How Do You Curry Favor with Others?

Some say that the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That appears to be the case in Parshat Toldot. We learn early on in the parsha that “Isaac loved Esau כי ציד בפיו but Rebecca loved Jacob.”[1] How do we translate the phrase כי ציד בפיו? Literally it means “for game in his mouth.” Did Isaac specifically love Esau because he brought him game (because he had a full belly) or is there more to Isaac’s love?

Commentators love to argue that Isaac’s love was conditional-that when the game disappeared, the love vanished as well. Kli Yakar stated this succinctly: בטל דבר בטל אהבה, once the matter (the meat) was gone, the love was gone.[2] Rebecca, on the other hand, loved Jacob unconditionally, as there is no clause explaining why she loved him. We have cause to pause, however, when we begin the following verse: ויזד יעקב נזיד, “Jacob cooked porridge.”[3] Or HaChaim, Rabbi Haim ibn Attar, felt it is too coincidental that Jacob is cooking after the Torah taught us that Isaac loved Esau on account of the game he brought. He wrote שראה שהועלה לגימתו של עשו ליצחק, לקח גם הוא דרך לבשל תבשילין לקרב לב אביו אליו כעשו, “as Jacob saw that Esau’s mouthful had its effect on Isaac, he too took up cooking dishes as a means to draw his father’s heart towards him, as Esau had done.”[4] In other words, Jacob saw that Isaac’s favor was curried through his stomach, and he attempted to do the same. He wanted the same love from his father that brother Esau received.

We further see the resonance of this interpretation when we look towards the end of our parsha. We learn in Chapter 27 that Isaac says to Esau “Take your gear, your quiver and your bow, and go out into the field and hunt me game. Then prepare a tasty dish for me like I love and bring it to me and I will eat it in order to bless you before I die.”[5] You don’t get much more explicit than that: hunt and prepare for me food בעבור (in order) for me to bless you. After a meal, when I am satisfied and strengthened, I will be able to give you a blessing.

All of this is well and good, yet Rashi cites two reasons as to why Esau curried favor with Jacob. The first is this literal interpretation that Esau gave him food. The second, however, from Midrash Bereshit Rabbah,[6] is that he would entrap him, and trick him with the words in his (Esau’s) mouth.[7]  The word ציד does mean game, or “hunted food,” as mentioned previously but it also means to entrap or ensnare, as that is how one catches the game. According to this Midrash, Esau is the predator and Isaac is the prey; Esau is manipulating Isaac and ensnaring him through false sycophancy. In this line of thought Isaac goes blind because he accepted “bribes” from Esau. Because Isaac allowed himself to become dependent upon Esau for food and support, he ignored Esau’s sinful behavior. As a result, G-d punished Isaac by making him blind and therefore further dependent on others.[8]

This leaves us with an essential question: is it better to curry favor through one’s actions (hunting game) or one’s words (flattery)? Whichever one you choose will put you in a different place in your life and will leave you with a completely different impression of Esau: either he is nothing more than a rugged hunter and provider or he is a shrewd operator, knowing precisely why he is bringing the game. Like Esau and Jacob, each of us wants to be favored; each of us wants to receive the great blessing. What is the best way for us to do so?

We know the end of this particular saga: Esau the hunter, the manipulator, was outplayed by his mother Rebecca. He wound up without the blessing he wanted and threatened to kill his brother Jacob. What can we learn from this story to avoid this happening in our own families? How can we ensure that there is more than one blessing, more than one right way for the story to unfold? This situation is so parallel to ours: each of us wants to be favored, to feel that we are blessed, whether in our job, in our relationships or in seeing the decisions that other loved ones make which impact us. How can we do so while avoiding the rift that we experience at the end of this week’s reading?

There is no easy answer to this-only questions to ponder as we continue with our services.

[1] Genesis 25:28

[2] Kli Yakar Genesis 25:28 ד”ה ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו

[3] Genesis 25:29

[4] Or HaChaim Genesis 25:29 ד”ה ויזד יעקב. Translation from Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature.

[5] Genesis 27:3-4

[6] Bereshit Rabbah 63:10

[7] Rashi on Genesis 25:28 ד”ה בפיו

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 64. Found in Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim LaTorah, Genesis 25:28 ד”ה כי ציד בפיו

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