Toward the end of the Torah portion, Isaac wanted to give the birthright blessings to his son, Esau. But Rebekah knew better. During her pregnancy, she had been prophetically told that Esau would be unworthy of receiving the blessings, while Jacob would need them to fulfill his mission of spreading the Word of God. So Rebekah coached Jacob on how to trick his father into giving him the blessings. The plan succeeded, and then comes the moment when Isaac realized that he was duped.
The real Esau returned from a day of hunting, ready to be blessed. Isaac asked, “Who are you?” Esau answered “It’s me, your son Esau!” And then it all comes together in one crushing moment. As the Bible tells us, “Isaac trembled violently . . .” The Sages explain that Isaac didn’t tremble because he was angry. He trembled because he realized that he had been terribly mistaken. This was no ordinary shudder. This was the kind of shuddering that shakes a person to the core. Isaac’s whole outlook had been wrong, and only now did he fully understand God’s plan for his sons. All of Isaac’s hopes and dreams for Esau came crashing to the ground.
We can feel Isaac’s pain. The moment is sad and heart-wrenching, but at the same time, it is strengthening and inspiring. How many of us could walk away from a lifelong belief and humbly accept that we were mistaken? And yet, Isaac does just that.
There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi who spent his life’s energies studying a word that appears hundreds of times in the Bible: ‘et,’ loosely translated as ‘and’ or ‘also.’ The rabbi had a theory that every time the word was used, there was an additional law to be learned about the subject at hand. He spent his life extrapolating those hidden laws – until one day he was stumped. He was forced to conclude that his theory was wrong, and he discarded what had been his entire life’s work. When his students asked him how he could do such a thing, the rabbi answered: “Just as I was given reward for expounding, so I shall be given reward for refraining.” The rabbi knew when to quit, and he wasn’t too proud to admit when he was wrong.
We all know what it’s like to find out that we have been mistaken. It is humbling and can shake our world. But there is something much worse than letting go of a long-held belief; it’s continuing with the same faulty outlook and repeating the same mistakes over and over.
We can learn from Isaac on how to confront our mistakes and let them go. Only then can we change our course and move on with grace.