built by us will be permeated with Godliness, and the more it will reflect God's eternality.

In times of greater Divine revelation, people are naturally more attuned to holiness and spirituality. In such times, observing God's commandments makes sense to us intellectually and feels right emotionally, so our primary motivation is personal, even selfish. In times of lesser Divine revelation, we become less attuned to holiness and spirituality, so our motivation to observe the commandments derives more from our submission to God's will. Thus, our spiritual handicap becomes an advantage in this context: emptied of self-interest, our deeds become purer, and can therefore be more truly permeated with Divinity.

We therefore see that the Tabernacle that was built in the desert—which was constructed with the aid of an abundance of Divine guidance and Divine intervention81—did not endure as long as the Temples in Jerusalem, which were built with less Divine guidance82 and amid less Divine revelation. The first Temple, in turn, did not endure as long as the second Temple,83 which was built with even less Divine involvement than the first84 and amid less Divine revelation. Finally, the third Temple, which will be built out of the good deeds accrued over the course of our last and longest exile, will endure eternally.85

32 We have found water: Isaac, who embodied Divine severity and judgment, dug a total of four wells, corresponding to the four days of Divine judgment in the Jewish year, as follows:

Esek (Contention): This first well corresponds to the first day of Rosh HaShanah, during which Satan, the prosecutor of the Heavenly Court, contends with the Jewish nation and attempts to indict them for their sins.

Sitnah (Harassment): This well corresponds to the second day of Rosh HaShanah, on which Satan's opposition is less harsh than on the first day—he no longer contends, but only harasses. This qualitative difference is alluded to by the fact that the reason why Isaac named the first well "contention" is mentioned explicitly ("because they had contended with him"), while the reason why he named the second well "harassment" is not.

Rechovot (Open Spaces or Relief): This well, dug by Isaac himself, corresponds to Yom Kippur, the one day of the year on which Satan is not allowed to prosecute. The word for "the Satan" (השטן) is numerically equivalent to 364, alluding to the 364 days of the year on which he can bring charges against us, whereas on the 365th day, Yom Kippur, he is forced to remain silent.86 Just as the Philistines did not contend with Isaac over this well, so, too does Satan not contend with us on Yom Kippur.

Shevuah (Oath or Seven): This well corresponds to the seventh day of Sukot (known as Hosha'ana Rabbah), on which the world is judged regarding the quantity of rain that will fall during the coming winter. Isaac's servants seemed surprised to discover water in this well, too, since this day is not as holy as Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur.87

Chapter 27

1 His eyesight had become dim…by Divine providence so that he could be deceived into blessing Jacob rather than Esau: Instead of arranging for Isaac to become blind, God could have simply revealed Esau's wickedness and unworthiness to his father; God would not have been divulging anything that Isaac did not already suspect of his son. After all, Isaac already knew that Esau's wives were idolaters—although he excused his son by saying that he could not control his wives—and that he did not usually mention God in his conversation.88

God's reticence in this matter teaches us an important lesson: If God chose to allow Isaac to go blind rather than speak negatively about the wicked Esau, certainly we must take extreme care not to speak negatively of others.

Similarly, the Talmud89 relates how God refused to identify Achan by name as the one who had stolen some of the spoils that had been dedicated to God after the conquest of Jericho. The sacrilege of one lone individual caused God's protection to be removed from the entire Jewish army,90 yet when Joshua asked God to name the culprit, He responded, "Am I to be a talebearer to you?"91


[1] The smoke from Esau's wives' idolatrous incense offerings gradually dimmed his eyesight: Although smoke can indeed damage one's eyesight,92 the type of smoke emitted by the idolatrous incense offerings of Esau's wives obviously was not the sort that could blind a person, since neither Esau nor his wives went blind, even though they came into much closer contact with the smoke than Isaac when performing their idolatrous rites.

