Vayishlach: Israel – the name we call our own

Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed. (Bereishit 32:28)

He tricks his father,
cheats his brother
and flees from home, afraid.
He deals unkindly with his wives
and flaunts his favorite child.
He sows fraternal hatred and
his sons devise their crime.

Meet our father Jacob
with his less-than-perfect life,
who unawares, encounters the Divine.
He battles with himself
and wrestles with the Other
and finally he earns a fitter name.

And we, his children, struggle likewise
seeking grace in messy lives
and as we strive for wholeness,
we call our name by his.

We have been following Jacob’s troubled life since Parashat Toledot, when he deceives his father Isaac and expropriates Esau’s blessing, and has to flee his brother’s wrath. In Parashat Vayetsei we are witness to his unkindness to his wives. The Torah actually describes Leah as “hated”! Jacob’s greater love for Rachel is understandable, but nonetheless, Leah is considered an innocent victim of Laban’s treachery. Rabbi Bunem of Peshischa suggests that the text does not mean that Jacob hated her, rather that she hated herself, as a righteous person who saw her own faults. However, the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS says, “Knowing what we know of human psychology, we can also suspect that Jacob did indeed hate Leah because, by reminding him of the fraudulent circumstances of their wedding, she reminded him of his most shameful memory, the time he deceived his father. We often hate people for confronting us with what we least like about ourselves.”
Then, when Rachel cries out to him of her pain at being barren, he is incensed rather than sympathetic and answers her unfeelingly. (The Midrash depicts Rachel reminding Jacob that he was born only after Isaac prayed on Rebekah’s behalf.) The Sages criticize Jacob for his insensitivity.
But finally in this week’s Parasha, Vayishlach, we see that Jacob has changed in many ways. Years before, when he left his home, after the dream of the ladder, he prayed to God in what seemed like a bargaining manner: he said that if God would protect him, supply his needs and return him safely home, then he would acknowledge God as God and set aside a tithe for Him! Now he prays a more mature prayer – he knows he has nothing to offer God, and that he has already been granted a plethora of blessings: love, family and wealth. So now he asks only for God’s protection so that he can be an instrument in fulfilling God’s plan. We see, too, how his previous response to precarious situations was by lying and flight (he also leaves Laban’s house by stealth in this parasha). The Etz Hayim says, “He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding and manipulating them.” Even though at the end of the struggle, Jacob is wounded, he is described as shalem or whole (Bereishit 33:18). The word shalem is etymologically connected with shalom – peace. He is envisioned as being at peace with himself, and the Sefat Emet intimates that he now has an integrity that he didn’t have before.

In a commentary on Vayetsei,, Rabbi Ed Feld notes that we are called not after Abraham, nor Isaac, but Jacob. He wonders why that might be. He says, “Abraham is a mythic figure — we have almost no clue to his inner life. Both at the beginning of his story and at the end, we see him following God’s command with absolute faith…his life appears charmed and God protects him.
“While we have mythic tales of this father, there is a paucity of information regarding Isaac, his son, the second of the patriarchs. Essentially we see him in two scenes, in both of which he is a passive player…
“The Jacob narrative is different than both of these…Jacob’s emotional life is apparent. We are told when he is fearful; we are told when he is in love. His domestic life is carefully examined and his troubles and feelings are in full view…the trajectory of his life is not simply uphill. His relationship with his family is constantly troubled. We suspect that the love relationship with Rachel has gone aground; their dialogue certainly seems less than loving. His eldest, Reuben, disrespects him. His disagreements with Laban almost put his life in danger. Fear and disappointment never leave him. In old age, reflecting on it all, he will complain to Pharoah, “Few and hard have been the years of my life,” (Bereishit 47:9).
“Of all the patriarchs, then, Jacob is the most human, suffering ups and downs, living through successful accomplishment and suffering tragedy. He is the most human, the most like us. And we are called the People Israel because his are precisely the most human of tasks with which we are to engage: How to live with one another, how to love, how to raise families, how to create community. That is the stuff of Jewish law, the halakha, the path which we are to create in order to build a life that aims toward God.”
Rabbi Feld brings the teaching with which Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, begins his classic work, the Tanya. Rabbi Schneur Zalman discusses the beinoni, the one who is neither fully righteous nor evil. Rabbi Feld notes that although many Hasidic masters concentrated on the development of the tsaddik, the saintly person, the Ba’al HaTanya seems to be suggesting that in the end, “even those who seek a life of extreme piety are simply middling people, made up of flesh and blood, tossed about by circumstance, subject to mixed motives, trying to work through relationships and be decent husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers. We have to come to grips with our own fears, our loves, our self-concern, our wish to make a difference. And always we meet the Other who is not what we expect, who is filled with his or her own ambitions, fears, inclinations, desires, a succession of Others with whom we wrestle.”
So Rabbi Feld perceives Jacob as showing us the way: “He goes to sleep in a field, dreams, and awakes only to discover what he didn’t comprehend or imagine, “Truly there is a God in this place, and I didn’t know it.” We, too, can enter into our world, the world of everyday busyness, the place of ambition and concern, of love that strives to be realized and of motive that is misunderstood, but as we struggle through to create a measure of holiness out of the ordinary, out of the everyday, we truly become living participants in the story of the People Israel. We, too, might be able to echo our eponymous ancestor and amid the striving, the wrestling, discover that that is where we find God: in the revelation that the everyday may contain holiness.”

