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Parashat Toldot

November 12, 2015

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

The story of the conflict between Jacob and Esau, which is central to this week’s Torah portion, leaves us with many unanswered questions. Among them is one that is raised by the famous 13th century exegete Nachmanides (Ramban) that has us wondering if the entire episode involving Jacob’s subterfuge could have been avoided.

In his commentary to Gen.27:4, where we are told that Rebekah instructed her son Jacob to dress like Esau in order to fool his father Isaac and snatch from him the patriarchal blessing, Nachmanides asks why couldn’t Rebekah simply reveal to her husband the prophecy that had been given to her when she was still pregnant and in difficult straits. As the Torah mentions in the beginning of Toldot (25:23), she was told by G-d, directly or indirectly (Nachmanides assumes the latter), that the older son will be subservient to the younger. Had she told her husband the prophetic message she received, which presumably implied that the younger son would be the greater and more deserving of the father’s blessing, then there would never have been the need for deception — and the succeeding enmity between the two brothers would have never come to fruition. Certainly, as Ramban continues, Isaac would not have allowed his personal preference for Esau and desire to bless him to override G-d’s prophetic message to his wife.

The medieval exegete first explains why Rebekah did not tell her husband ab initio the divine message she received. He suggests that modesty and reticence to reveal to Isaac a prophetic message from a prophet she felt was inferior to her own husband militated against her speaking to him at that time. What about later — at the time that Isaac wished to bless Esau instead of Jacob — why did she not reveal the original divine message that she was privy to? To this question Nachmanides comes up with a rather thought-provoking reply. Had Rebekah told him what she knew, Isaac would have indeed not blessed Esau, but out of love for Esau, he would have also not blessed Jacob. Better, she reasoned, is a heartfelt blessing even if misdirected than no blessing at all.

I think that one can take issue with this notion. What value is a blessing, no matter how sincere and emotional and spiritual it is, when it is given to someone who is not the intended recipient? Indeed, the word that is most often associated with blessing is be’ahavah (“with love”). When ahavah is lacking a blessing is just an ordinary statement, meaningless as a berakha (blessing). Without going into great detail on this subject, suffice it to say that a true blessing conveys some kind of transference from the “blesser” to the blessed, and minus the connection and bond that love establishes that transference cannot take place. Surely, to return to our parashah, Rebekah could not have assumed that a blessing given in error would carry any weight.

To salvage this line of thought, we might suggest that Rebekah knew that her husband loved Jacob too, and when he would discover that it was Jacob instead of Esau who had stood in front of him, he would not renege or even regret blessing him, as Isaac himself said gam barukh yihyeh (“may he indeed be blessed”) (27:33). Thus, in her mind, it would still be a heartfelt blessing to a recipient for whom there was love between blesser and blessed.

However we explain or don’t explain Rebekah’s silence, it is clear that the underlying problem that brought about the need for subterfuge was the lack of communication between husband and wife. Except for one brief comment said in desperation by Rebekah to Isaac at the end of the parashah (28:46), we find no verbal exchanges recorded in the Torah between the two spouses. In contrast, for Abraham and Sarah and later Jacob and his wives, we find a much greater level of interaction between the pairs. In the case of Isaac and Rebekah, however, from the very outset there seems to be some dissonance, especially of a verbal nature. In 25:21 we read that Isaac prayed to G-d for a child le’nokhah ishto. The italicized phrase is usually translated “for his wife,” but the word le’nokhah has a connotation of opposite (see Rashi ad loc.), implying that there wasn’t perfect unity in their appeal to G-d. In the very next verse, when we are told that Rebekah became pregnant and felt a great struggle taking place in her womb, she said — and we are not told to whom — “what do I need this for” and went to inquire of G-d. To whom did she utter her plaintive cry? If to her husband, then why is he not mentioned. And if not to him, why not? Again an indication of a lack of communication.

Whatever the reason for this lacuna in their relationship, it no doubt contributed to an environment in which the spouses favored different children and indirectly created an atmosphere of rivalry and worse. Even if it was “bashert” (pre-destined) from Heaven that the offspring of Isaac and Rebekah would be opponents to each other and when one falls the other rises, they could have perhaps mitigated, delayed, or even canceled that decree. But that would only have been the case if there would have been more communication and in turn cooperation between the parents. No deception! Straightforward discussion! The key remains — Communication, Communication, Communication.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi 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.