Rather, Isaac's blindness was caused by his exposure to smoke coming specifically from idol-worship. He was so pure that his eyes could not tolerate this visible manifestation of idolatry.93 He therefore went blind.94

4 So that I may grant you my soul's blessing: Isaac wanted to bless Esau—thus naming him his successor—rather than Jacob, for he envisioned him as a fearless, Godly warrior, dedicated to combating evil. Although he saw how Esau had succumbed to the very forces he originally battled and had now totally sided with evil, he felt that if he would only bless him, he would again take up the cause of good and righteousness. With his superior power, sophistication, and skill, he would then be able to accomplish God's purposes on earth far better than Jacob would.95

Rebecca realized Isaac's error. It was true that Jacob was not the cunning, wild warrior that Esau was. But his prowess in Torah study could well provide him with the cunning necessary to wrest the sparks of holiness from the clutches of evil when confronted with the challenge. On the contrary: Jacob's devotedness to the Torah would imbue him with a much stronger drive to make the world into God's home—and the knowledge and skill to do it—than Esau could possess.96

12 Perhaps my father will…regard me as an impostor, and I will bring a curse upon myself, not a blessing: The Midrash applies the verse, "Those who sow with tears will reap with joy,"97 to Jacob.98 Jacob was filled with dread and despair over having to deceive his father and possibly incur his curse, especially since he was an artless person by nature and lying was anathema to him.99 But through this painful experience of "sowing with tears," he was able to receive the blessings, to then be able "to reap with joy."

Similarly, in our lives, it is often through pain and desperation that we attain the greatest blessings.100

15 Rebecca took…Esau's clothes…and put them on…Jacob: In addition to the explanations given above101 as to why Jacob had to receive the blessings dressed as Esau, there is also a homiletic interpretation: Rebecca wanted to ensure that Isaac's blessings would rest upon her descendants, the Jewish people, no matter to what degree they would remain openly loyal to the teachings and practices of the Torah. By having Jacob receive Isaac's blessings dressed as Esau, Rebecca ensured that the blessings would rest even on those Jews who would drift away from their Jewish roots and would no longer be recognizable as Jacob's children. We learn from Rebecca that even those Jews disguised as "Esau" are deserving of blessing since, beneath their external garb, they too are truly "Jacob."102


[4] So that I may grant you my soul's blessing: Although Isaac recognized Esau's shortcomings,103 he chose to give him the blessings anyway because he saw that Esau possessed an exalted soul originating in the lofty but inchoate energies of the world of Tohu.

Isaac sought to liberate these spiritual forces by giving Esau the blessings. He intended to bless him with the benediction of "dew," associated with a sublime Divine energy capable of reviving the dead in the messianic era.

In truth, however, the blessings would not have succeeded in elevating Esau. Instead, one of two things would have happened: either they would have penetrated him but had no impact, like someone who swallows food whole without chewing; or they would have overwhelmed his being and brought about his death.

Rather, Esau could only be elevated through Jacob, for the lofty energies of Tohu had to be integrated within the world of order, Tikun. God therefore ensured that Jacob receive the blessings so he would be able to elevate Esau, who represented the physical realm.

Because of the loftiness of this blessing, Isaac could not consciously give it to Jacob—it had to bypass Isaac's consciousness. God therefore arranged that the blessing be received by Jacob without Isaac's knowledge at the time.104

Jacob, the recipient of the blessing, also had to be operating at a level where his consciousness would not hinder receiving the blessing. In order to receive the blessings, he had to exhibit self-sacrifice, which he did by exposing himself to the risk of being cursed by his father.105

[13] Let your curse be upon me: As we have seen,106 receiving these lofty blessings called for self-sacrifice. When Rebecca demonstrated to Jacob that she was prepared to sacrifice her own life in order that he receive the blessings, he understood their momentous importance, and from then on was willing to go along with her plan, even if it meant risking his own life. He became convinced not because he thought that she would bear the consequences of his actions, but rather because her selfless declaration taught him the critical importance of his receiving the blessings and that he must do so with self-sacrifice.107

[15] Rebecca… took her older son Esau's…clothes…and put them on her younger son Jacob: The words for "older" and "younger" can also be translated as "the great one" and "the small one." Esau is called "great" since he embodies the great and intense energies of Tohu. Jacob is called "small" since he embodies the restrained energies of Tikun.