In a commentary on Vayetsei,, Janet Sternfield Davis also surveys Jacob’s life. She says, “Many of us have had Jacob moments, but luckily not a Jacob life. We’ve had to leave home in order to get on track. Sometimes home is not safe, or it’s too safe to do the hard work of creating a life worth living. What is a life worth living? What is the hard work required to become who we were meant to or could be?”
Jacob’s life, we read in this and the following parashot, is difficult and painful. He has been both manipulator and manipulated, deceiver and deceived. Sternfeld-Davis also addresses the bargain Jacob seems to make with God after the dream of the ladder. But she cites a commentary by the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) who examines this conditional vow and suggests that Jacob does not doubt God’s promise, but rather worries lest his own behavior might impede the fulfillment of God’s promise. She says, “Jacob can’t depend on God’s promises without his doing his part to bring the promise to fruition. During most of Jacob’s twenty years in Paddan Aran he seems to be working out his atonement for his earlier actions in Canaan. He matures by acting with a quiet integrity and industry. He is doing his part to protect the validity of the vow…” By the time Jacob finally leaves Laban’s household, we see that he now knows that God has been with him. He also makes a pact with Laban – he has become someone who acts openly and with integrity. Sternfield-Davis says, “Our lives may or may not be as dramatic as Jacob’s life. The question is do we have the courage to leave, even psychically, at a low point in our lives to commit ourselves to live with integrity? What do we make of our lives if we don’t fulfill our own personal pledge to act responsibly?  And… can we return “home” as the different people we became due to our “getting out of town”? This can be as daunting as the original leave-taking because we fear we will regress to the old us, and lose all the hard fought changes we have made. The stories of our ancestors are full of promises made to and by very human and recognizable people. They are flawed individuals who accomplished great things. Our responsibility is to fulfill our promise to live a life worth living, and make our contribution to the legacy of our people.”

In another commentary on Vayishlach,, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz also addresses Jacob’s transformation. She says that there have been many suggestions as to the identity of the mysterious being with whom Jacob struggled all night.  Rabbi Peretz says, “Jacob, however, had no doubt of his partner in struggle; in his mind, it was God with whom he struggled. He called the place of the encounter Peniel, “because I saw God face to face and my soul was saved.” Even his adversary implies as much when he gives Jacob the name Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with man and you have been victorious.”
She asks, “Did Jacob know who he was? After all, he had lied to his father, stealing both Esau’s birthright and blessing. To have any chance of reconciliation with his brother, Jacob had to acknowledge that he had, in fact, done wrong; he had to wrestle with the guilt and disappointment in his own actions. He had to take an honest look in the mirror.”
Rabbi Peretz perceives Jacob’s night of wrestling as “a moment of reckoning”. His struggle, she says, transformed him. “So, his name was changed to Israel and through him we became known as B’nei Israel – the Children of Israel, a people who must wrestle with God and ourselves to determine our blessing, to experience the essence of our covenant, to accept our collective mission as a people.”
She continues, “Like Jacob, we too face moments in life that command our self-reflection and willingness to struggle. We too have to confront our inner selves – the good and the bad. We confront our own angel; we confront God; we confront ourselves. And, we wrestle with questions: Who are we? What have we done? How can we change and grow from within the depths of accepting our frailties. What does God really want from us?”
Rabbi Peretz concludes, “As we create for ourselves new names and identities, we know that only through honest self-evaluation will we ultimately walk away renewed and transformed.”

