Rabbi Bernard Fox
“And Esav was forty years old and he took as a wife Yehudit the daughter of Be’eri the Hettite and Basmat the daughter of Elon the Hettite. And they were a source of anguish for Yitzchak and Rivka.” (Beresheit 26:43-44)
One of the most important elements in this week’s parasha is the account of Yaakov’s successful endeavor to secure the blessings that Yitzchak had planned to bestow upon his brother Esav. The pesukim above directly precede this account. Generally, there is some relationship between the various issues discussed in the Torah. What is the relationship between Esav’s choice of wives and following account of Yitzchak’s bestowal of the blessings upon Yaakov? Before we can answer this question we must consider some related issues.
What kind of person was Esav? We know that he was not a tzadik like his brother Yaakov. But this does not mean that his personality did not include any positive elements. One of the more positive elements of his personality is reflected in our pesukim.
The pesukim tell us that Esav was forty years old when he married. Why is his age significant? Rashi explains that Yitzchak was also forty years old when he married Rivka. Rashi explains that this was an important consideration to Esav. He wished to emulate his father. He felt that by marrying at the age of forty, he was following the example of his father Yitzchak. According to Rashi, Esav valued his father’s approval and his decision to marry at this time was influenced by the need for this approval. This assessment of Esav’s attitudes is confirmed latter in the parasha.
“And Esav saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing in the eyes of Yitzchak, his father. And Esav went to Ylshmael and he took Machalat, the daughter of Ylshmael, the son of Avraham, the sister of N'vayot, In addition to his wives, to be to him a wife.” (Beresheit 28:8-9)
These pesukim explain that Esav recognized that Yitzchak did not approve of his wives because of their heathen practices. In order to win his father's approval, Esav married Machalat, the daughter of Yishmael, and the granddaughter of Avraham. Again, the Torah is indicating that Esav deeply valued his father’s approval and he made an important decision in order to secure this approval.
This raises an important question. If Esav placed such high value upon his father’s approval, why did Yitzchak not attempt to reform Esav? Why did Yitzchak not use his influence to motivate Esav to become a better person?
“And Yitzchak loved Esav because he ate from his game. And Rivka loved Yaakov.” (Beresheit 25:28)
The pasuk seems to tell us the Rivka recognized the superiority of Yaakov but Yitzchak preferred Esav to Yaakov. Sforno contends that this interpretation is not the actual meaning of the pasuk. According to Sforno, Yitzchak was not unaware of Yaakov’s superiority. He loved Yaakov. However, he also loved Esav. He knew that Esav was not as righteous as Yaakov. But he believed that Esav was basically a good person. In contrast, Rivka loved Yaakov alone. She determined that Esav was wicked. She did not share Yitzchak’s more moderate point of view. However, this raises an interesting question. Sforno’s interpretation of the pasuk seems somewhat arbitrary. What is the basis for assuming that Yitzchak actually acknowledged the superiority of Yaakov?
“And now, take your weapons – your sword and your bow. And go out to the field and hunt game for me.” (Beresheit 27:3)
Yitzchak is preparing to bestow his blessing on Esav. He tells Esav that a preparatory measure is required. Esav must go on a hunting expedition. He must hunt and prepare for his father a special meal. There are a number of difficulties presented by these instructions to Esav. First, why did Yitzchak insist that Esav hunt game? The impression created by the command is that Yitzchak had very particular tastes and specifically wished to eat fresh game. However, if we consider another pasuk, this does not seem to be true.
“Go now to the flocks and take for me from there two young kid goats and I will make for your father the delicacies that he loves.” (Beresheit 27:9)
Rivka overhears Yitzchak’s instructions to Esav. She realizes that Yitzchak is prepared to bestow on Esav blessings that she feels must be given to Yaakov. She tells Yaakov to disguise himself as Esav, substitute himself for his brother, and secure the blessings that Yitzchak intends to give Esav. Of course, Yaakov will need to produce the delicacies that Esav at this very moment is preparing. Rivka explains that this is not a problem. She will prepare these delicacies from two young kid goats. Apparently, Rivka is certain that Yitzchak will be incapable of distinguishing the food she would prepare from the foods he had instructed Esav to bring him. In fact, she was correct! Yaakov brings Yitzchak the foods prepared by his mother and Yitzchak does not detect the substitution.
Apparently, Yitzchak’s tastes were not that particular or well developed. So, why did he insist that Esav hunt and prepare game for him?
There is an additional problem with Yitzchak’s instructions to Esav. Why does Yitzchak need a meal before blessing Esav? Again, there seems to be a simple explanation. Yaakov indicates that this meal will place him in the state of mind needed to bestow the blessing. However, an incident latter in the parasha challenges this interpretation.
“And Yitzchak called for Yaakov and he blessed him. And he commanded him and said to him, “Do not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.” (Beresheit 28:1)
Yitzchak summons Yaakov and instructs him not to marry a woman from Canaan. He is to travel to the house of Lavan and seek a wife there. Yitzchak then confers an additional blessing on Yaakov. In this case, Yitzchak does not require a meal before blessing Yaakov. Why did Yitzchak need to enjoy a meal before blessing Esav but not before blessing Yaakov?