As is known, the intense energies of Tohu "exploded," causing its lofty sparks to become embedded in physical reality. Through observance of the commandments, which involve physical matter, we redeem those sparks and access the intense energies of Tohu.

Metaphorically, then, "donning the garments of Esau" means engaging in the observance of the commandments, which are "garbed in the garments of Esau," physical matter.108

22 The voice (קל) is the voice (קול) of Jacob: The word "voice" appears twice in this verse, alluding to the two types of voices employed by "Jacob," i.e., the Jewish people, in their relationship with God: the voice of prayer and the voice of Torah study. As we have seen,109 the image of the vav, a vertical line, denotes a downward flow. The first "voice" in this verse, alluding to prayer, is spelled without a vav, since prayer rises upward. The second "voice," alluding to Torah study, is spelled with a vav, since studying the Torah "brings down" God's lofty wisdom into the finite human mind.

The order of the two "voices" in the verse reflects their proper sequence in our lives: Prayer must precede the study of the Torah. We pray before studying in order to boost our Divine consciousness enough to ensure that we remain aware of the Torah's Divine author while we are studying it.110 (The exception, mentioned above,111 is the inspirational parts of the Torah, which may be studied in preparation for prayer.)

The voice is the voice of Jacob…the hands are the hands of Esau: The Midrash reads the verse as follows: "When the voice of Jacob, the voice of the Jewish people, is heard praying and studying Torah in the synagogues and halls of Torah study, the hands of Esau cannot harm them."112 This verse echoes the prophecy given to Rebecca, "When one rises, the other will fall."113 When Jacob strengthens himself with Torah study and prayer, Esau falls.114


[25] And he brought him wine: According to the Zohar,115 Jacob diluted the wine he served Isaac with water. Wine signifies gevurah (strength), since it intensifies the emotions. Wine is [thus] associated with fire, which is constantly drawn upward and yearns to escape from the wick restraining it. Wine is thus a metaphor for one who longs to escape the limitations of this world and cleave to God. This quality is associated with the world of Tohu.

In contrast, water, which naturally flows downward, is a metaphor for bringing God into the world through performing the commandments. As we have seen, Abraham is compared to water and Isaac to fire.116 Jacob, who embodied the ultimate synthesis of these two approaches, therefore mixed water into the wine he gave his father. This synthesis is the hallmark of the world of Tikun.

This synthesis is further alluded to in the rare double cantillation mark (a mercha kefulah) under the word for "him" (לו) in this phrase.117

27 See, my son's fragrance is like the fragrance of a field which God has blessed: Prior to pronouncing his blessings, Isaac saw visions of the construction, destruction, and reconstruction of the Temple, as alluded to in this verse:

My son's fragrance: The word for "my son" (beni) is similar to the word for "constructed" (banui), and therefore alludes to Isaac's vision of the constructed Temple. "Fragrance" also alludes to the Temple, since the sacrifices are described as creating a "fragrance pleasing to God."118

Like the fragrance of a field: "Field" alludes to the destruction of the Temple, as in the verse, "Zion shall be plowed like a field."119

Which God has blessed: This alludes to the reconstruction of the Temple.120

Isaac intended for his blessing to confer upon Esau the power to repent. He was therefore granted a vision of the built Temple, followed by visions of its destruction and subsequent reconstruction, for the process of destruction followed by reconstruction parallels the process of sin followed by repentance. It is for this very reason that the destruction is symbolized by a plowed field, because in the first stage of repentance—realizing how bitter is our estrangement from God—we metaphorically "plow" our own selves; that is to say, we break up our hardened psyches so that new growth can take place, and "overturn" our previous selves in order make way for our new selves.