In his book, A Partner in Holiness, Rabbi Jonathan Slater cites the commentary by Rabbi Levi Yitschak of Berditchev who addresses the change of Jacob’s name to Israel and what it might mean. He offers it as an aspiration for connecting with God. R’ Levi Yitschak rearranges the letters of each name in his teaching. Jacob/Ya’AKoV, becomes Yod AKeV. The word EKeV denotes “heel”; the yod signifies the final letter of the divine name Adonai; this symbolizes an entanglement in the lowest dimension of divinity in this world. R’Levi Yitschak takes the letters of Israel YiSRaeL and rearranges them as YaShaR EL which both suggests “straight to God” and also seeing God directly (the verb sh-u-r means “to behold” or “regard”. Rabbi Slater says, “These surely are apt for the person who is able to maintain unbroken attachment to the Divine, mental attachment to God. Thus, the title given to those spiritual “knights” who never flag in their devotion to God is Israel.”

In a commentary on Vayishlach,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson addresses the puzzle of the continued use of Jacob’s former name even after he has been given the new name of Israel.
He says that Jacob transforms from the youth who tries to wrest his destiny from his older brother and force fate by wily strategies, to the man who wrestles with the angel without manipulation.  “At the end of that transforming moment,” says Rabbi Shavit Artson, “the angel acknowledges Jacob’s new, more mature nature, by bestowing the new name Israel.” But then the Torah continues to revert periodically to the old name. Why has Israel not replaced Jacob permanently? Rabbi Shavit Artson cites the Talmud (BT Berachot 13a) “Jacob is not to be entirely eliminated, but ‘Israel’ is to be primary and ‘Jacob’ secondary.” So he asks, “Why does the third patriarch retain his earlier, somewhat embarrassing name?” and he answers, “The reality of human life is that we never eradicate our earlier identities… With each new phase of existence, we grow and add new aspects of an emerging self. But we are never simple, never single layered. Instead, just as a thriving tree adds new rings, but always around the earliest core, so too we humans add new modifications and identities to an increasingly complex and layered history of who we are. No matter how much our surface radiates the placid wisdom, profundity, and tranquility of an Israel, the chaos, passion, and turbulence of our earlier identities as a Jacob never lurks very far beneath the surface.
“Who we were, we are. But the glory of human growth is that we too, like our ancient ancestor, need not accept our shortcomings as defining. Instead, we can struggle with our own angels and wrestle with the demons that we retain from our youth.
“While we will never obliterate the Jacob within, it is within our power to transcend him.
“We, too, can grow to become Israel.”

Vayetsei: Once you dreamed

Jacob…set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac… All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Bereishit 28:10-15)

Once, at the mating time of the flocks, I had a dream in which I saw that the he-goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and mottled. And in the dream an angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here,’ I answered. And he said, ‘Note well that all the he-goats which are mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, and mottled; for I have noted all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now, arise and leave this land and return to your native land.'”(Bereishit 31:10-13)

Twenty years have vanished
since you dreamed. You saw
the ladder, bridging
earth and heaven.
Lying on the rocky ground
and staring at the star-splashed sky,
you heard the sigh of angel wings
and vowed to span both mortal
and Divine.

But now you picture goats:
herds of beasts – mottled,
speckled, streaked;
your gaze is focused downwards, as
you hear their endless cropping,
gnawing on the foreign verdant sward.
Against this earthly backdrop
floats the echo of your name
and when you wake, you know

you must return
and resurrect your dream.

