Toldot 5782 – Rebecca and Jacob: Deceit and Dishonesty

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Family turmoil, poor parenting, elements of deceit. Yes, in the Bible.  But today’s parashah, Toldot, sounds like many contemporary families, doesn’t it?

Like many of our matriarchs, Rebecca has a tough time conceiving a child. Well, she winds up with two at the same time, and learns that the two are already fighting in her womb! Esau is born first, and as the elder son in Biblical times, he should rightfully inherit the larger share of the family property and the right to carry on the covenant with Gd. However, Rebecca perceives that Gd told her that the older will serve the younger. Note that this was not presented as a commandment, but rather as a simple message.

She doesn’t seem to try to make sense of this, but does what she can to make this “message” come true. Riding the winner from the beginning, the younger becomes her favorite – Jacob, the younger, is more cerebral and is a lot more genteel than the rough and tumble Esau. As we will see later, she crafts a plan to prevent the usual lines of inheritance from occurring.

Maybe Rebecca’s behavior is, in some ways, understandable. Less so is Isaac’s. His own father, Abraham, played favorites and things didn’t work out so well. We might think that Isaac would have known better. But nope. Unlike Rebecca, he favored his manly son, Esau. Jacob and his books and his cooking can wait. Esau and his toughness were far more suited for the needs of the day. Preparing soup? That’s women’s work! In any case, Rebecca and Isaac choose sides. As the parashah demonstrates, it didn’t work out so well.

As we know, it all started to unravel when Esau came home from a hunt and was very hungry. How hungry? So hungry that he was heard to say as he entered his home, “I’m so hungry I could give up my birthright!” Jacob, who had been cooking all day, sensed an opportunity. Before handing over a bowl of soup to his stronger, tougher, elder brother, he made Esau promise to hand over his larger share of inheritance to Jacob.That stew must have smelled awfully good! So Esau forfeits his rights to the major share of his father’s property. All for a bowl of soup!

Time passes. Isaac is about to die. Although he no longer has the inheritance rights he once did, Esau still retains the rights to a blessing. So off he goes a’hunting. He planned to prepare Isaac’s last meal just before his father’s death. Wasting no time, Rebecca dresses Jacob in a hairy, furry costume meant to deceive Isaac into thinking that Jacob is Esau. “Now who is this, really?” asked Isaac of Jacob. “Why, I am Esau,” said Jacob, in his most manly voice.

Thinking he is really addressing Esau, Isaac begins to confer his blessing. “You will have an abundance of grain and wine,” begins Isaac to Jacob. “Nations will bow down to you. (We Jews are still waiting on that one) and you will be master over your brothers . . .” Having received the blessing, the deceit of Esau is complete. When he learns what has happened, Esau is devastated. “Haven’t you a blessing for me too, father?” Esau cries bitterly.

No, says Isaac, inexplicably. Esau is so angry that Jacob must flee for his life! We read in Etz Chaim that the descendants of Esau cause much suffering and pain to Jews in later years. And all because of Rebecca and Jacob.

So how is it that these are the matriarchs and patriarchs whose behavior we should pattern ourselves after? Does a man such as Jacob, whose deceit and dishonesty caused us so much pain then and later warrant our imitation and admiration? And Rebecca? How can we look up to such flawed people when we see them exhibit such deceit and make such egregious errors?

It’s rather distressing that we, who trace our lineage all the way back through Jacob are called upon to revere him. Is this the best example we could have used? Does his later behavior warrant our admiration and identification? Well, as we will see next week, the transactional behavior of Jacob’s allegiance even to Gd is further revealed! And Rebecca pays for her behavior dearly – she never again sees Jacob.

I suppose that the Bible deliberately presents us with such flawed people because we too are flawed and imperfect. Maybe the avoidance of ideal figures is deliberate because we cannot learn from someone with whom we can’t identify. If everyone in the Torah behaved perfectly, perhaps we would simply turn away from the Torah as a source of motivation.

After all, we could never pattern our behavior after someone who never made mistakes, and we wouldn’t even bother to try. Instead, the Torah presents us with people to whom we can relate and from whom we can learn. In coming weeks, I will be eager to learn why Jacob proves to be such a wonderful role model. This week? Not so much!

The story of family turmoil is especially relevant as we draw close to Thanksgiving, when many of us will spend time with relatives who are not necessarily ideal role models for us. Maybe we’ll be fortunate and get to spend time with only ethical, morally upright people. But more than likely, that will not be the case. So the Torah’s story of familial discord reminds us that having challenging relationships is as old as the Bible.

And maybe, over the coming weeks, we will see that even those with large flaws in their personalities and behaviors do indeed have some redeeming features. When Leah was a little girl, I used to tell her that if all you look for in a person are warts, the whole world is ugly. So let’s be on the lookout for redeeming features in our matriarchs and patriarchs that we can pattern ourselves after. And as for those troublesome relatives on Thanksgiving, try to see the bright side, as I have done – Nancy’s apple pie is only a short time away!