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

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel – And Rebecca spoke to her son Jacob, saying… And now, my son, obey my voice according to which I command you…”   (Genesis 27:5,7)

One of the many glories of the Bible is that it recognizes the complex personality especially of great individuals, and the fact that strength and weakness, virtue and vice, can sometimes both reside in the very same soul. Even more significantly, that which may superficially appear to be dishonest – an act of deception – may very well provide the necessary ingredient which ultimately creates grandeur. It is this understanding which supplies the real motivation for what appears to be Rebecca’s deception according to the profound interpretations of the Malbim and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

The most obvious question which strikes us, as we read the Torah portion, is why Rebecca had to deceive her husband by dressing her younger son Jacob in the garb and in the skins of her older son Esau? Why could she not merely have explained to her husband that Esau, although he was the elder brother, was simply not worthy of the birthright? From a textual perspective, this doesn’t seem to have been a difficult task at all. After all, right before Isaac summons Esau requesting venison meat as the hors d’oeuvre of the blessing, the Bible specifically records that Esau had committed the one great sin of the patriarchal period: he married two Hittite women, which was ‘a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and to Rebecca’ (Genesis 26:35). Moreover, Rebecca could certainly have argued that the son who had been willing to sell his birthright to Jacob for a mere bowl of lentil soup, could not possibly be worthy of the mantle of Abrahamic leadership. 

Furthermore, Rebecca had heard from the Almighty during her frighteningly difficult pregnancy that “the elder son would serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23) during her frighteningly difficult pregnancy. So why didn’t she make her convincing case to her husband after coffee one evening, rather than resort to an act of trickery?

Malbim suggests that indeed such a conversation between husband and wife did take place. And after Rebecca marshalled her arguments, Isaac then explained to his wife that he was as aware of Esau’s shortcomings as she was. In fact, he understood that the spiritual blessing of family leadership, the blessing of Abraham which we know as the birthright, must certainly go to Jacob; indeed when Jacob is later forced by the wrath of his deceived brother Esau to leave his home and go into exile with Laban, after his father warns him not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan, he is blessed with the messianic dream of becoming a congregation of nations and he is given the blessing of Abraham, to inherit the land of Israel (Genesis 28:3,4). 

But, argues Isaac, he must make a split between the birthright of spiritual leadership which rightfully belongs to Jacob, and the physical blessing of material prosperity and political domination which he has decided to give to Esau:

May the Lord give you from the dew of the heavens and the fat [oil] of the land and much grain and wine…Be the political master over your brother and may the daughters of your mother bow down to you.

The more spiritual brother must receive the religious-spiritual birthright (bekhora) and the more physical brother must receive the material-political blessing (berakha). After all, argues Isaac, the bookish, naive, and spiritual Jacob (ish tam, yoshev ohalim) would not begin to know how to maneuver in an economically driven, militaristically guided society. Give Esau the oil and the sword; give Jacob the books and the Temple.

Rebecca strongly disagrees. She understands that the world at large and the human nature of individuals dare not be so simplistically divided between the spiritual and the material, God and Caesar. If religious leadership is to emerge supreme, it requires the infrastructure of economic stability; in an imperfect world of aggression and duplicity, even leading spiritual personalities must sometimes reluctantly wage war against evil in order for the good to triumph. Rebecca understands the world of reality; after all, she comes from the house of Laban and Bethuel, two masters of deceit and treachery.

We should also remember that the King David, the progenitor of the Messiah of Peace, is both the sweet singer of Psalms with a voice of Jacob as well as the great warrior of Israel with hands of Esau. King David’s strength as well as his weakness apparently was derived from that aspect of Esau which was also part of his personality. Every Jacob must learn to utilize, tame and ultimately sanctify the necessary hands of Esau, without which it is impossible to triumph.

But the profound complexity of our Torah continues its lessons. Yes, Jacob justifiably received both blessing and birthright (berakha and bekhora) from his father, but we cannot – and he cannot – forget that this occurred as a result of his act of deception. Jacob, therefore, has to pay a heavy price. He must flee from his parents’ home in order to escape Esau’s wrath, and is thrust into exile with the treacherous Laban.

And in addition to all of the problems faced by someone on the run, Jacob has the added dilemma of looking at himself in the mirror. His deception was orchestrated by his mother, perhaps even ordained by God, but, nonetheless, something inside him has been forever tainted. This feeling of guilt never leaves him. Twenty years later, when Jacob is about to return to his birthplace as a mature older man – as a husband and a father – he realizes that unfinished business between Esau and himself still remains.

Conscience-stricken, he acts totally subservient and obsequious, beseeching his brother, ‘kah na et birkhati’ (Genesis 33:11), which literally means ‘take my blessing,’ as he hands over a large portion of his material acquisitions. After all these years, Jacob wishes to make amends by returning the very blessings he undeservedly had received from his father.  “And one must restore the stolen object which one has taken” (Leviticus 5:23), demands biblical morality.

However, ultimately – and even in our days – the unified dream of Rebecca is truly coming to pass, when Israel has been miraculously restored to its homeland as a result of its military victories over the aggressive Palestinian forces.  Indeed, the true mother of the Yeshivat Hesder of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel is none other than Mother Rebecca, whose vision of sanctifying the hands of Esau has proven successful in our blessed period of the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption.

Shabbat Shalom!


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