Parashat Vayetsei contains two dreams both dreamed by Jacob. The first of these, which opens the parasha, is of the ladder reaching from earth to heaven. This vision is well-known and has been a rich source of commentary as well as artistic and literary expositions. The second dream, however, is far less well-known. In a commentary on Vayetsei,, Marc Gary suggests that the latter dream is no less significant.
When the parasha opens, Jacob has fled from Esau’s wrath and set out for Haran. Night falls, so he stops and lies down with his head on a stone, and dreams. In his dream, he sees the stairway that connects earth with heaven and on which angels are ascending and descending. God stands beside him and promises to protect Jacob on his journey into exile and back home. (Bereishit 28:12–15) Jacob awakens with a sense of awe and realizes that God is present and he is at the “gateway to heaven”. Jacob consecrates the stone on which he had laid his head and names the place Bethel (House of God) (Bereishit 28:16–19).
The Torah then proceeds to recount the details of Jacob’s life in the next two decades, at the house of his scheming uncle, Laban. Gary notes, “They are years of treachery, deceit, exploitation, and fear. They are pivotal years in Jacob’s life — years in which Jacob confronts who he is and sees in Laban what he will become if he doesn’t pull back from the abyss.”
Gary turns to the second dream: “It is 20 years later. Jacob has been living in Haran as a part of Laban’s household and he has learned the true meaning of treachery. First, he worked as a virtual slave for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel, only to find on his wedding day that he has been tricked into marrying Leah. Jacob must toil for seven more years to earn Rachel’s hand. Even after that, Jacob continues to be exploited by Laban, taking care of Laban’s flocks while he makes his uncle wealthy. The Torah tells us that Laban adjusted his wages 10 times — and I can guarantee that he wasn’t giving Jacob a raise. Finally, Jacob insists on getting a piece of the action for himself. He cuts a deal with Laban: Jacob will keep the speckled and spotted goats — which were quite rare — and Laban can keep all the others. Laban agrees, but either through God’s beneficence, folkloric magic, or a combination of the two, Jacob is successful and ends up with a large flock of speckled and spotted goats.”

And then Jacob has a dream, which he relates to Rachel and Leah, in which he sees the male goats mating with the flocks that are streaked, speckled, and mottled. And then an angel calls Jacob’s name, and intimates that God has seen how Jacob has been deceived by Laban, and has instigated the successful breeding of the rarer animals, and then reminds Jacob of Bethel, and tells him to return from exile (Bereishit 31:10–13).

Gary wonders what the angel in Jacob’s dream was saying, and suggests, “In my view, the angel was telling Jacob, “You remember Beth El, don’t you Jacob? You remember where you dreamed of a stairway to heaven? Now what do you dream about? Spotted goats that make you wealthy. You are dreaming of your bank account; you are dreaming of the stock market. You have forgotten how to truly dream. Worse, you have betrayed your dreams! You cannot stay in this place. Go back to where you can dream great dreams again!”
He continues, “Like Jacob, we all dream great dreams in our youth when we begin life’s journey in earnest. We dream of building a better world, easing suffering, creating new communities, finding God. But often those dreams slip away and are replaced with dreams of stock market bonanzas and BMWs — speckled goats. The parashah teaches us that when we cease to dream of stairways to heaven and instead become obsessed with material goods, we must take drastic steps. We must leave that place — spiritually, if not physically — and return to where we can dream again.”

In her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen describes part of a research study that she conducted, in which she asked a group of over seventy physicians to rate a list of twenty-three values in order of importance in their lives, and she asked them to repeat the task with regard to their work. These values included love, power, competence, control, wisdom, happiness, kindness, fame, success.
Dr Remen noted that none of the respondents’ two lists were identical and were actually often markedly different. So she says that while kindness might be number three on someone’s personal list, it might only score fifteen on the list of work values; and while competence might be the premier work value, it might be the last on someone’s personal list. These physicians were perturbed when they realized that they lived in one way and believed in another. She says that the exercise highlighted this discrepancy for the first time, and when they mulled it over, a surprising number discounted the possibility of actually living by the values they deemed important. Dr Remen cites one participant’s comment: “Life diminishes you,” and Dr Remen adds, “But, of course, only with your permission.” She adds, “What is true of these doctors is, I think, true of us all. The experience of sacrificing integrity to expediency is one that many people have daily.”
Dr Remen continues, “Integrity is an ongoing process, a dynamic happening over time that requires our ongoing attention. A medical colleague describing his own experience of staying true to himself told me that he thinks of his life as an orchestra. Reclaiming his integrity reminds him of that moment before the concert when the concertmaster asks the oboist to sound an A. “At first there is chaos and noise as all the parts of the orchestra try to align themselves with that note. But as each instrument moves closer and closer to it, the noise diminishes and when they all finally sound it together, there is a moment of rest, of homecoming.
“”That is what it feels like to me,” he told me. “I am always tuning my orchestra. Somewhere deep inside there is a sound that is mine alone, and I struggle daily to hear it and tune my life to it. Sometimes there are people and situations that help me to hear my note more clearly; other time people and situations make it harder for me to hear. A lot depends on my commitment to listening and my intention to stay coherent with this note. It is only when my life is tuned to my note that I can play life’s mysterious and holy music without tainting it with my own discordance, my own bitterness, resentment, agenda and fears.””
Dr Remen concludes, “Deep inside, our integrity sings to us whether we are listening or not. It is a note that only we can hear. Eventually, when life makes us ready to listen, it will help us to find our way home.”

