Jacob’s Double “deception”

Esau comes home from the field, weary and on the verge of death and asks Jacob to feed him some lentils. Jacob asks him to sell his birthright in return. Esau is happy to oblige him, as the Torah recounts.

Years later, Esau comes to regret his sale of the birthright. Isaac, sensing that his end was near, summons Esau and offers to bless him. Rebecca overhears them and has Jacob disguise himself as Esau and get the blessing instead. When Esau realizes that he has lost the blessings to Jacob he cries out:

Is that why he was called Jacob? He has deceived me twice! He took my birthright, and behold, now he has taken my blessing!

Why does Esau invoke the birthright? If indeed Esau had gladly sold his birthright to Jacob, as was the case, it would justify Jacob receiving the blessings from Isaac that were intended for the first born. Since Jacob possessed the birthright with Esau’s full complicity, Esau hardly had a case against Jacob. Why then did he cry out about the birthright, which was harmful to his own case and buttressed that of Jacob?

Esau, who was not known for honesty or integrity should have skipped over that fact. He should have complained that Jacob stole his blessings as the rightful first born son and owner of the birthright that went along with being firstborn!

Another question has been asked. Why does Esau say “and behold, now he took my birthright.” Why “now?” He could have put it, “and behold he has taken my blessing!”

Esau’s True Inner Desire

One may offer an answer based on the Chassidic understanding of the Evil Impulse known as the Yetzer Hara or the Satan, who is charged by G‑d to entice us to sin.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the Alter Rebbe) in his classic work, the Tanya, citing the Zohar, states that even the Satan truly wants us to deny his blandishments and resist the temptation to sin. Satan is compared by the Zohar to the harlot who is paid by the king to test the prince’s morals. In truth the king wants nothing more than his son’s rejection of her advances, which the harlot also knows. While she has been commanded to use all her charm to ensnare the prince, she would be more pleased and more greatly rewarded if, in spite of her doing everything to seduce the prince, he would not succumb.

The Satan too truly wants us to resist his efforts at getting us to sin but cannot show that desire because it would undermine the test and sabotage the mission for he was chosen.

Esau is the symbol of the Satan. He is in a perennial struggle to destroy Jacob. In a later parsha, Jacob is confronted by an angel, whom our Sages identify as Esau’s angel, the Satan.

When Esau condemns his brother for taking his blessing, usurping his power to entice people to sin, he “drops” a hint that the Satan’s real inner desire is that the person resist all the pressure and stay blessed thereby avoiding the curses of the Satan. Esau therefore invokes the selling of the birthright to Jacob as his subliminal means of strengthening Jacob’s claim and the procurement of the blessings.

Why the P.R.?

However, notwithstanding the Satan’s true inner intention he cannot publicize it. G‑d has given him the unenviable mission to be an enticer, seducer and trouble maker par excellence. That is his G‑d given role and he may not, until Moshiach comes, compromise his job. How then can we suggest that Esau was dropping hints that undermined his effort to take the blessings away from Jacob?

The Power of Teshuvah to Remove the Curses

It may be suggested that there is one exception to that rule that the Satan cannot undermine his own case. When a person seeks to do Teshuvah (repent and return to G‑d), G‑d helps the person make that happen. His assistance comes in the form of a license given to the Satan/Yetzer Hara to “slip up” in his efforts and provides the person with ammunition to keep the blessings.

The Midrash states (on the words “Now, O Israel, what does G‑d your G‑d, demand of you?”): “The expression ’now‘ refers exclusively to Teshuvah.” Thus Esau, the Satan, adds the word “now” as a way of telling us, the progeny of Jacob, that “if you do Teshuvah I will vouch for your blessings and justify your right to them on the grounds that you were given the birthright.”

Jacob the Man of the Future

On a simpler level, but in a fashion no less didactic than the preceding explanation, we can explain why Esau added that Jacob took the birthright from him.

The reason Esau was so eager to dispense of the birthright when he did was that he presumed that the birthright was a spiritual gift that carries with it responsibilities, the dividends of which will not be realized until the next world. For one who doesn’t care for the responsibilities and does not want to wait for his or her reward in the next world, the birthright would be useless.

