Genesis The Voice of Jacob, the Hands of Esau
Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9)
Isaac said to Jacob, “Come closer that I may feel you, my son—whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:21-22)
There was Jacob, standing anxiously before his father and feeling like an incredible dork. How had his mother talked him into this?
Rebekah knew that Isaac was nearing the end of his life, and that G-d’s covenant would be perpetuated through Jacob—and not his fraternal twin, Esau. She also knew that old Isaac preferred Esau, and was preparing to deliver his ultimate blessing to the red-haired hunter. Rebekah decided to intervene, to force the hand of G-d and ensure that Jacob would receive his blind father’s blessing, even if it meant resorting to deception.
So there Jacob stood, with a platter of simmering meat in his hands and goatskins bound to his arms. Surely he’d never get away with this. His father was a sage and a great leader; of course Isaac would taste the difference between venison and goat meat. How could he be fooled into thinking that goat hair was in fact the furry arms of his firstborn son? This plan was doomed from the start.
Jacob calls out, “Father,” and immediately a lump forms in his throat. It only gets worse as Isaac starts asking questions: “Which of my sons are you?” “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” And then: “Come closer, that I may feel you . . . . ” Look, there’s awkward—and then there’s the realization that the entire ruse you and your mother concocted is about to come crashing down on your head!
Isaac seems to know something isn’t quite kosher. He murmurs, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau . . . .”
What did Isaac hear that caused him to say, “The voice is the voice of Jacob”?
It’s more than just the difference in the timbre of the brothers’ voices. Rashi explains that Isaac hears a fundamental difference in the words they speak: When Jacob says, “YHVH your G-d has granted me good fortune” (v.20), Isaac wonders, “That’s strange; it’s not Esau’s way to invoke G-d’s name.” And further, when Jacob says, “Please sit up,” (v.19), Isaac notes that Esau doesn’t tend to speak so politely and delicately—as we discover in verse 31, when Esau says yakum avi, “Get up, father.”
In other words, Isaac was immediately aware of the inconsistency before him: the voice was a voice of spiritual delicacy, respect, and awe; but the hands were coarse and animal-like, perhaps still flaked with the blood of the slaughtering knife. And the paradox of these two elements in the single individual standing before him was worth noting.
But there is even more going on here than meets the eye. While the narrative is told as a family drama of twin sons competing for their father’s blessing, the people in the story are also stand-ins for something much larger than themselves. After all, from the very outset of the parashat we’re alerted to the fact that this story is one of archetypes. “Two nations are in your womb . . . .” G-d tells Rebekah (25:23)—two nations, not two sons!
This is affirmed by the Torah, which already considers Esau as a stand-in for Edom, Israel’s traditional enemy to the southeast, and by the Rabbis who see him as a stand-in for Rome. From the beginning, Esau isn’t just an individual in a story; he is an archetype for the forces that oppose his brother’s spiritual success. And Jacob, of course, will wrestle his way into becoming Israel, the namesake of the Jewish people.
If we’re speaking of archetypes—and the Torah makes clear that we are—then the “voice of Jacob” and the “hands of Esau” are—not what they appear to be!
The “voice of Jacob” signifies the song of Torah, the quest for spiritual growth and development. It’s a sound of gentleness and curiosity.
By contrast, the “hands of Esau” represent the forces of coarse materialism, dominance, and power. They are impulses that often spill over into outright cruelty.
And when Isaac murmurs “the voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau,” he is remarking that these two conflicting forces are evident in a single person!
The great 20th century mystic Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook explained it this way: “Just as there are both positive and negative forces in the world, so too every person is a composite of positive and negative traits. We need these negative forces, however; without their power and vitality, many goals and aspirations would lack the energy necessary to be realized.”
Rav Kook is pointing to a profound spiritual truth: the desire for spiritual transcendence and impulse for materialism and selfishness exist in tension inside each of us. Likewise, these dueling forces exist in every household, community, and nation. Jacob and Esau continue to wrestle inside each of us, and both have value and something to contribute to the ways in which we encounter the world. The question is: which impulse do we allow to prevail in our lives or in our community, the voice of Jacob or the hands of Esau? (Just because you call yourself “Israel” doesn’t mean you that you don’t have a bit of Esau in you!)
I suspect that Isaac our Father wasn’t fooled at all by the ruse concocted by Rebekah and Jacob. When he declares, “the voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau,” he is declaring in a clear-eyed way what he sees in the man standing before him. And he’s offering a challenge, both to his son and to the reader: I observe in you both impulses, one that lifts up and one that tears down. Which will you allow to prevail?
Rabbi Neal Gold serves as the Jewish Chaplain and Hillel Director at Babson College. He is the Immediate Past President of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and teaches for Hebrew College Me’ah program.