Parashat Toldot

November 4, 2010 | Filed in: Bereshit, Divrei Torah, News

By Rabbi Isaac Mann

Of the three Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, we know the least about Yitzhak (Isaac), around whom this week s Torah portion is centered. Unlike his father or his son, the Torah tells us precious little about Yitzhak s life or his encounters with others. Even where we have a somewhat lengthy story regarding Yitzhak s blessings of his sons, Yaakov and Eisav (Esau), the emphasis seems to be more on Yaakov and the manner in which he received the blessing than it is on his father Yitzhak.

Despite the dearth of incidents to work with, one thing is clear from what the Torah does tell us of Yitzhak, and that is that he had a communication problem. Whatever the reason may be, Yitzhak did not do a great job communicating with his family or with those around him. Regarding the latter, we only have one or two incidents involving Yitzhak and non-family members. In particular, the story of Avimelech is telling. While his encounter with the king of Gerar, whom he led to believe that his wife Rivkah (Rebecca) was only a sister, may not have been much different than the same encounter that Avraham had a generation earlier, the Torah does not tell us that Yitzhak sought permission from her to hide their marital bond as it does with Avraham and Sarah (see Bereishit 12:11-13 and 20:13). OK, we understand he could not communicate the true relationship he had with Rivkah to Avimelech, but why did he not ask Rivkah  “ or better: why does the Torah not tell us that he asked Rivkah  “ for her consent. Is the Torah possibly hinting at some lack of communication between the two?

If we are looking for hints, we can go back even earlier in the parashah to Yitzhak s and Rivkah s manner of praying for the birth of a child. In telling us that Rivkah was barren, resulting in the couple s praying for God s intervention,  the Torah emphasizes that the two prayed  œopposite  (le nokhah) one another rather than  œwith  ( ˜im) each other. Moreover, God hearkened to Yitzhak s prayer, implying that his prayer was more efficacious. However the Midrash explains that the reason for this is that even on a matter as important as praying for a child, the two could not unite in doing it together.

The dichotomy between the two becomes more apparent when Rivkah gives birth to twin boys, and we are told that the parents had favorites. The father favored Eisav and the mother Yaakov. The Torah does not explain why Rivkah favored Yaakov, which seems to indicate that it doesn t require explanation, but Yitzhak s preference for Eisav is explained on the basis of Eisav s being a  œtzayid be fiv,  a double entendre for  œprovider of hunted food  and  œdeceiver.  Apparently Rivkah was on to him as a deceiver but Yitzhak was not. Hmm, why did she not tell him!

Of course, the greatest evidence of lack of communication comes later in the parashah when we are told how Rivkah encouraged her son Yitzhak to pretend to be Eisav in order to receive the blessing of his father, which rightfully belonged to him since he had bought the rights of the firstborn (see Bereishit 25:29-34). Most likely, Rivkah was aware of the sale (Eisav is referred to as  œbenah ha-gadol   “ her older son  “ but not as  œbenah habekhor   “ her firstborn son), but why did she not tell her husband? We could also ask why Yaakov himself didn t announce to his father that he was the firstborn thru his purchase of the birthright. Apparently, communication within the family was not a strong feature.

Indeed, if we look at all the stories involving the patriarchal spouses, we will notice that only Yitzhak and Rivkah seem to have difficulty in communicating with each other. Where we would have expected some level of conversation between the two we find none. Actually, there is only one instance in the entire parashah in which we find direct communication between the two  “ and that is at the end (Bereishit 27:46) when Rivkah insists to her husband that Yaakov be sent away to her family in Padan Aram (or Haran) to find a wife for himself, for she would find life intolerable were he to marry a local woman. Interestingly, she could not tell her husband the real reason for her insistence that he go away, namely fear of Eisav s taking revenge on Yaakov for  œstealing  his blessing, even though by then surely Yitzhak knew of the enmity between the brothers. Only for the sake of the preservation of her sons  lives (apparently there was love for Eisav too  “ see Bereishit 27:45) was she finally motivated to speak directly to Yitzhak.

In conclusion, the relationship between Yitzhak and Rivkah, may indeed have been a loving one (see Bereishit 24:67) and a romantic one (see Bereishit 26:8), but it lacked a most important component, and that is communication. An ideal marriage requires that the spouses relate to each other even when there is disagreement. Silent treatment, keeping opinions to oneself, avoiding contact, and so on, may not necessarily break a marriage but they certainly do harm to creating harmony and unity in a marriage. Perhaps if Yitzhak and Rivkah had spoken more often to one another, the deception involving the father s blessings would not have taken place, the enmity between Yaakov and Eisav would have been avoided, and the roots of anti-Semitism, as the Rabbis perceive them (interpreting Eisav as the father of Christendom) would never have been planted.


Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.