Jacob and Esau: Part II The Prize and the Deception

Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9

Part II: The Prize and the Deception

by

Howard Adelman

In the last blog, I described the character of the two brothers. In this blog, I depict how the dynamic of their relationship works out in Jacob obtaining Isaac’s blessing.

Recall, there are three, rather than two blessings. Actually, as we shall see, there are four, for there is even one referred to before the first, but it is given no descriptive content. The first fulsome blessing, as distinct from the one without any content, was ostensibly meant for Esau; Jacob receives it. “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, And let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you.” (Genesis 27: 29-30)

Then there is the one given as a substitute to Esau, as a consolation prize.

“See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth And the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27: 39-40)

In both blessings, each gets rich. But in the first, one emerges as a ruler.  In the second, the individual will live as a samurai, by his wits and by means of his sword. And never remain willing to be a serf to any other. Esau is too much of a free spirit.

Then, in the next chapter, comes the third blessing given directly to Jacob whom Isaac recognizes as Jacob. “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother, May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:1-4)

Look at the difference between the three blessings. Only in the third does Isaac guarantee that Jacob will be the direct heir to the lineage of Abraham, that Jacob will become the don of this family. Like Isaac before him, Jacob is commanded to travel back to the family homestead, to travel back to the equivalent of Sicily as it were where he will both be safe from the wrath of Esau and obtain a wife from his own tribe, by marrying a cousin, a daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban. Then and only then, only on this condition, will El Shaddai, bless him. Not Isaac, but God Almighty Himself will bless Jacob. And the fallout from that blessing – ownership of the promised land assigned to Abraham.

Contrast this with the first blessing. It is not a promise, but a request. “May God give you…” And what does he get if God blesses him – abundant rain, rich crops from the earth. Supremacy and power over other people, including his own brothers. Most of all, it is a blessing for others, not Jacob, for people will be blessed who recognize Jacob’s worth – an irony for the interpretation that Isaac did not recognize who his son really was. Others will be cursed who curse the Hebrews, the direct and rightful heirs of Abraham.

This could not be a blessing intended for Esau. Esau was not a farmer, but a hunter. Why would he want abundant rain and rich soil? Further, as is clear from the rest of the story that follows, neither brother wants the other to bow before him, even when, each in his own way, seeks reconciliation with the other. Esau is not in search of power over others. However, coercion is the only way Esau knows how to survive. He could become a gunslinger, a lone lawman, a Wyatt or Virgil Earp, a Wild Bill Hickok or one of the less known Western marshals such as Johnny Behan. Jacob will get power inadvertently as people come to respect Jacob for who he is, not because he lords over the people with coercive force. Those who respect and comprehend the worth of Jacob and the people descended from him will he be blessed.

Now look at the second blessing that Esau does receive, the consolation prize. He too shall be a farmer with good rains and abundant soil. Not exactly a prize for a great hunter and adventurer. But Esau is condemned to live by the rule of the sword, through might rather than right. And though condemned to serve his brother, he will grow restive at being a servant and break the yoke that holds him in the position as a military commander and, possibly, a settled farmer. Thus, his energy, his might, his self-assurance, will all be of benefit to him. For Esau will not end up in service. But he is also not destined to win the respect of others, for, unlike Jacob, he will not be recognized as a righteous man, but he will be respected as the fastest gun in the West, a loner in defence of the law. Both Esau and Jacob will receive the blessing that is truest to their character and their role in history, the blessing of liberty, different types of liberty, but, in each case, one favoured by God.

Now I believe we are in a position to understand what happens when Jacob supposedly tricks Esau in receiving the first blessing. Recall who is bestowing the blessing, an old, blind father who was born as a late-life gift to both his parents, but grew up to be a passive character following his father willingly and quietly, ready to be slaughtered simply on the command of God. He was probably most likely traumatized by the effort, a man who weds a beautiful woman who is as wilful as he is not. She falls in love with him at first sight (or, as someone suggested to me, fell off her camel because she was so distraught at the impulsive and wilful (wrong) choice that she made). Isaac follows the pattern of his father and pretends Rebekah is his sister, not his wife, to Abimelech. Isaac is quickly caught and embarrassed, but Abimelech becomes his protector. And Isaac, working hard, makes a go of it and becomes wealthy.

