rebeccah at the well poussin.
(photo credit: )
Rebekah begins the chain of deceit, establishing a fault line in Jacob's family history. Yet she, not her husband, Isaac, uniquely understands God's will and actively guarantees the fulfillment of the divine oracle. Experiencing an overwhelming tumult in her belly, she asks, "If so, why do I exist?" and goes "to inquire of the Lord" (Genesis 25: 22). She is the first biblical character to initiate direct contact with God.
According to Nahmanides, her existential question reverberates with Job's: "Why did You let me come out of the womb? Better had I expired before any eye saw me" (10:18). Like's Job, Rebekah questions the meaning of her life and intimates a wish that she had never been born - that the womb had been her tomb (See Avivah Zornberg's The Murmuring Deep, 2009: 208-215). Overwhelming pain compels her, perhaps, to regret her fervent prayer for a pregnancy after 20 years of barrenness.
In answer to her plea, God tells her what he does not tell Isaac and (perhaps more importantly) what she does not tell Isaac: The twins born to her - the older a ruddy, hairy man-of-the-hunt; the younger, a smooth, heel-grasping, dweller-of-tents - will establish two separate nations, "and the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). Does this prophecy reassure her? Now, she knows the burden she bears. Two nations. Two peoples. Thousands of years of bloody, ideological conflict - if, as the sages suggest, Esau (qua Edom) is identified with Rome and, eventually, Christianity, while Jacob (Israel) is the progenitor of the Jewish people. This is almost unbearably weighty news and hardly reassuring. Yet she knows that this in utero conflict, this womb rumble, is greater than her, greater than mere sibling rivalry, greater than the race for the status of first-born.
Why, decades later, when Isaac calls on Esau to hunt and to prepare the game for him so that he can bestow the blessing upon him, does Rebekah not tell her husband of God's plan? Why does she resort to deceit, dressing Jacob in a goatskin? Thomas Mann wrote: "It is possible to be in a plot and not know it." Isaac seems to be one of those unwitting players in God's plot. And Rebekah is in cahoots with God's shenanigans.
I'd like to suggest that the discrepancy between Rebekah's and Isaac's understanding goes back to their first meeting. Coming from Be'er Lahai Ro'i, Isaac raises his eyes and sees camels in the distance, while Rebekah raises her eyes and sees him and falls from her camel (Gen. 25:63-64). What did she see that so stunned her? There, set against the light of the dying day, stood a man most holy, other-worldly, marked by the trauma of the near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah. After discovering that "that man over there" would be her future husband, she may feel unworthy. And so she veils herself.
The Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda of Berlin) suggests that her "fear of Isaac" marks the relationship from that moment onward. The veiling establishes an asymmetry - wherein she knows and sees more than he does. Rebekah, though may assume otherwise: "Surely my husband, the holy man, would have known the oracle!" (See Nahmanides on Gen. 27:4). Despite her modesty, she perceives more than her husband, who lacks both sight and insight, loving "Esau because he had a taste for game", while Rebekah loved Jacob (Gen. 25:28).
The text doesn't tell us why Rebekah favored Jacob. But we know that she knew God's will was with the tent-dweller, with the smooth one, an ish tam, blameless, man of integrity. His life became enormously complicated from the moment that he first donned those hairy goatskins.
From Rebekah's first veiling and dressing Jacob up in goatskins, the sequence of masks reverberates on. Leah is veiled when she poses as Rachel under the wedding canopy. Later (in bitter irony) Laban quips: "It is not done in our country, to give away the younger before the firstborn" (Gen. 29:26), as if to say: "While you may pose as the older son and steal a blessing, we don't displace the right of the first born." Jacob's own sons dupe their father with Joseph's cloak dipped in goat's blood. Tamar, his daughter-in-law, also dons a veil and sits at the crossroads of Enaim in harlot's garb in order to seduce Judah. She becomes the progenitor of kings, establishing the Davidic line towards the messiah.
So my question remains: Why do biblical women choose the circuitous path, the road "not taken," and why does God ally with them? "It is possible to be in a plot and not know it." Yet, the women seem to know, forging a path through the brambles of history, like a prince hacking his way through roses and thorns to Sleeping Beauty, toward the final awakening.
The writer lectures in Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.