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.”



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