Toledot 5778b: Hear the Voice of Rebecca

My go-to expert for Parashat Toledot the past few years has been a student at JTS named Lauren Tuchman. She is a senior in the rabbinical school who teaches frequently on topics of disability and Judaism. This year she was selected to present an ELI talk, which has been recorded and will soon be released to the public.

As a person who is blind, Lauren relates to stories such as this week’s deception of Isaac by Rebecca and Jacob on a personal level. In an essay that she wrote last year for Dr. Joy Ladin, who was teaching at JTS, Lauren imagined herself as Isaac, reading his own story in the Torah and adding an insider’s midrash:If you look closely, the Torah does note that I am not fooled by Yaakov. But the Torah has to present me as foolish, and that I don’t understand. Why do I never come out looking competent? Why does the Torah have to portray me like that? And why are my descendants with disabilities so hurt? Will everyone now think that blind people are foolish? Blind does mean foolish, after all. How much pain have people endured because that word, blind, is thrown around so casually to mean stupid, ignorant?

In another essay that she wrote for the web journal, State of Formation, Lauren notes that the Torah states that Isaac reacted violently to the news that he had been deceived, וַיֶּחֱרַ֨ד יִצְחָ֣ק חֲרָדָה֘ גְּדֹלָ֣ה. She says that this too reminds her of personal experience:

Yitzchack’s strong physical reaction, I believe, speaks to the fact that he was cognizant of his vulnerability and powerlessness to stop this cruel injustice. This is a feeling all too familiar for many of us who are blind or visually impaired. That playground bully who delights in disguising their voice as a test, only to laugh at us when we get it wrong, feeling like we are set up to fail in a system that structurally disempowers us, despite our best efforts to do all the right things, the countless ways daily that we are made painfully aware of the inherent vulnerability in disability that living in an ableist society entails.

It’s not looking too good for Rebecca and Jacob. The two of them conspired to take advantage of Isaac’s disability. Once again, Isaac is the subject of machinations made by others—Abraham’s plans to sacrifice him, and then to marry him off. Even those wells that Isaac digs are actually dug for him by his servants. This seems to be the first time that Isaac has taken initiative to guide his family, and he is immediately undermined.

Jacob will pay dearly for his deception—others will blindside him in his own marriage and parenting decisions, in the stories of Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. In this way, the Torah seems to pass judgment on Jacob, to punish him appropriately, and to imply what will later be stated explicitly—Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. Yet surely, we can defend Jacob to a degree. He was put in a terrible position, forced to choose between disobeying his mother and deceiving his father. The book of Proverbs states,

משלי פרק א, ח-ט.

(ח) שְׁמַ֣ע בְּ֭נִי מוּסַ֣ר אָבִ֑יךָ וְאַל־תִּ֝טֹּ֗שׁ תּוֹרַ֥ת אִמֶּֽךָ: (ט) כִּ֤י׀ לִוְיַ֤ת חֵ֓ן הֵ֬ם לְרֹאשֶׁ֑ךָ וַ֝עֲנָקִ֗ים לְגַרְגְּרֹתֶֽיךָ:

My son, heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother, for they are a graceful wreath upon your head. A necklace about your throat.

Jacob objects to his mother’s plan, saying that he fears being found out by his father, and viewed כִּמְתַעְתֵּ֑עַ, which JPS translates, “as a trickster.”  An early 19th century German commentary, HaKtav V’hakabbalah, supports the idea that Jacob is concerned not only with deceiving his father in the moment, but also over the shame that he will bring upon his father, which is indeed how it plays out. But Rebecca silences Jacob’s doubts and exclaims, “Listen to my voice, my son. Your curse, my son, will be on me!” עָלַ֥י קִלְלָתְךָ֖ בְּנִ֑י  Is Rebecca indeed cursed? If so, how? If not, why not?

In fact, Jacob seems to be punished for both his and his mother’s part in the deception. When his sons fool him with Joseph’s bloody cloak, that seems like punishment for his use of the bloody skin to deceive his father. But when Leah deceives him in the dark tent, that feels like punishment for his mother’s crime in deceiving her husband. Why does Rebecca evade punishment?

Perhaps she doesn’t. What could be a bigger curse for parents than for their children to hate each other so intensely that one would threaten to murder the other? And even if Esau does not become a killer like Cain, Jacob still must go into exile for 20 years.  Does Rebecca ever get to see her beloved Jacob again? The Torah doesn’t say, but at the end of his life, Jacob refers to the burial chamber in Hevron, saying, “that is where they buried Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and that is where I buried Leah.” The implication is that mother and son never saw each other again alive. So, that’s a punishment, but it is on Jacob as much as his mother.