This "self-plowing," however, is only the first step in the process. We may indeed experience an overwhelming sense of regret and desire for change, yet neglect to actually change our behavior because we continue to be immersed in our daily routine and distracted by it. We must therefore stay focused—even while "plowing"—on the next step: the "planting" and the growth that it will bring in its wake.

Isaac was therefore also granted a vision of the reconstructed Temple, indicating that his blessings would empower their recipient to not only experience regret, but to proceed on to the process of growth, as well.121

28 May God grant you: We are taught that God created the world with ten statements.122 As we shall see,123 the entire Torah is encapsulated within the Ten Commandments we heard at Mount Sinai. The fact that the creation of the world and the giving of the Torah both revolve around the number ten indicates that they are intrinsically related: the world was created through the Torah and for the Torah.124

In other words, God's ten creational statements thus signify the natural order of reality, while the Ten Commandments signify the heightened Divine awareness that we are expected to infuse into natural reality through learning the Torah and observing its commandments, thereby sanctifying all of life and transforming the world into God's home.

Isaac blessed Jacob with ten blessings of material prosperity as a reward125 for having drawn the transcendent holiness of the Ten Commandments into the natural order signified by the ten statements with which God created the world. True, throughout history, these blessings of prosperity have not, by-and-large, been fulfilled; the Jewish people have not generally enjoyed abundant material wealth. This is because there are actually two facets to God's reward to us for fulfilling His commandments: spiritual reward, i.e., sublime levels of Divine consciousness, and material reward, i.e., material prosperity. We cannot receive the full spiritual reward for observing the commandments until the world is prepared for it, that is, until its materiality has been sufficiently refined so that it can tolerate the infusion of such sublime levels of Divine consciousness. In the meantime, we only receive a glimmer of this reward, in the form of heightened spiritual awareness and inspiration. Inasmuch as the spiritual and material facets of our reward are inexorably intertwined, our great material reward is also being delayed; in the meantime, we receive only an occasional trickle of it. When the Messiah comes, however, all these blocks will disappear, the physicality of the world will be refined, and we will receive our full spiritual and material rewards for having fulfilled God's commandments.

Because of the imminence of the messianic era, the world has already become somewhat refined. Increasing numbers of people are seeking spiritual enlightenment, and spiritual experiences are in many respects more easily attainable than in the past. In tandem, we have already begun to taste the full material reward we will receive in that time, and can in many ways see the empirical results of our good deeds.126

31 Let my father arise and partake of his son's game: Esau's respect for his father was exemplary. He made it a point to wait on his father dressed in the special garments he had taken from Nimrod, which he valued so much that he entrusted them solely to his mother Rebecca's care.127 Later on, when he decides to kill Jacob, he refrains from doing so—despite his raging anger—in order not to pain his father.128

Nevertheless, his reverence for his father did not prevent him from speaking to him discourteously, saying, "Let my father arise," as opposed to his brother Jacob's courteous mode of address, "Please arise."129 Similarly, he makes coarse reference to his father's death, saying, "The days of mourning for my father will soon be here."130

We learn from Esau's behavior that it does not suffice to merely do what is right; we must do what is right in a refined way. Our speech should not only be meaningful and free of any prohibited types of talk (falsehood, gossip, etc.); it should also be refined, as Jacob's was.131

35 Your brother came with guile: The blessings Isaac bestowed upon Jacob were for material prosperity. The fact that he obtained them with guile is meant to offer us instruction as to how we should engage in our own material pursuits. When eating or conducting business, for example, we may appear to be merely tending to our physical needs, similar to the materialistic Esau. But behind this façade, we should really be thinking like Jacob: our true intention should be a spiritual one—to eat in order to have the strength to study the Torah and observe the commandments, to earn a livelihood in order to have the financial means with which to fulfill the commandments, and so on. This is the sort of "duplicity" that we are to employ in our interactions with the material world.132