Toledot: Rebekah

Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah…Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob. (Bereishit 25:2-28)

God told you what would be:
your older son, you heard,
would serve the younger;
yet their father could not see.

You held them both as babies;
you watched your toddlers play
one fair and gently spoken
one ruddy-skinned and loud.

You saw them grow from boys to men
the augur in your mind:
did you ever cherish Esau, or
did Jacob fill your heart?

When you marshaled the deception:
as you quickly cooked the food,
sizzling and spicy, the way
your husband relished,

did your heart contract
and did you have misgivings?
As you swiftly rummaged
through his clothes,

to thwart your firstborn’s blessing, and
as you softly coached his brother,
did you feel no sorrow
for your disenfranchised son?

And when, inside the tent, you heard
his wild and bitter sobbing,
did a lump, unbidden, fill your throat,
your tears, too, overflow?

Parashat Toledot continues the saga of our somewhat dysfunctional ancestral family and recounts one of its most poignant episodes. We learn how Isaac has just married Rebekah at age forty, and for twenty years the couple remains childless. Isaac prays to God and his wife conceives. We learn that Rebekah’s pregnancy is complicated as the Torah tells us, “Vayitrotzetzu habanim bekirbah– the boys struggled inside her” (Bereishit 25:22). She wonders why this is happening to her and in her great perplexity or anguish seeks an answer from God. God answers her somewhat ambiguously “verav ya’avod tza’ir” – literally “And the greater the younger will serve.”(Bereishit 22:23) Although this is understood that the older will serve the younger, the Hebrew is actually not clear, who is the subject and who the object. We will address this more in depth later. But we understand that what Rebekah infers is that the younger twin will be the heir.
As a digression, it is interesting to speculate whether Rebekah’s expectations of her sons played out as self-fulfilling prophecies. There is a phenomenon called the Pygmalion effect*, or Rosenthal effect, in which higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy. By the Pygmalion effect, people internalize their positive labels, and those with positive labels succeed accordingly.
In any event, in due course, she gives birth to two very different twins.
We learn that while their father Isaac loves the older, energetic Esau, their mother Rebekah favors the mild, domesticated Jacob. We see that the internecine conflict between Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael is about to be replayed, and now, Rebekah plays a part as her mother-in-law Sarah did in the earlier conflict.
When Isaac reaches the age of 100, we learn that he has become blind and he calls Esau as the older son and tells him he wants to bless him before he dies. He sends him out to hunt some game for a meal that Isaac will eat before he gives his blessing. Rebekah overhears, calls Jacob, and instructs him to impersonate Esau and thus acquire the blessing due to the firstborn. Jacob is afraid that if Isaac discovers the deceit, he will receive a curse and not a blessing, but Rebekah is adamant and Jacob capitulates. Rebekah prepares a meal, and dresses Jacob up as Esau. Isaac is doubtful but plays along and duly blesses Jacob, and when Esau arrives having fulfilled his father’s request, the trick is discovered, to the distress of both Isaac and Esau.
In a commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Leonard Sharzer analyses the part each parent plays. He wonders whether Isaac really knows who he is blessing. The Etz Hayim commentary suggests that he does, and “either acquiesces to the substitution (for when did Isaac ever protest when others determined the course of his life?) or else realizes that Jacob does indeed deserve the blessing.”
As to Rebekah, Rabbi Sharzer asks, “Is she the conniving wife and mother? Or is she the original Tiger Mom?” He continues, “She knows that the mantle of the covenant can fall to only one of her twins and she knows which one is more capable of advancing the cause. The difficulty during her pregnancy was a harbinger of the difficult decision she would face later and which would ultimately explain the esoteric response from the oracle.”

