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?

From the very moment that we meet Rivqa’s brother Lavan, the Torah leaves us in no doubt concerning his character flaws: UlëRivqa ach ushëmo Lavan vayarotz Lavan el ha’ish hachutza el ha‘ayin (“And Rivqa had a brother named Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man [Eli‘ezer] outside, to the spring,” XXIV, 29). Rashi ad loc. asks:

Why and because of what did he run? ‘And it was when he saw the jewelry which Eli‘ezer had given to Rivqa … ’ he said: This one is wealthy and cast his eyes on the money.

Other character flaws come to light as the negotiations for Rivqa’s betrothal begin: Vaya‘an Lavan uVëthu’él (“And Lavan and Bëthu’él answered,” ibid., 50), and Rashi tells us: “He was evil and leapt to answer before his father.” The Ha‘améq Davar concludes from this and other hints that Lavan had completely usurped his father’s authority and wielded the actual power in the family.

Provided with this window on his soul, we can see that Lavan was primarily motivated by his greed. Thus, his reason for substituting Lé’a for Rachél had little to do with any sense of propriety in marrying off his elder daughter first, or sympathy for Lé’a. Indeed, as the Talmud (Bava Bathra 123a) tells us, Lé’a was originally expected to marry ‘Esav. These considerations were only an excuse to get another seven years’ labor out of the utterly honest and reliable Ya‘aqov, the best manager his flocks had ever had.

Rivqa also wore her character on her sleeve. When Eli‘ezer prayed for a sign to prove that a given girl was fit to be Yitzchaq’s bride, the sign which he sought was her willingness to give him and his camels water to drink. This would demonstrate, in Rashi’s words, that “she was suitable, for she would be performing kindnesses, and fit to enter Avraham’s household.” Rivqa, of course, exceeded Eli‘ezer’s expectations, providing the water with alacrity and, when he requested a place to spend the night, generous hospitality for him and his animals as well. It was this supreme chesed which motivated Rivqa in her plot to secure Yitzchaq’s blessing for Ya‘aqov.

The Ha‘améq Davar explains the episode. However blind he may have been to ‘Esav’s ultimate failings, Yitzchaq was acutely aware that he was no Ya‘aqov. Ya‘aqov was obviously Yitzchaq’s spiritual heir, possessing such superior qualities and single-minded devotion to Torah and mitzvoth in his own right, that Yitzchaq had no fears concerning Ya‘aqov’s merit in coming into the spiritual heritage of Avraham. Instead, Yitzchaq devoted his concern to ‘Esav, whom he saw as an earthy type, simple more than evil, who was preoccupied with this world.

This explains the rather materialistic core of the blessing intended for him, as it is recorded in the parasha: “And G-d will grant you of the dew of heaven and of the fats of the land, and abundant rain and wine,” XXVIII, 28).

Rivqa, however, well aware of Yitzchaq’s uncompromising sense of justice, as noted supra (Rashi points out that even here, in a blessing intended as a chesed for ‘Esav, Yitzchaq involved the Divine name Elo-jim, indicative of Divine judgment) and was concerned for any of Ya‘aqov’s descendants who might not be 120% devoted to a life of Torah and mitzvoth, as were her beloved husband and son. She realized that there would be some whose characters would be rather closer to Yitzchaq’s perception of ‘Esav. She wanted to ensure their success in this world, so that they would use that success to help their less worldly brethren, thereby also meriting rewards in the next world.

That was why Ya‘aqov needed this particular blessing, and why it had to be administered while Yitzchaq thought of him as ‘Esav.

It remains to be explored why Rivqa’s motivation should be sufficient excuse for trickery and deceit. The Torah’s stance on falsehood seems uncompromising and absolute: Midëvar sheqer tirchaq (“You will stay far away from a lie,” Exodus XXIII, 7).

Consider an interesting ruling in the Talmud (Këthubboth 17a). There, we find a discussion of the mitzva of celebrating a wedding; specifically, the question arises of how far we can go in order to endear the bride to the groom. On the one hand, we are warned that we must be careful: not every girl is a raving beauty. If the groom asks our opinion of his bride and she is plain or possessed of some handicap, we cannot tell him that she is attractive: Midëvar sheqer tirchaq. On the other hand, we are asked: if he had made what we think to be a bad deal in the marketplace, would we denigrate it to him? The answer is no; there’s no reason to make him feel bad. Here as well, the bride is attractive to him; therefore, we can agree with his assessment. The ruling is codified in halacha (Shulchan ‘Aruch, Even ha‘Ezer 65:1):

It is a mitzva to gladden a groom and bride … and to say that she is attractive and gracious, even when she is not attractive.

The Talmud does not leave it there, but goes on to generalize this ruling: from here, the Rabbis said, “A man’s opinion should always be involved with people.” The Tosëfoth Rid explains this as meaning: “To say what is acceptable, even if one tells a lie.” This also has an impact on codified halacha (cf. Rambam, Hilchoth Dé‘oth VI, 1, Migdal ‘Oz ad loc.).

How do we reconcile this with the imperative of midëvar sheqer tirchaq?

The Torah which is in our hands constitutes absolute truth, placed in this world to be administered by and for human beings. The tension created by this eventuality was long ago recognized by the Rabbis, in such dicta as: “The Torah speaks in the language of human beings” (Bëchoroth 31a). The plain fact is that there are many concepts in human languages for which there are not absolute standards. Even a very brief trip to an art gallery reveals, for example, that one man’s vision of beauty is another’s ugliness.

The fundamental purpose of the Creation, as I have remarked before, was to create a venue for doing chesed. It therefore follows that our observance of Torah, in line with this purpose, must be informed with chesed. To tell the groom that his bride is not attractive, whatever our actual opinion of her, is nothing else but an act of cruelty. To observe Torah in a cruel fashion surely vitiates the fundamental purpose of Creation.

That is why the halachists have decided as they have. To maintain the balance between kindness and truth (as Ya‘aqov’s dialogue with his father shows that he did) requires careful consideration and competent rabbinical guidance, as does any other aspect of halacha. But the rule of Torah observance must be that we are sensitive to the call of chesed.