Parsha of the Week

Redefining ambiguities, staying on our course


One of the fun exercises I like to employ when studying Chumash is to attribute vague or ambiguous statements to the less obvious person. Let us read two familiar verses in Chapter 27. We’ll follow them with a series of questions to provoke the imagination.

22: Yaakov came closer to his father Yitzchak, and he touched him. He said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esav.”

23: He did not recognize him because his hands were like those of Esav his brother’s (hairy) and he blessed him.

While most people will ascribe hard-set identities to the vague pronouns presented, what would the verses look like if we flipped things around? Who touched whom? Who said the words of the well-known statement describing Yaakov’s voice and Esav’s hands? Finally, who blessed whom before Yitzchak gave the true blessing in verses 28 and 29?

Yitzchak wanted to feel Yaakov — he said so in verse 21. But if Yitzchak is laying in a bed, as we imagine, who is making the effort to feel? Is Yaakov putting himself in position for Yitzchak to touch him, or is it Yitzchak’s action?

This is a question of semantics; it doesn’t really matter. Ramban and others say Yaakov was much less concerned about his voice being a giveaway than his hands, either because the twins sounded alike or because Yaakov could disguise his voice. Chizkuni suggests that people’s voices do not always sound the same (you could be hoarse, have a cold, wake up on the wrong side of the bed, etc.).

With this in mind, if Yitzchak describes the voice and the hands, we are left to ponder what he meant. Commentaries suggest a whole slew of ideas. Curiosity (it’s odd that Esav is talking this way, but whatever); exasperation or confusion (Yitzchak was trying to comprehend the oxymoron in front of him, a person who speaks the way Yaakov speaks, yet who clearly fills Esav’s body; a confirmation (Esav had arranged with Yitzchak that he would use Yaakov’s voice when he returned, just in case Yaakov tried to steal the blessings in his absence by using Esav’s voice).

In this way, Yitzchak was affirming the test he was supposed to perform (Ohev Yisrael and Beit Halevi). A different kind of test — Yitzchak was using his senses to test the identity of the person. His taste, touch and smell all indicated Esav, while the voice indicated Yaakov. Three out of four are good odds (Toldot Yitzchak).

But what if Yaakov made the statement? As the Torah does leave it vague, the possibility — remote as it may be — remains. And if it was Yaakov, we can now ponder what he may have meant. Patronizing (I know the voice is Yaakov’s, but look at the hands!); clever (this is what you were expecting: Yaakov’s voice and Esav’s hands) (based on Beit Halevi); meek (the voice is Yaakov’s because I, in my role as Esav, am having “a moment,” I am feeling spiritual right now and have decided to speak in a different way; convincing (don’t pay attention to voice or the things I am saying — voice is the strength of Yaakov, but my [Esav’s] strength is the hands, and the hands prepared and brought you the food you asked for.

The vague blessing at the end of verse 23 can also have gone either way. Whether Yitzchak was giving a cursory blessing to Yaakov for having brought the food, or Yaakov was blessing Yitzchak for going along with the ruse thus far, we see two people challenged by the circumstances they’ve been put to, who relate to each other in a cautious yet respectful way.

When Rivka told Yaakov in 27:13 that any penalties would be on her shoulders, she gave Yaakov what football fans would call a “free play.” He could essentially do whatever he wanted or felt he needed to do in order to receive the blessings from his father.

If Yaakov said the “famous phrase,” he teaches us how there are times we need to be our own best advocates. As long as we follow the rules laid out for us (in Yaakov’s case the rule was his mother’s instruction, “You are pretending to be Esav”), we are to make the best effort to achieve our desired outcome.

Originally published in 2009.