Deception That Led To Blessing

How can we justify Rebecca and Jacob's trickery?

Tue, 10/29/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:35 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18-42
Havdalah: 6:34 p.m.

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Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies” [Genesis 27: 9-­10].

One of the most difficult stories in the Torah is Rebecca’s deception in persuading her son Jacob to masquerade as Esau and receive the blessings. How can we justify a matriarch of Israel deceiving her husband in such an underhanded manner?

In order for us to understand what lay behind her actions, we must return to last week’s Torah portion, to Abraham’s initial appointment of Eliezer to find the proper wife (which turned out to be Rebecca) for Isaac. Abraham told Eliezer: “I bind you by an oath to God… that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites” [Gen. 24:3].

The major task of each generation of our Founding Parents is to provide a next generation suitable to carry on our narrative. Abraham understands that it may be the wisdom of the mother that will recognize the most worthy spouse for the child and continuity. After all, had it not been for Sarah, Abraham might have handed the baton to his first-born Ishmael.

It is likewise important to remember that Abraham, the first Jew, had two very special characteristics. First, he was a man of great spiritual magnitude, a seeker after and a discoverer of God and a practitioner of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. Second, he was a warrior, equipped with farsighted strategic ability as well as physical prowess and courage. Does he not best the armies of the Four Kings? Abraham united spirit of the soul with the strength of hand.

When Abraham is charging Eliezer with what to look for in the next matriarch, he adjures him [Gen. 24:3]by “God, the Lord of the Heavens and the Lord of the Earth.” Why would it not have been sufficient to have mentioned the God of Israel (J­H­V­H)?

Abraham is hinting that the potential matriarch must understand the essence of the Jewish narrative, to enable the God of love, morality and peace to dwell within a world committed to love, morality and peace.

Isaac believed that his heir had to be active and aggressive, an individual who would not fear the use of power in order to defeat evil and terrorism. And he did not believe that Jacob, the wholehearted and naïve dweller in the tent of learning would be able to navigate his way through the international corridors of power politics.

Rebecca, on the other hand, was certain that Jacob could rise to that challenge. She knew that in order to receive the blessings that Jacob had purchased and which Esau had forfeited by marrying Canaanite wives, Jacob had demonstrated the ability to utilize the hands and the rough exterior of Esau in order to gain necessary mastery.

She understood that Esau would soon return with the meat ready to receive the blessings — then the ruse would be over. But by then Isaac would have realized that Jacob was capable of donning the exterior of Esau.

Rebecca was successful. When Isaac realizes what has happened, he nevertheless says, “indeed he (Jacob) shall be blessed,” and so we are the children of Jacob­Israel and not the children of Esau.

The ideal which Rebecca has set before us is not a neo­Platonic division between the material and the spiritual, the earth below and the heavens above. To be sure, connecting the spiritual voice of Jacob to the physical hands of Esau can be a dangerous enterprise; often the external and aggressive wily hands of Esau can choke into silence the inner spiritual voice of the God within.

However, Rebecca’s point is well made: if compassionate righteousness and moral justice is to rule the day, it often needs the back­up of military strength and prowess.

Lord Acton has taught “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” but powerlessness corrupts even more! In a play, “The Edge of Night,” someone who has achieved great success as a businessman and patron of the Jewish community is sitting at the family Passover seder when one of the guests accuses him of having been a kapo in Auschwitz. “Yes,” he replied, with tears filling his eyes. “I am guilty as charged, but just remember, you who dare to condemn me. There were no heroes in Auschwitz. There were those who survived and those who did not survive – and you who never knew that hell hole has no right to judge how we survived.”

Despite Auschwitz, the world has still bought the big lie which holds us guilty for the problems in the Middle East. Thank God, the great difference between 1939 and now is the fact that we have the hands and the arsenals of Esau. May we continue to use that power with restraint and ethical sensitivity, as we have heretofore.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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