In a further commentary on the parasha, Rabbi Yakov Nagen addresses the ethical dilemma presented in it. He asks how we are supposed to relate to both Rebekah and Jacob’s problematic behavior in this story: Rebekah for conniving the entire plot and Jacob for co-operating, but at the same time, he notes, both were attempting to ensure that the blessings would be bestowed on the appropriate son. He brings an answer that he says is surprising, from the Zohar (Vayeshev 185b). Here we learn that much of the suffering visited on Jacob throughout his life is attributed to his having stolen Esau’s blessing. As the punishment was inflicted measure for measure, we might assume that he acted wrongly and thus deserved it, but the Zohar actually says that Jacob acted as he should have and God approved his actions and still he deserved to be punished: “And though the Holy One Blessed be He approved of him regarding the [theft of the] blessings, he [still] had to be punished” (Zohar Toledot 144b).
[In Rebekah’s case, she had to send Jacob away to escape Esau’s wrath and we learn later that when Jacob returns after his twenty-year sojourn in Padan-Aram, Rebekah has already died so she never saw her beloved son again.]
Rav Nagen says, that we learn that “even when a person’s actions are justified, she still cannot ignore their consequences and carries responsibility for what she has done. A person must live with the complexity of reality – she must constantly be aware of her responsibility for her actions and the costs which result from them. This awareness is liable to dissuade a person from acting, but a mature approach to life accepts the cost without shrinking from the responsibility…”

In another commentary on Toledot, Maureen Kendler tracks the changes she sees in Rebekah. She describes Rebekah when we first meet her (in last week’s parasha Chayei Sarah) as “independent, active, generous, a role model”. We learn that she becomes a comfort to her husband and that he loves her and prays for her to have children. However, in this parasha, Kendler perceives Rebekah very differently. She asks “What has marriage and motherhood done to her? Here we see her eavesdropping on Isaac, her blind ailing husband, as he tells his preferred son Esau to go and bring food, after which he will give him a blessing. We can only assume Rebecca feels that Isaac has lost his good sense together with his sight, and is about to give Esau the patriarchal blessing that she intends for her preferred son, Jacob.
“She springs into the action we associate with her younger self, and persuades a reluctant Jacob to take part in her elaborate plan. In a frenzy she produces a substitute meal and concocts Esau-like clothes for Jacob to trick Isaac. But – there is no evidence that Isaac was as confused and helpless as Rebecca assumes him to be, that he was going to give the all-important covenantal blessing to Esau.”
Kendler notes that in the blessing Isaac gives to the Jacob the imposter, he bestows only material things (abundance and political power) (Bereishit 27:39), but later when he blesses Jacob knowingly, before he departs for Padan-Aram, he blesses him with the blessing of Abraham. So Kendler surmises that “It seems Isaac knew who was destined to inherit the work of the patriarch after all. He may have been blind, but his inner sight was clear.”
She adds, “In all the frantic action, speeches and activity of this parsha, what is missing is communication between husband and wife. We are told that Isaac loved Rebecca, but he chose not to share with her his deathbed plans for their children. She must resort to listening behind doors and her mistaken confidence and wrong assumptions mean she must act quickly to save the day. She does not consult with her husband.”

In a further commentary on the parasha,, Rabbi Sacks, too, addresses these same questions: “Was Jacob right to take Esau’s blessing in disguise? Was he right to deceive his father and to take from his brother the blessing Isaac sought to give him? Was Rivka right in conceiving the plan in the first place and encouraging Jacob to carry it out?” These, he says, “are fundamental questions. What is at stake is not just biblical interpretation but the moral life itself. How we read a text shapes the kind of person we become.”
Rabbi Sacks posits that one interpretation is simply that Rebekah was right to come up with her plan and Jacob was right to act on it. Rebekah knew that the younger twin was destined to be heir to the Abrahamic legacy because God had told her so in the oracle prior to the birth of her twins. In addition, she was also fully aware of the differing temperaments of the twins: while Jacob was thoughtful and mild, Esau was wild and impatient and had sold his birthright for a pot of soup. His mother knew that he “ate, drank, rose and left. So Esau despised his birthright” (Bereishit 25:34). How could someone who despises his birthright be the heir to a covenant intended for eternity? Moreover, in the section just before that of the blessing, we learn that, to his parents’ grief, Esau married two Hittite women who were unsuitable wives for the bearer of the legacy.
According to this interpretation, says Rabbi Sacks, the blessing obviously “had to go to Jacob. If you had two sons, one indifferent to art, the other an art-lover and aesthete, to whom would you leave the Rembrandt that has been part of the family heritage for generations?” And he adds that in this scenario, if Rebekah deemed Isaac “blind” both psychologically as well as physically and thus unaware of the true nature of each son, she had no choice but to resort to deceit. For what was at stake here, was not just family relationships, but the future of the entire nation that God had promised Abraham would be descended from him and would be a blessing to the whole of humanity.
Rabbi Sacks says, “This was the woman whom Abraham’s servant had chosen to be the wife of his master’s son, because she was kind, because at the well she had given water to a stranger and to his camels also. Rivka was not Lady Macbeth. She was the embodiment of loving-kindness. She was not acting out of favouritism or ambition. And if she had no other way of ensuring that the blessing went to one who would cherish it and live it, then in this case the end justified the means. This is one way of reading the story and it is taken by many of the commentators.”
But, he continues, this is not the only possible interpretation, and he considers the events immediately after Jacob exits from his father’s presence and Esau enters with the meal Isaac had desired.
“Isaac trembled violently and said, ‘Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him – and indeed he will be blessed!’
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me – me too, my father!’
But he said, ‘Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.’
Esau said, ‘Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: he took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!’ Then he asked, ‘Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?’” (Bereishit. 27:33-36).