Sforno contends that the answer to these two questions offers an important insight into the purpose of the instructions that Yitzchak gave to Esav and supports his assertion that Yitzchak was aware of Yaakov’s superiority.
Sforno explains that Yitzchak was not blind to Esav’s spiritual shortcomings. He was concerned that his efforts to bestow a blessing upon Esav might be undermined by these failings. He concluded that his success would depend upon involving Esav in some activity of virtue and merit. He hoped that by blessing Esav while he was involved in a virtuous activity the blessing would be effective. Therefore, he instructed Esav to immerse himself in the activity of serving his father. He hoped that the merit of this activity would provide the framework necessary for the blessing to be effective.
This explains Yitzchak’s instructions. He did not require these delicacies for his state of mind. He felt that it was important for Esav to involve himself in the activity of honoring his father. Sforno adds that it is apparent that Yitzchak fully recognized the spiritual superiority of Yaakov. When Yitzchak blessed Yaakov, these preparations were not necessary. Yaakov was on a far more elevated spiritual level. He was fit to be blessed without involving himself in some immediate act of virtue. Yitzchak was confident that his blessing for Yaakov would be effective without resorting to any expediency. 
There is another even more explicit indication that Yitzchak was fully aware of Yaakov’s spiritual superiority.
“And He should give you the blessing of Avraham – to you and to your children with you – to posses the land of your sojourns that G-d gave to Avraham.” (Beresheit 28:4)
As explained above, before Yaakov left his father, Yitzchak conferred one additional blessing upon him. He designated Yaakov to be the heir of the blessings that Hashem had bestowed upon Avraham. Sforno notes that it is apparent that Yitzchak never imagined giving this blessing to Esav. He recognized that Esav was completely unfit to carry on Avraham’s mission. Yitzchak knew that this blessing was destined for Yaakov. Clearly, this Yitzchak’s conclusion indicates that he fully appreciated the spiritual superiority of Yaakov.
We can now begin to understand Yitzchak’s failure to rebuke Esav for his behaviors. Yitzchak was not unaware of Esav’s failings. However, he did not fully recognize the implications of these failings. He believed that Esav was essentially a good person. But he was not on the elevated spiritual plane of his brother Yaakov.
Of course, it may seem presumptuous to attribute such a significant error in judgment to Yitzchak. Indeed, it is only prudent to consider whether our Sages agree with Sforno’s assessment.
“And it was when Yitzchak became old that his vision faded. And he called to Esav his older son. And he called to him, “My son.” And he responded to him, “I am here”. (Beresheit 26:1)
The Torah tells us that in his old age Yitzchak was afflicted with blindness. Sforno notes that there is a parallel incident of a tzadik being afflicted with blindness. Eli the Kohen Gadol was also afflicted with blindness in his old age. Sforno notes that that the Navi tells us the Eli was remiss in not rebuking his sons for their inappropriate behaviors. Although the Navi does not explicitly tell us that Eli’s blindness was a punishment for his failure to rebuke his sons, it is notable that both he and Yitzchak failed in rebuking their sons and were subsequently afflicted with blindness. Other commentaries further develop this connection and suggest that Yitzchak’s blindness was indeed a punishment. Rashi quotes the midrash that explains that Yitzchak was blinded by the smoke from the heathen offerings given by Esav’s wives. Daat Zekaynim quotes another midrash that Yitzchak was blinded in response to accepting a bribe! What was the bribe that Yitzchak accepted? Daat Zekaynim explains that the game that Esav prepared for his father was a bribe. It undermined Yitzchak’s judgment of Esav. In other words, in his evaluation of Esav, Yitzchak was unreasonably influenced by the honor and adoration that Esav showed towards him. It is clear from both of these midrashim that Sforno’s interpretation of Yitzchak’s actions and attitudes is supported by the Sages. Both midrashim share a common theme. Yitzchak was punished with blindness in response to his failure to see through Esav’s deference towards him. This same error of judgment prevented Yitzchak from reacting properly towards Esav’s decision to marry women from Canaan.
Why was Yitzchak punished with blindness? Of course, there is an obvious connection that is noted by the midrash. The Torah tells us that a judge who accepts a bribe is blinded it by it. However, Daat Zekaynim suggests another connection. It was Yitzchak’s blindness that allowed Yaakov to successfully masquerade as Esav. In other words, Yitzchak’s failure to objectively evaluate Esav precipitated the crisis that could only be resolved through a deception. Yitzchak’s blindness was essential to the success of this deception.
Based on this analysis, Sforno explains the relationship between the Torah’s account of Esav’s marriage to women from Canaan and Yaakov’s securing of the blessings that Yitzchak intended for Esav. Esav married these women and Yitzchak did not respond. This incident captures the relationship between Esav and his father. It provides a revealing introduction to the account of the blessings. It alludes to the conditions and imperatives that compelled Rivka and Yaakov to deceive Yitzchak.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 26:34.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:1.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:4.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:29.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:1.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 27:1.
 Da’at Zekaynim, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 271:1.
 Da’at Zekaynim, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 271:1.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 26:35.