In fact, we can imagine Rebecca’s satisfaction and relief in knowing that Jacob survived to marry his first cousins and to raise grandchildren for Rebecca in her old home. We have a sense that Rebecca is not cursed, but no explanation for why. Here are two plausible explanations:

First, Rebecca had a keen sense of what was right and necessary, and she took action to ensure the proper outcome. How did she know what was right and necessary? Remember that Rebecca received an oracle, which she interpreted to mean that Jacob was destined for primacy: וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר This cryptic statement, the elder will serve the younger, could mean the opposite, the elder will be served by the younger, but Rebecca acted as she understood the divine will, and protected the primacy of Jacob. She, was after all, a prophet, and perhaps not only at that moment of oracle, but throughout.

The 18th century commentator R’ Haim b. Moshe Attar, born in Meknes, Morocco in 1696, grew to leadership in Leghorn, Italy and then in Israel, eventually establishing a yeshiva in Jerusalem and composing a beloved Torah commentary, Or HaHaim. He observes some oddities of the language, ורבקה שומעת, ורבקה אמרה, [cite] and explains that the divine spirit continued to rest upon her. She understood what God intended, and she overheard the words and even intentions of all around her. It is true that she instructed Jacob to deceive his father, which is normally forbidden as גניבת דעת, deception. But here there are two overriding values—heed your mother, and heed the words of a true prophet. So the first defense of Rebecca is that she had divine authorization as a prophet of God to override normal interpersonal ethics.

But there is a second rationale to justify Rebecca’s actions, and this is much more familiar to us. Many people have noted that of all the matriarchs, she seems to be the most empowered. Yes, to a point, but last week she was handed off in marriage without consultation, initially at least: הִנֵּֽה־רִבְקָ֥ה לְפָנֶ֖יךָ קַ֣ח וָלֵ֑ךְ. Rebecca may have felt empowered to leave—or just desperate to escape. And here too she seems to act from desperation, not strength. Isaac has not asked her advice about whom to bless—it’s a guy’s thing, apparently. So, she acts, desperately, asserting what power she has. Rebecca has her truth, but the reality is stacked against her. Power resides with the men—first Betuel and Lavan, now Isaac. She has no structural power, and so she resorts to subterfuge. At the very least, this implies, we ought to reserve judgment on Rebecca.

Ramban supports this reading when he considers why Rebecca never told Isaac about her prophecy. He offers several explanations, all of which highlight the disparity in their power. First, perhaps Rebecca didn’t have her husband’s permission to go speak with God. Second, perhaps she assumed that anything she knew, he knew, since men are greater prophets. Third, much later when it was clear that Isaac was intent on blessing Esau with primacy, Rebecca feared confronting her husband and souring him against her beloved Jacob, depriving him of his blessing. So, she resorted to subterfuge. Ramban is not criticizing the patriarchy, the power structure, but he certainly understands how it operates.

This week in the CJLS, a colleague presented the first draft of a paper on damaging speech, in which he presented all of the classic texts against bullying or defaming another person. If you follow Jewish law very closely it seems you might not be allowed to say anything good about another person, must less bad. He spoke about the special power of shaming and bullying and reached the clear conclusion that one may not speak ill of others. Nothing controversial there.

This was a first read, and so we all got to comment and make suggestions. My response was yes, of course, and yet—what about political speech? What about political humor? What about #Metoo? When one group of people holds power, damaging speech may be the only option for those left out. After me other people, mostly women, spoke with greater insight and authority. Moral codes that regulate speech classified as gossip, they observed, are a form of social control which has often been used to silence women. To preach against damaging speech without considering the way that power dynamics enter the picture is to miss an important aspect of social life, political life and also moral life.

I don’t need to spell this out too much. We are living in a time in which the power structures that have silenced women who have been harassed and oppressed are beginning to splinter. Certainly not to shatter and disappear, but there are cracks, and through them the voices of righteous indignation are starting to be heard. This is a necessary development, though it is also painful and often unpleasant.

So, things are complicated. From one angle, Isaac is a victim of oppression—because of his age and disability. From another angle, he is a patriarch, the very image of structural power. From one angle Rebecca is a villain, taking advantage of her old and infirm husband. From the other side, she is a righteous victim, acting defiantly to express her truth.