As Rabbi Sacks points out, just reading the unadorned text engenders sympathy for Isaac and Esau, and not for Rebekah and Jacob. The Torah rarely describes emotion – even the heart-rending story of the Akedah is bereft of emotive descriptions, and here we have phrases like “trembled violently” and “burst out with a loud and bitter cry”. And he, too, describes the consequences: Jacob’s twenty-year exile and the deceit (very reminiscent of his own) perpetrated against him by Laban in substituting his older daughter Leah for her younger sister Rachel. And the result of that deception was to bring grief to Jacob for the rest of his life: there was jealousy between the sisters and hatred between their children. Jacob’s sons deceived him when they sold Joseph and presented his bloodstained garment as evidence of his death (reminiscent of Jacob deceiving Isaac wearing Esau’s clothes). So Jacob too was deprived of his favorite son’s presence for twenty two years.
Rabbi Sacks’s interpretation of the text is also rooted in the ambiguity in the verse in Rebekah’s oracle that the elder will serve the younger. He says that this could equally be read that the younger will serve the elder. He says that the Torah calls this a chidah (Bamidbar 12:8), that is, “an opaque, deliberately ambiguous communication. It suggested an ongoing conflict between the two sons and their descendants, but not who would win.”
Rabbi Sacks, too, maintains that Isaac is fully cognizant of the nature of his two sons. He loves Esau but knows that none-the-less Jacob will be the bearer of the covenant. So he says that Isaac had two sets of blessings ready, one set for each son. He blessed Esau with wealth and power but the covenantal blessings concerning children and a land he had anyway reserved for Jacob. “There was no need,” he says, “for deceit and disguise”.
Rabbi Sacks notes that eventually Jacob realizes this, and many years later, when the brothers finally meet up, Jacob gives the blessing back that he wrongfully wrested from Esau – he gives him a massive gift of livestock (wealth) and bows down seven times to Esau (power). He even says to Esau: “Please accept the blessing that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need” (Bereishit 33:11). So Rabbi Sacks suggests that by this reading of the narrative, Rebekah and Jacob erred because Isaac was actually following the precedent of Ishmael’s case where, as the older son who did not continue the covenant, he was none-the-less blessed by God to become “a great nation” (Bereishit 21: 18).
He adds that Isaac certainly knew this because he was reconciled with Ishmael at Abraham’s funeral, as described last week (Bereishit 25:9) but Rabbi Sacks speculates that Rebekah might not have known this and she simply associated blessing with covenant.
So Rabbi Sacks wonders “If so then it is possible all four people acted rightly as they understood the situation, yet still tragedy occurred. Isaac was right to wish Esau blessed as Abraham sought for Ishmael. Esau acted honourably toward his father. Rivka sought to safeguard the future of the covenant. Jacob felt qualms but did what his mother said, knowing she would not have proposed deceit without a strong moral reason for doing so.”
Rabbi Sacks suggests that in this episode, as in others in Bereishit, we have a story that is better understood in the context of what transpired later. He notes “It is only after we have read about the fate of Jacob in Laban’s house, the tension between Leah and Rachel, and the animosity between Joseph and his brothers that we can go back and read Genesis 27, the chapter of the blessing, in a new light and with greater depth.”
He concludes “That is how the moral life is. We learn by making mistakes. We live life forward, but we understand it only looking back. Only then do we see the wrong turns we inadvertently made. This discovery is sometimes our greatest moment of moral truth.”


Chayei Sarah: Letting go

Then Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (Bereishit 25: 8-10)

And now they come together,
two sons of this dead father
who doted on them both,
yet banished one and
almost killed the other.

