Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

This week’s portion tells of Yitzchak’s special love for Eisav and Rivkah’s special love for Yaakov (Genesis 25:28). One wonders how Yitzchak could have been so naive to prefer his eldest son Eisav to the younger Yaakov. After all, Eisav was a hunter while Yaakov was a student of Torah.

Perhaps it can be suggested that Yitzchak knew that Eisav was physically strong. Having experienced the Akeidah, that moment when a knife was literally on his neck, Yitzchak favored this trait. He sensed that throughout their history the Jewish people would be similarly bound, a knife on our neck, facing death. Physical strength would be needed.

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What the Jewish people needed, Yitzchak thought, was a two-headed leadership. Eisav would be the physical heir. He would defend the Jewish people against all attacks. Yaakov, on the other hand, would be the spiritual heir who would teach Torah principles to his people.

Yitzchak was not fooled by Yaakov’s disguise and therefore blessed Yaakov, with blessings that were physical in nature. “May God give you your due of heaven and plenty of corn and wine” (Genesis 27:28). The blessings Yitzchak gives to Yaakov just before Yaakov leaves home were the covenantal blessings. “May the Lord give you the blessings of Avraham and may you inherit the land of your sojournings” (Genesis 28:4).

Rivkah did not see things that way. She insisted there could only be one heir. The body and the soul should not be separated. Rivkah understood that human beings are disjointed. The body and soul must work in harmony. The soul needs the body to exist in this world and the body needs the soul to give meaning and direction to its existence. For Rivkah, the pathway to spirituality is not to separate it from the body, not to denigrate the body, but rather to sanctify it. She therefore insisted that Yaakov, the Jew of the spirit, the student of Torah, could learn to be physically strong as well.

Thus, as my rebbe, the saintly Rav Ahron Soloveichik of blessed memory, points out, Rivkah pushes Yaakov to have courage by insisting that he challenge Eisav by taking the blessing from him and putting his life on the line. We know that Yaakov eventually learns this lesson, for later in his life he successfully wrestles with a mysterious man (Genesis 32:25) and is given an additional name, Yisrael, which means one who is able to fight and be strong.

The body-soul issue is one that has been debated and discussed for many centuries and in many religions and cultures. It is certainly present in the modern state of Israel. Many yeshivot refuse to allow their students to fight in the army. They insist they are protecting Israel spiritually through their learning and that physical protection should be taken care of by others.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, however, thought differently. He was the father of the Hesder yeshivot whose students enlist in the army and fight, a gun in one hand and a Talmud in the other. In tune with Rivkah’s thinking, they integrate both body and soul in the service of God.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.