Parshat Toldot: Brothers, birthrights and blessings

How are we to understand Rebekah convincing her beloved younger son to pose as his elder brother and thereby wrest the blessing from their blind father Isaac?

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November 23, 2006 07:32
4 minute read.

 
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How are we to understand Rebekah convincing her beloved younger son to pose as his elder brother and thereby wrest the blessing from their blind father Isaac? After all, the deception would inevitably be discovered. And why didn't she have a conversation with her husband, pointing out the unworthiness of Esau, who violated the sanctity of their family by marrying Hittite women - even in biblical times an act of intermarriage. Had Rebekah convinced Isaac rather than deceiving him, the permanent establishment of Jacob, and not Esau, as the torchbearer of the Abrahamic vision would have been far more likely. I would argue that a true understanding of Rebekah's role hinges on our realization that there were two disparate aspects to the inheritance which was Isaac's to bequeath: the birthright (bechora), which related to the leadership of the family and its mission of communicating ethical monotheism to the world, and the blessings (berachot), which related to the eldest son's double portion of land and property. The birthright thus had to do with spiritual direction, whereas the blessings had to do with material superiority. When the Almighty "elected" Abraham, both elements were included in the Divine charge: "I shall make you a great nation. I shall bless you and I shall make your name great" (Gen. 12:1) refers to material success, which is the most fundamental definition of "blessing" (beracha). Then God continues to say: "I shall bless those who bless you and those who curse you, a'or " (Gen. 12:2) - usually taken to mean "I shall curse," but translated by the Vilna Gaon as "I shall show the light" (or means light) - "…and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth" (ibid). It is clear that God is speaking of the moral mission of Israel to bring about a world of harmony and peace. After all, it is Israel that must be a light unto the nations, communicating God's desire that they "turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, so that nation will not lift up sword against nation and mankind not learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). There can be no greater blessing to the world than that! These two elements of Isaac's inheritance are delineated in our portion of Toldot. Esau, as the first-born son, seems to have been slated for both bechora as well as beracha, 'birthright' as well as 'blessing.' The Bible then records how one day, exhausted and tired after a hunt, Esau enters the tent, sees the food that Jacob is preparing, and asks that the red lentil soup be poured into his mouth. Understanding that the fulfillment of Israel's mission depends on patience, process and delayed gratification, Jacob insists that he receive the birthright in exchange for the soup. Esau couldn't care less about the birthright: "Here I am, about to die of starvation [though I'm sure he had eaten a hearty breakfast], so of what use is the birthright to me?" (Gen. 25:32). Clearly, Esau "spurned" the birthright (ibid. 34). For Esau, the most important part of the inheritance - and all he was really interested in - was the beracha - the double portion of land and property. And according to the Malbim (the great biblical commentator at the time of the Jewish Enlightenment in the 18th century), Rebekah did speak to her husband regarding the twins, and clearly explained why she believed that Jacob - and not Esau - deserved the inheritance. Isaac reminded his wife that he had two elements to bequeath; he certainly planned to give the birthright, the role of religious and spiritual torchbearer, to Jacob. Had not Esau spurned and scorned it? Besides, the materialistic, hedonistic, womanizing Esau wouldn't know what to do with a spiritual birthright. But Isaac insisted on giving the blessings, the material success, to Esau. That aspect of the inheritance belonged to him, he felt; Jacob wouldn't know how to go about (or care about) drilling for oil, mining for gold, or fighting with sword and spear over land. Rebekah strongly disagreed. The blessing and birthright belong together; there was a reason why both were included in the charge to Abraham. The spiritual message desperately needs material infrastructure, and even military protection, if the prophetic vision of ethical monotheism is to be realized by the world. Even Esau seems to understand that they belong together when he rails against Jacob: "Is it because his name was called Jacob [literally to get around, to outwit, to deceive] that he deceived me twice? He took away my birthright and see, now he took away my blessing!" (Gen. 27:36) But Isaac insists on his choice, certain that the studious, spiritual, out-of-touch Jacob could never manage the materialistic, political and military machinations involved. It is at this point that Rebekah conceives her scheme of "deceiving" Isaac by convincing Jacob to demonstrate that, if necessary, he could do admirably well in assuming "the hands of Esau." And when Isaac realizes that Jacob's abilities extend to the materialistic world of Esau as well, he concedes to his wife that "indeed, he [Jacob] shall have the blessing [as well as the birthright]!" (Gen. 27:33) The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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