Parasha Toldot: When 'wrong' is right

In subsequent generations our sages ruled that armaments are not an adornment, but are rather a burden which may not be carried on the Sabbath unless a human life is at stake.

toldot 88 (photo credit: )
toldot 88
(photo credit: )
"And Jacob said to his father, 'I am Esau your firstborn…'" (Genesis 27:18). How can we understand Jacob's deceit, and his mother's encouragement of this deception? The Bible certainly believes this act deserved punishment. After all, uncle Laban goes on to deceive Jacob by giving him the elder in place of the younger daughter as his wife, and Jacob's own sons cruelly deceive their father by telling him Joseph was torn apart by wild beasts. Jacob is certainly being punished "measure for measure." Rebekah too suffers grievously for her part in the treachery. She "loses" her beloved son Jacob when he is forced to leave home lest Esau kill him. Esau himself can hardly be a loving son to a mother who has conspired to take away his birthright. There is even a hint that Jacob likewise resents the parent who initiated his act of deception. How else can we understand the biblical account informing us of the death of Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, but never mentioning the death of Rebekah herself (Genesis 25:8)? Perhaps it was easier for Jacob to mourn the death of his nanny, the woman who gave him much love but didn't implicate him in the most treacherous deed of his life. It seems to me that it is this very tragic solitude of Rebekah, bereft of both sons, which causes the Bible to say: "And Isaac sent away Jacob; and he went to Padan-Aram to Laban… the brother of Rebekah, Jacob and Esau's mother" (Genesis 28:5). This last part of the description, which seems superfluous at first reading, may well have been dripping with tragic irony. Despite the obvious nature of their transgression against Isaac, Jacob still received the birthright, and there is no word of remorse from his mouth or from the mouth of Rebekah, not even after much time has passed. If the sin was so great, how can it be that neither Jacob nor Rebekah seeks forgiveness for it? We have already suggested that Isaac initially chose Esau for the birthright because of his disappointment in himself, with his lack of aggressiveness vis-a-vis Abimelech's total disregard of their peace treaty, Abimelech's stopping up of Abraham's wells and his banishing Isaac from Gaza. Isaac understands that the torch carrier of the Abrahamic mission must be able to defend the family rights, even if it means using "the hands of Esau" to protect the message of ethical monotheism. In a world which is not yet perfect, one must often employ less-than-perfect means to achieve the desirable end. LET US review the history of the family before the deceptions of Jacob and Rebekah. Rebekah stood by as her eldest son Esau married Hittite wives - a blatant act of intermarriage. Indeed, the Bible itself records that "this was a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebekah" (Genesis 26:35). Jacob must have been filled with dismay when his elder brother agreed to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. He certainly understood that this impetuous and undisciplined hunter was hardly a fitting heir for the legacy of Abraham and Isaac; Isaac was making a tragic mistake by bestowing the birthright on the son who could not carry it. Jewish history could not be allowed to end before it really began. The vision of Abraham and the "covenant between the pieces" had to be realized. Rebekah and Jacob must certainly have felt an awesome responsibility to forestall an imminent tragedy. In subsequent generations our sages ruled that armaments are not an adornment - which may be worn on the Sabbath with impunity - but are rather a burden which may not be carried on the Sabbath unless a human life is at stake. After all, teaches the Mishna at the conclusion of tractate Shabbat, our prophets exhort: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, and humanity ought not learn war any more" (Isaiah 2, Micah). But nevertheless the Bible and the Talmud call for obligatory warfare whenever the Jewish people are threatened; such war is termed a mitzva (blessed commandment)! Fascinatingly enough, a priest/kohen who kills a human being even in such a war may not rise to bless the congregation "with love." Nevertheless, even priests must go out and do battle in such a war (B.T. Kiddushin 20). Imminent danger to our people necessitates the death and brutality which is warfare. Yes, the ends do not justify the means, but they often necessitate the means. The choices that we make are not always between black and white; they are often between what we see as shades of gray, with each decision being both right and wrong. There are times when the situation demands that we commit sinful acts in order to prevent even greater tragedy. When this happens, we must accept punishment for our actions, but we must commit them nonetheless. Rebekah and Jacob did what they had to do. At the same time, they had to bear the bitter consequences of their act. Perhaps this is the price leaders must pay in a world which is not yet redeemed. Shabbat shalom. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.