I spoke again with Lauren about Rebecca’s side of the story. She agreed that given a power dynamic that left Rebecca with no other options, that her actions can be justified in this case. In the end, it is all about power—people with it need to be reminded not to abuse their privilege, and people without it must be supported as they struggle to find their voice. As Rebecca says, וְעַתָּ֥ה בְנִ֖י שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלִ֑י, now it is time to listen to Rebecca’s voice.

Sources

בראשית פרק כז, ה-יז

(ה) וְרִבְקָ֣ה שֹׁמַ֔עַת בְּדַבֵּ֣ר יִצְחָ֔ק אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו בְּנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ עֵשָׂו֙ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָצ֥וּד צַ֖יִד לְהָבִֽיא: (ו) וְרִבְקָה֙ אָֽמְרָ֔ה אֶל־יַעֲקֹ֥ב בְּנָ֖הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר הִנֵּ֤ה שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֶת־ אָבִ֔יךָ מְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶל־עֵשָׂ֥ו אָחִ֖יךָ לֵאמֹֽר: (ז) הָבִ֨יאָה לִּ֥י צַ֛יִד וַעֲשֵׂה־לִ֥י מַטְעַמִּ֖ים וְאֹכֵ֑לָה וַאֲבָרֶכְכָ֛ה לִפְנֵ֥י יְקֹוָ֖ק לִפְנֵ֥י מוֹתִֽי: (ח) וְעַתָּ֥ה בְנִ֖י שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלִ֑י לַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י מְצַוָּ֥ה אֹתָֽךְ: (ט) לֶךְ־נָא֙ אֶל־הַצֹּ֔אן וְקַֽח־לִ֣י מִשָּׁ֗ם שְׁנֵ֛י גְּדָיֵ֥י עִזִּ֖ים טֹבִ֑ים וְאֶֽעֱשֶׂ֨ה אֹתָ֧ם מַטְעַמִּ֛ים לְאָבִ֖יךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָהֵֽב: (י) וְהֵבֵאתָ֥ לְאָבִ֖יךָ וְאָכָ֑ל בַּעֲבֻ֛ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְבָרֶכְךָ֖ לִפְנֵ֥י מוֹתֽוֹ: (יא) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֔ב אֶל־רִבְקָ֖ה אִמּ֑וֹ הֵ֣ן עֵשָׂ֤ו אָחִי֙ אִ֣ישׁ שָׂעִ֔ר וְאָנֹכִ֖י אִ֥ישׁ חָלָֽק: (יב) אוּלַ֤י יְמֻשֵּׁ֙נִי֙ אָבִ֔י וְהָיִ֥יתִי בְעֵינָ֖יו כִּמְתַעְתֵּ֑עַ וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י עָלַ֛י קְלָלָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א בְרָכָֽה: (יג) וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִמּ֔וֹ עָלַ֥י קִלְלָתְךָ֖ בְּנִ֑י אַ֛ךְ שְׁמַ֥ע בְּקֹלִ֖י וְלֵ֥ךְ קַֽח־ לִֽי: (יד) וַיֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ וַיִּקַּ֔ח וַיָּבֵ֖א לְאִמּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֤עַשׂ אִמּוֹ֙ מַטְעַמִּ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָהֵ֥ב אָבִֽיו: (טו) וַתִּקַּ֣ח רִ֠בְקָה אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֨י עֵשָׂ֜ו בְּנָ֤הּ הַגָּדֹל֙ הַחֲמֻדֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתָּ֖הּ בַּבָּ֑יִת וַתַּלְבֵּ֥שׁ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּנָ֥הּ הַקָּטָֽן: (טז) וְאֵ֗ת עֹרֹת֙ גְּדָיֵ֣י הָֽעִזִּ֔ים הִלְבִּ֖ישָׁה עַל־יָדָ֑יו וְעַ֖ל חֶלְקַ֥ת צַוָּארָֽיו: (יז) וַתִּתֵּ֧ן אֶת־הַמַּטְעַמִּ֛ים וְאֶת־הַלֶּ֖חֶם אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑תָה בְּיַ֖ד יַעֲקֹ֥ב בְּנָֽהּ:

הכתב והקבלה[1] בראשית פרק כז

כמתעתע….אמנם אחרי שאהבת יצחק את עשו היתה אהבה בטעות כי לא היה נודע לו ממעשיו הרעים, רק עשו היה איש ציד ומרמה ובתחבולות ערמה עשה להחשב בעיני אביו לאיש נקי כפים, מעדות הכתוב ויאהב יצחק את עשו כי ציד בפיו, כלומר שבחלקת פיו ובתחבולות מרמה קשר נפש יצחק לאהוב אותו, ומסבת טעותו זאת היתה דעתו לברכו להיותו בכור. ואם היה נודע ליצחק האמת שאין זה ראוי לברכה מצד מעשיו המקולקלים, לא בלבד שהיה נמנע מלברכו, אף גם זאת היה עושה לקלל חלקו בזה ובבא, א”כ ההשתדלות שלא יבוא מכשול כזה לידו הוא באמת רצונו, והדבר אשר יעשה שלא כרצונו המוטעה הוא רצונו המאומת, והמשתדל לבטל רצונו המוטעה כדי שיקיים רצונו המאומת אינו מתעהו באמת, רק נראה בהשקפה ראשונה כמתעתהו, לכן אמר כמתעתע בכ”ף. ודע דאונקלוס תרגם כמתעתע כמתלעב והוא לשון לעג ובזיון, ויתקלסו בו ויאמרו לו עלה קרח (מ”ב ב’ כ”ג) תרגומו ואתלעבו בי’. חרפה וקלסה לכל ארצות (יחזקאל כ”ב ד’) תרגומו חסודין וליעוב. וכן יב”ע תרגם כמתעתע כמגחך והוא לשון צחוק, צחקה שרה, תרגם גחכת, ויהי כמצחק בעיני חתניו תרגם כמגחך. לדעתם שרש תעה דומה לשרש התל, שיורה על הטעות. ואביכן התל בי, אל יוסף פרעה התל. ויורה על הצחוק והלעג, ויהתל בהם אליהו. הנה לתרגומם הגדיל יעקב לחשוב עשייתו זאת לעון היותר גדול, כי יגרום שיהיה אביו ללעג ולקלס לכל השומעים, שלא ידע להזהר מלהיותו מרומה במעשיו:

אור החיים[2] בראשית פרק כז פסוק ה

(ה) ורבקה שמעת וגו’. פי’ מודיע הכתוב כי רבקה נביאה היתה ושומעת תמיד בדברי יצחק וגו’ הגם שלא ידבר בפניה והבן. ולזה אמר ורבקה שומעת בדבר וגו’ ולא אמר ותשמע רבקה וגו’ ולא אמר היתה שומעת וגו’. ואולי כי דבר אליו יצחק בלט ולזה האמין בבוא יעקב כי הוא עשו כי באוזן עשו דבר, והגם כי עיני יצחק כבדו, עם כל זה הודיעו כי דברי סתר אליו. ואולי כי לזה רמז הכתוב באומרו ויקרא את עשו וגו’ ויאמר אליו בני ויאמר הנני פי’ נתיחדו לדברים נכמסים:

אור החיים בראשית פרק כז פסוק ו

(ו) ורבקה אמרה. אמר תוספת וא”ו כי הסכימה היא לרוח הקודש השרויה עליה:

אור החיים בראשית פרק כז פסוק ח

שמע בקולי. פי’ הגם שיש בדברים אלו כגניבת הדעת, עם כל זה יש לך לשמוע בקולי פי’ מלבד חיוב מצות כיבוד אב ואם שהיא מצות עשה גם היא נביאה וכתיב בדברי נביא אמת (דברים יח) אליו תשמעון לזה אמרה שמע בקולי, וכבר כתבנו (לעיל טז ה) שיצטדק נביא באומרו לעבור על מצוה ממצות התורה לפי שעה:

רמב”ן בראשית פרק כז

ונראה שלא הגידה לו רבקה מעולם הנבואה אשר אמר ה’ לה ורב יעבוד צעיר, כי איך היה יצחק עובר את פי ה’ והיא לא תצלח. והנה מתחלה לא הגידה לו דרך מוסר וצניעות, כי ותלך לדרוש את ה’, שהלכה בלא רשות יצחק, או שאמרה “אין אנכי צריכה להגיד נבואה לנביא כי הוא גדול מן המגיד לי”, ועתה לא רצתה לאמר לו “כך הוגד לי מאת ה’ טרם לדתי” כי אמרה, באהבתו אותו לא יברך יעקב ויניח הכל בידי שמים, והיא ידעה כי בסבת זה יתברך יעקב מפיו בלב שלם ונפש חפצה. או הם סבות מאת ה’ כדי שיתברך יעקב, וגם עשו בברכת החרב, ולו לבדו נתכנו עלילות:

[1] Rabbi Yaakov Zvi son of Rabbi Gamliel Mecklenburg was born in Germany, around the year 5545 (1785).[2] R. Hayyim b”r Moshe ibn Attar was born in Sali, West Morocco in 1696.

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