The older son, thickset and dark,
eyes aglitter, stares broodingly
at this younger one, the scion
who usurped him. In his mind
he sees his childhood self,
ready to inherit – then
his buoyant laughter filled the air.
The agony etched on his father’s face
as he cast his son to the desert wastes,
could not extirpate his anguish.

The younger son, reserved and pale,
eyes half-shut, peers, wondering,
at this older brother
who left his world so long before.
Memories of joyous play
arrested by perplexing absence
are cloaked by a much sharper grief.
The agony etched on his father’s face
as he raised the knife to kill his son,
could not extirpate his anguish.

They rest their silenced father
in the dark and yielding earth,
and bury both their pain and loss.
Then turning round in synchrony
they step towards the light.

In a commentary on Parashat Chayei Sarah,, Rabbi Adam Greenwald recalls having taken a group of high school students to New Orleans to do relief work, painting and rebuilding homes devastated from Hurricane Katrina. When the group wandered through the French Quarter, he recounts, they repeatedly found money scattered on the sidewalk or in dark stairwells, which by the end of the night amounted to nearly $140 in misplaced cash!
He says, “This, of course, led to a lively debate among the students about what to do with this windfall. Some suggested that we bring it to the police. Others thought we should donate it to the rebuilding organization we were serving.” Rabbi Greenwald happily reports that none of the students suggested spending it on themselves. He was particularly delighted, he adds, because this experience gave him the opportunity to teach one of his favorite sections from the Talmud, a discussion referred to as “Elu Metziot,” which details the laws of lost and found property.

He says, “The central concept that emerges from this ancient discussion is the idea of “Ye’ush“. Ye’ush literally means “to give up on.” A lost object that has been found must be returned to its owner, so long as the owner has not yet done Ye’ush – given up on ever recovering the object. Once the owner has resolved that the lost object is irretrievably gone, it ceases to be that person’s property. It becomes free.”

Rabbi Greenwald continues, “In its original context, Ye’ush referred only to lost physical property, but its spiritual power extends far beyond that definition. There can be a letting go of disappointments, of hopes, of grudges, and of desires. In some ways, this Ye’ush is sad, because it means letting go of the possibility that what was lost might someday be restored, that what is broken might ever be repaired. But Ye’ush can also be a source of liberation. It is a rest from the constant what-ifs and if-onlys that accompany so many of us for so much of our lives. It is an invitation to honor loss, and to then get on with the rest of life.”

He then notes that last week’s parasha, Vayeira, is “among the most traumatic of the Torah”. We read first about Ishmael who was exiled from his home, where he had been a cherished older son and at one point the apparent heir, and cast out to the barren desert. And later we read about Isaac, also dearly loved by both his parents, taken by his father to the top of the mountain, bound to an altar, and saved at the last minute from his father’s knife! As Rabbi Greenwald observes, “While both sons survive their close encounters with death, their family is shattered. No one ever speaks again – neither Abraham and Sarah, nor Abraham and either of his children.”
He then considers this week’s Parasha, Chayei Sarah, which he says “has its own share of heartache, but it ends with a profoundly redemptive moment. At the close of this week’s reading, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. Two brothers, torn apart by trauma, meet again to quite literally bury the past. This is an extraordinary moment of Ye’ush. What has been lost to them – love, innocence, a sense of security – will never fully be restored. Yet, in this moment, we bear witness to their placing the past in the ground. We can imagine them walking away from the gravesite, perhaps with tears in their eyes, but also perhaps with a great sense of liberation.”
He concludes, “Ye’ush is potentially among the most redemptive forces in our lives. It is not about forgetting our losses; it is about releasing them. It is about recognizing what can be mended and what cannot, and being prepared to let go. Every one of us has things that we have schlepped around for too long – a relationship that will not be fixed, a dream that will not come to pass, a wish for things to have turned out differently. Ultimately, and in our own time, there must come to each of us a moment of Ye’ush – of letting go so that new possibility has the space to enter.”

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS observes that the Talmud (BT BB 16b) interprets the fact that Ishmael and Isaac united to bury their father as a sign that Ishmael changed his ways as he matured, “Although he could not have forgotten how his father treated him and how his brother supplanted him, he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father. Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father nearly killing him on Mount Moriah.”
The commentary cites Bereishit Rabbah (38:12) which suggests that these reconciliations might have occurred in Abraham’s lifetime which would perhaps explain the Torah’s description of him as “contented” in his old age. The Etz Hayim ponders whether this could be a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts, and whether it could even be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac to find a way back…