Parshat Toldot — Rabbi Riskin (text)

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Toldot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9)

Efrat, Israel “Now my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.” (Genesis 27:8-10)

One of the most difficult-to-understand stories in the Bible is Rebekah’s act of deception when she persuades her beloved son Jacob to masquerade as Esau and receive the blessings of the firstborn. How can we justify a matriarch of Israel deceiving her husband in such an underhanded manner? I believe that Rebekah never planned to deceive her husband, Isaac. To understand what lay behind her actions, we must return to last week’s portion, to Abraham’s initial appointment of Eliezer to find the proper wife for Isaac – who turned out to be Rebekah: “I bind you by an oath to God, the Lord of the Heavens and the Lord of the Earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites.” (Genesis 24:3)

The major task of our founding parents is to provide a suitable next generation to carry on our narrative. Abraham understands that it may be the wisdom of the wife who will recognize the most worthy person to provide continuity. After all, had it not been for Sarah, Abraham might have handed the baton to his firstborn, Ishmael.

It is likewise important to remember that the first Hebrew had two very special characteristics. First, he was a man of great spiritual magnitude, a seeker and a discoverer of God and a practitioner of compassionate righteousness and moral justice; second, he was an accomplished warrior, equipped with farsighted strategic ability as well as physical prowess and courage. Did he not best the large armies of four terrorist kings? Abraham united spirit of the soul with strength of hand.

Hence, when Abraham charges Eliezer with what to look for in the next matriarch, he adjures him by calling on “God, the Lord of the Heavens and the Lord of the Earth.” Why is it not sufficient to refer to Him as the God of Israel? I would suggest that Abraham is hinting that the potential matriarch must understand the essence of the Jewish narrative: To enable the God of love, morality and peace to dwell within a world committed to love, morality and peace.

Isaac believed that his heir apparent had to be active and aggressive, an individual who would not fear the use of power to defeat evil and terrorism. He did not believe that Jacob, the wholehearted and naïve dweller in the tent of learning, would be able to navigate his way through the international corridors of power. Rebekah, on the other hand, was certain that Jacob could rise to that challenge. She knew that in order to receive the blessings which he had purchased and which Esau had forfeited by marrying Canaanite wives, he demonstrated the ability to utilize the hands and the rough exterior of Esau in order to gain necessary mastery. She understood that Esau would soon return with the meat ready to receive the blessings – and then the ruse would be over. But by then Isaac would have realized that Jacob was capable of donning the exterior of Esau.

Rebekah was successful. When Isaac realizes what has happened, he nevertheless says, “Indeed, he [Jacob] shall be blessed.” (Genesis 27:33) And we are the children of Jacob/Israel, not the children of Esau. The ideal she has set before us is not a neo-Platonic division between the material and the spiritual, the Earth below and the Heavens above. To be sure, connecting the spiritual voice of Jacob to the physical hands of Esau can be a dangerous enterprise—often the external and aggressive, wily hands of Esau can choke into silence the inner spiritual voice of the God within.

However, Rebekah’s point is well-taken: if compassionate righteousness and moral justice are to rule the day, they often need the back-up of military strength and prowess.

Lord Acton taught “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – but powerlessness corrupts even more! In the play The Edge of Night, someone who has achieved great success as a businessman and patron of the Jewish community is sitting at the family Passover Seder when one of the guests accuses him of having been a kapo in Auschwitz. “Yes,” he replies, tears filling his eyes. “I am guilty as charged, but just remember, you who dare to condemn me: There were no heroes in Auschwitz. There were those who survived and those who did not survive – and you who never knew that hellhole have no right to judge how we survived.”

Thank God, the great difference between 1943 and now is the fact that we have the hands and the arsenals of Esau. May we continue to use that power with restraint and ethical sensitivity, as we have heretofore.

Shabbat Shalom

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