I want to talk about the ברכות that יעקב ”stole“ from עשו. The story seems straightforward:
But why does יצחק want to bless עשו? Isn’t he the bad guy, the one called עשו הרשע? This week’s הפטרה says it explicitly:
And more, יעקב was destined to be the leader of the brothers. רבקה had a prophecy of their future:
The usual answer is that יצחק was fooled by עשו's apparent sincerity and religiosity (as Rashi says (בראשית כה:כז, ד״ה יודע ציד) לצוד ולרמות את אביו בפיו…כסבור אביו שהוא מדקדק במצות), and by his very real כבוד אב. רמב״ן explains why יצחק didn’t take the prophecy into account: he didn’t know about it.
But it is very hard to understand Ramban’s words. He claims that היה בדעתו לברך אותו שיזכה הוא בברכת אברהם לנחול את הארץ ולהיות הוא בעל הברית לאלקים. But that’s not the words of the ברכה that he intended to give him:
And the ברכה that יצחק gives יעקב when he is fully aware that it is יעקב before him, is ברכת אברהם:
I do not know how to justify the Ramban here; presumably he read the text and was aware of the difficulty. But this seems to be the way that רש״י and the other early commentators understand the story: יצחק intended to bless עשו, not יעקב, and יעקב stole the one ברכה that יצחק had to offer.
Modern commentators look at these psukim and say that there were two ברכות, intended for his two sons. This, as far as I can tell, was a חדוש of the ספורנו, that has resonated to the point of displacing other understandings of the text. The idea of חדוש in interpretation is an interesting one; it is clearly a good thing:
But we know that the תורה שבעל פה, the oral explanation of the written Torah, was given to משה at Sinai. How could a later human being come up with a correct explanation that had never been seen before? The של״ה הקדוש writes:
So the potential for the novel understanding was always there, possibly taught to משה, but not passed down as part of the oral tradition. Coming up with a correct חדוש, one that is consistent with the Mesorah and is acceptable to the collective genius of כנסת ישראל, is a special זכות. For most of us, what we think of as our brilliant innovations has really been written and discussed a thousand years before.
Here’s how the ספורנו puts it:
How can someone “steal” a ברכה? It’s not some kind of magic spell that just works; it’s a prayer that ה׳ give something to the recipient. How could יצחק say גם ברוך יהיה?
So when עשו complains that he too deserves a ברכה, יצחק points out that there is no ברכה appropriate for him:
But how could יצחק give עשו the right to rule over יעקב? What about the prophecy, ורב יעבד צעיר? We have seen the Ramban’s answer, which seems unsatisfying; is רבקה so tzniusdik that she would keep something that momentous from יצחק? Rabbi Shulman often cites Rav Medan that it was actually a halachic issue, made explicit by the אור החיים:
I would read this gemara as being about דרך ארץ, teaching us a lesson in how to treat our fellow man. The אור החיים's חדוש is to realize that it actually teaches us about the nature of prophecy, that one needs explicit permission to share what fundamentally is a private experience. This is mentioned in the זוהר:
I have my own understanding of what happened. My חדוש (which I haven’t seen explicitly anywhere else, but may be right nonetheless) is that יצחק in fact was aware of the prophecy, but that we are reading it wrong (or at least differently from the way he did). What does לאם מלאם יאמץ mean? We translate it as “one will be stronger than the other”, but almost the identical wording occurs later in the parasha:
And the מלב״ם (among others) translates the מ־ as “from” rather than “more than”:
So too here, I would read לאם מלאם יאמץ as “one nation will drawn strength from the other”, not necessarily an adversarial relationship. This may have been the basis of יצחק's desire that עשו and יעקב work together, each using his own strength to complement the other’s deficiencies. And the Netziv implies something similar:
And רב יעבד צעיר? While we want to translate as “the older will serve the younger”, that isn’t right grammatically. It’s missing a word, את, to indicate the object of the sentence. Compare the words of יצחק, (בראשית כז:מ) ואת אחיך תעבד. This makes the whole sentence ambiguous: who is to serve whom? As the Netziv says:
Again, I don’t know if this is right. But it points to a fundamental truth: while we believe that the words of a נביא will come true, we have no way of knowing how they will come true. We may interpret those words completely incorrectly. What’s more, those predictions do not limit our free will. We actually have the power to determine how those words come true, such as the prophecy of יונה (יונה ג:ד) עוד ארבעים יום, ונינוה נהפכת. That’s why we can’t predict the coming of Moshiach: