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March 23, 2006

Covenantal Language
By Dr. Jerome Chanes

In commemoration of the Yahrzeit of my dad, Manuel Simcha ben R. Ya`akov
Avraham Chanes, z”l; and in honor of Ora Horn Prouser and David Greenstein

Parashat Toldot is one of the classic ‘transition’ narratives
of our Scripture in which ‘covenantal’ language’language, used in key
settings in the Chumash, that expresses the transmittal of the Covenant from generation to generation’is central.

The core of the narrative, as outlined in Chapter 27 of Sefer B’reshit,
is the story of the transmittal of the Covenantal blessing from Isaac
to Jacob. The narrative, deceptively simple, is about clear and keen
perception’Rebecca’s’and, more to the point, lack of
perception’Isaac’s. It is immediately obvious that the blindness of our
patriarch Isaac is at bottom a metaphor for his lack of perception.

As is often the case in Biblical narrative, the philology of the
text tells us all we need to know about the message. In Chapter 27 (and
I thank Rabbi David Silber for suggesting this approach) the story’and
the underlying message of the entire parashah‘hinges on our understanding of two words: ‘kach‘ and ‘lech,‘ two Hebrew commands in the jussive-imperative: Take! and Go!

We learn much by looking at where key words are used elsewhere. We recall that in the narrative of ‘Akedath Yitzhak in Chapter 22, these two words”kach‘ and ‘lech”dominate the chapter. The instructions delivered by God to Abraham revolve around these two words: ‘Kach ‘eth bincha . . .’ ‘Take your son . . .’ Thence: ‘V’lech lecha ‘el ‘eretz-haMoriah.‘ ‘And go to Moriah.’ Subsequent verses: ‘Vayelech ‘el hamakom . . . Vayikach

Avraham eth ‘atsei ha’olah . . .’ ‘And he went to the place (Moriah)
and he took the wood for the sacrifice. . .’ Later in the chapter, the
angel calls to Abraham: ‘Don’t do it!’ And Abraham lifted up his eyes
and saw the ram, and”Vayelech Avraham Vayikach ‘eth
ha’ayil . . .”and he brought the covenantal sacrifice. Twice in
Chapter 22 we have Abraham fulfilling God’s command in and with
precisely these locutions. What is going on becomes clear in Chapter 27
of our Parashah.

What do the Abraham and Isaac narratives have in common? Indeed, in
each there is some kind of sacrificial medium that permits the
covenantal blessing to take place. But, given that what we have in
Chapter 27, as in Chapter 22, is a ‘transfer-story,’ what we would
expect to find as well in the Isaac narrative is language something
along the lines of ‘And Isaac said to Esau, ‘kach!’ and ‘lech‘.
. . ,’ language common to the themes of the two stories, namely a
covenantal blessing. But Isaac in his instructions to Esau uses every
word but these two. Instead of ‘lech,‘ he commands ‘tzei!’; instead of ‘kach‘ he uses ‘sa’ na’‘ and ‘havi’ah li.’ In Isaac’s interaction with Esau the covenantal language is missing.

Are we making too much of precise use of language? I think not, certainly not in the Chumash.
Continue the narrative: After Esau leaves, Rebecca’who has been
eavesdropping’first repeats to Jacob the precise command, in the
precise language, that Isaac gave Esau. She then’in an
intensely-dramatic verse’instructs Jacob in the Covenantal language: ‘V’atah, b’ni, sh’ma’ b’koli . . . lech-na’ ‘el hatzon, v’kach li misham . . .‘ When Jacob hears this command, he expresses his reluctance: ‘It will bring a curse, not a blessing, on me.’ Rebecca: ‘‘Allai kil’latcha, b’ni.‘ She concludes with the absolutely crucial iteration (verse 13): ‘‘Ach sh’ma’ b’koli‘Obey me’lech v’kach li.‘ Rebecca’s speech begins and ends with ‘lech‘ and ‘kach.‘ And guess what the very next two words are? ‘Vayelech vayikach”’And [Jacob] went and took . . .’ The text here is careful and it is precise; it is ‘Covenant language.’

The fact that Rebecca has the classic language of the transmittal of
the covenantal blessing means that she ‘gets it’ in a way that
Isaac”blind’ Isaac’never can. Isaac simply cannot articulate the words
crucial to the ‘transfer’ because he does not understand what he
possesses. But’and here is the tension in the narrative that cries out
for resolution’Rebecca understands it, and wants to give it (indeed to
a son who is reluctant to accept it), but she has no power to
do it, to convey the blessing; only Isaac has that power. Rebecca is
expressing that which she understands, and explains it for us: ‘But
this, my son, is the ultimate blessing. This is the blessing that
brings us closer to God’s purpose in creation. This is the connection
to the brit bein ha-b’tarim. The real blessing is not merely about blessing the son; the real blessing is the Covenantal blessing.’