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This Week's Torah Portion: Jacob Takes Esau's Blessing

Dëvar Torah – Parshath Tolëdoth (Genesis XXV, 10 -- XXVII, 9)

This week’s parasha opens with the dramatic birth of Ya‘aqov (“Jacob”) and ‘Esav (“Esau”). We are told that their father, Yitzchaq (“Isaac”), was forty years old bëqachto eth Rivqa bath Bëthu’él ha’Arammi miPaddan Aram achoth Lavan ha’Arammi lo lë’isha (“when he took Rivqa, daughter of  Bëthu’él the Aramaean from Paddan Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramaean, for his wife,” XXV, 20).

The verse is noteworthy for two reasons. First, the second half of it, from bath Bëthu’él onward, seems largely superfluous. The Torah spent the last half of last week’s parasha detailing the story of Eli‘ezer’s journey to Paddan Aram on behalf of his master Avraham to find a suitable wife for Yitzchaq, and of how he encountered the daughter of Bëthu’él and her brother Lavan. In short, the verse tells us little that we did not already know.

Second, even stipulating that there is a reason for repeating the details of Rivqa’s familial and ethnic origins, the repetitiveness within the verse seems unnecessary. Since Bëthu’él was from Paddan Aram, it seems self-evident that he was an Aramaean. However, even if we assume that Paddan Aram was some sort of ethnic melting pot, surely it goes without saying that his son Lavan was also an Aramaean!

Rashi asks this question, and provides a beautiful answer. The entire purpose of the verse, he says, is to sing Rivqa’s praises:

[S]he was an evil-doer’s daughter, an evil-doer’s sister, and her dwelling place was amongst evil-doers, yet she had not learnt from their deeds.

Rivqa, unsullied by her life-long association with rësha‘im, was fit to be the wife of the patriarch whose central midda was the koach hadin (“force of judgment”), as the commentaries discern from the phrase pachad Yitzchaq (“Yitzchaq’s fear,” Genesis XXXI, 42).

What was the nature of the evil that Rivqa had avoided acquiring? The Ba‘al haTurim provides a hint: the Hebrew letters which form the word ha’Armmi can also spell the word harammai (“the trickster”).

The implication of this, of course, is that both Bëthu’él and Lavan were dishonest schemers. In Lavan’s case, we have dramatic evidence in next week’s parasha, where we read of the bait-and-switch tactics he used to force Ya‘aqov to marry both of his daughters, Lé’a and Rachél.

But is it really true that Rivqa was unaffected by the family vice?

As the twin brothers grew up, we learn that the parents were divided in their affections: Yitzchaq’s favorite was ‘Esav, Rivqa’s was Ya‘aqov. Rashi explains the dichotomy by telling us that Rivqa saw more clearly than her husband, who was blinded by ‘Esav’s trickery. Ki tzyid bëfiv, the verse reads (XXV, 28), which Rashi interprets as meaning that “‘Esav used to trap [tzad] Yitzchaq and fool him with his words.”

The contrast between the two brothers is famous: ‘Esav was a rough character who lived for the outdoors and the hunt, whereas Ya‘aqov was the studious one, an ish tam yoshév ohalim (“a perfect man, dwelling in tents,” ibid., 27), devoted to Torah and Divine service. Eventually the earthy, materialistic ‘Esav’s truly evil nature came to the fore (after the death of his grandfather Avraham; cf. Bava Bathra 16b), and he came to discount the value of the birthright from his father -- so much so that he was willing to “sell” it to his brother for a lentil stew.

The Torah tells us all of this, but Yitzchaq was evidently unaware of these facts. Similarly, despite her clearer notion of her elder son’s true nature, it is not recorded that Rivqa tried to disabuse Yitzchaq of his delusions concerning ‘Esav. Instead, our parasha records that Yitzchaq, having grown old and wishing to impart a blessing to ‘Esav, calls upon him to catch and prepare some savory game, ba‘avur tëvarechëcha nafshi bëterem amuth (“in order that my soul bless you before I die,” XXVII, 4). Rivqa, having overheard him, orders Ya‘aqov to assist her in an elaborate ruse to take advantage of her husband’s failing eyesight to steal the blessing from ‘Esav.

To his credit, Ya‘aqov, whose salient characteristic was his unswerving devotion to truth, protests vigorously, acquiescing only reluctantly as his mother insists. Even during the ensuing episode, as Rashi notes, a careful reading of the verses shows Ya‘aqov struggling mightily to avoid telling his father a direct lie. Even so, no one denies that the old patriarch was deceived into giving Ya‘aqov ‘Esav’s blessing.

How, then, can we say that Rivqa was not the product of her environment, profoundly influenced by the sharp, conniving people among whom she had lived? Why was it necessary for Ya‘aqov to gain the blessing in such a tawdry, dishonest fashion as if he were ‘Esav?