Thus, Esau reasoned that the birthright truly belonged to Jacob, who always demonstrated his interest in the future. Indeed, this was indicated by his name, Jacob, which implies the future. The first letter is a yud which, in Hebrew grammar, denotes the future tense. Moreover, the second part of his name ekev means heel, or “at the end.”

The name Esau, on the other hand, is related to the word “action,” referring to this physical world.

When Jacob appropriated the blessings from his father, Esau was livid. If the birthright was intended for the next world how could Jacob, in good conscience, take the blessings intended for the here and now?

Thus, Esau cries to his father, he is called Jacob not because he is focused on the future, but because he is devious. He wants the birthright of the future and also the blessings for the present. He wants the proverbial cake and to eat it too.

Yet we know that Jacob was sent to receive his father’s blessing by Rebecca. She was greater in prophecy than her husband as was true of all the Matriarchs. Jacob was certainly not guilty of any crime for taking the blessings. Proof of that is that Isaac essentially endorsed and confirmed the blessings to him even after he discovered the ruse.

How could this be? How should we respond to Esau’s argument that the birthright was intended for the future not for this world? Furthermore if Jacob knew that the birthright was also for the here and now, and Esau was not aware of it, that would have rendered the sale of the birthright null and void because it was sold under false pretenses.

The Future is Now!

The answer lies in Jacob’s uncanny power to introduce the future into the present. Jacob, while engrossed by the worldly pursuits of this world, was also totally focused on the future.

It is said of all the Patriarchs that G‑d gave them a taste of the future in this world. This is especially true of Jacob, about whom it was said that he received an eternal inheritance and that he, metaphorically, corresponds to the Third Temple, which will stand forever. Abraham and Isaac, by contrast, represent the two Temples that were destroyed in the past.

Rabbi Akiva’s Laughter

One of the greatest Sages of the Talmudic period was Rabbi Akiva. His name is an Aramaic version of Jacob. There is a fascinating correlation between Rabbi Akiva and Jacob in this very regard. Rabbi Akiva was also capable of seeing the future in the present.

The Talmud relates how when they saw the ruins of the Bais Hamikdash Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues cried while he laughed. When they expressed bewilderment at his laughter he explained that in this very tragedy of the destruction he saw the prophetic promise of rebuilding and glory. Despite his appreciation for the ruins in which the Temple now lay (he too rent his garments upon witnessing the sad spectacle), he could also laugh because he saw the future in the present.

Application for Today

One can find a useful application of the above for the present day and age. While there are few Jacobs and Rabbi Akivas with us, we have the benefit of living in the very last moments of exile where we can already sense some of the future. The Rebbe exhorted us to “open our eyes” to see the Messianic reality before our very eyes.

Rather than creating a new reality, the Rebbe revealed to us that we merely have to uncover the existing reality; the future already exists in the present.


Here is how to link the explanation of why Esau’s complaint combined both the loss of birthright and the loss of the blessings, on one hand, with the preceding explanation concerning Teshuvah.

One of the most important properties of Teshuvah is that it can transform the past. This is possible because Teshuvah returns us to our core soul, which is a part of the Divine for whom past, present and future are one. Thus, the power of Teshuvah can also get us into the future.

This might explain why Rambam connects Teshuvah with Redemption. When we do Teshuvah we travel into the future even as we still have our feet rooted on terra firma. This is precisely what our role in preparing for Redemption entails: bringing the future into the present.

Moshiach Matters
G‑d promised Abraham the lands of the ten nations. This included not only the land of the seven Canaanite nations conquered by the Jews, but also the lands of Keini, Kenizi, and Kadmoni. G‑d promised, and thus gave, the Jews all these ten lands at the same time. Nevertheless, in the present era, we were granted only the lands of seven nations and the fulfillment of this promise in its entirety will be in the Messianic Era... In that Era, by contrast, not only all Jews of that generation but also all Jews of all previous generations who will arise in the Resurrection, will live there.