However, when the Philistines challenge him, he does not fight back but moves on to find new wells, or, rather, to restore the wells his father once used. He is clearly not a fighting man; he is passive and perhaps a coward. But Abimelech protects him and God blesses him and promises him many heirs, but not because of who he is and for what he does, but for the sake of his father, Abraham. Isaac, the child born of joy, of laughter, has turned out to be a nebbish. And look who each parent favours. The wilful, independent Rebekah favours the passive, obedient and reflective child. The male parent, the introvert and scholar, favours the elder who is adventurous and can also supply him with wild game to eat.

Suddenly we jump years. Isaac is old. He is blind. He calls to his eldest. Esau replies, “I am here.” Isaac asks Esau to hunt the game he so loves. After that, after he eats the meal prepared from the game, he promises he will give Esau his innermost blessing. Is the promise of abundant rains and rich soil and crops, the supplication of other nations and rule over others, his innermost blessing? Or is the second fulsome blessing the one most suited to Esau, the one innermost in his thoughts, rather than the first, so unsuited to Esau’s personality? Perhaps Esau wanted Esau out of the house and delayed for awhile so he could secretly bestow his blessing on Jacob.

Here, I have to introduce a sidebar on Isaac. Though passive and somewhat of a nebbish, his name is laughter. But we have not seen much of it, certainly in the commentaries or character of Isaac as interpreted by most bookish commentators. They seem oblivious to the lightness of being. But irony and a twinkle even in a blind eye goes a long way to understanding Isaac. Isaac’s character must be read with laughter, with jocundity in mind. One is helped if the story of Jonah is understood as a satire and if one understands Hegel’s or Kierkegaard’s or Northrop Frye’s writings on irony. The misreading of Isaac’s character is akin to Plato’s misreading of Socrates. Aristophanes understood Socrates for he, like Isaac and Jacob, live in The Clouds.

As Kierkegaard wrote:

There is an irony that is only a stimulus for thought, that quickens it when it becomes drowsy, disciplines when it becomes dissolute. There is an irony that is itself the activator and in turn is itself the terminus striven for. There is a dialectic that in perpetual movement continually sees to it that the question does not become entrapped in an incidental understanding, that is never weary and is always prepared to set the issue afloat if it runs aground—in short, that always knows how to keep the issue in suspension and precisely therein and thereby wants to resolve it. There is a dialectic that, proceeding from the most abstract ideas, wants to let these display themselves in more concrete qualifications, a dialectic that wants to construct actuality with the idea. Finally, in Plato there is yet another element that is a necessary supplement to the deficiency in both the great forces. This is the mythical and the metaphorical. The first kind of dialectic corresponds to the first kind of irony, the second kind of dialectic to the second kind of irony; to the first two corresponds the mythical, to the last two the metaphorical—yet in such a way that the mythical is not indispensably related to either the first two or the last two but is more like an anticipation engendered by the one-sidedness of the first two or like a transitional element, a confinium[intervening border], that actually belongs neither to the one nor the other (Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, 121).

In the first story of Jacob so easily getting the birthright, seemingly the most important reward, from Esau, we have an example of irony that sets up the action, that serves as a stimulus for reflection, that belongs to the sphere of the mythical, that allows the reader to anticipate and the writer to adumbrate what happens in the seemingly more serious competition for Isaac’s (and God’s) blessing. In the mythical part of the parsha, the action is almost over as soon as it starts. In metaphorical irony, in irony focused and derived from the real interplay of characters, that belongs to plot rather than character portrayal, the stress seems to be on performance, but the meaning is about the suspension of belief, about the suspension of any simple resolution about what is taking place, about preventing any simplistic understanding, and, thereby, about resolving mis-understandings.

Look at how the trickery proceeds. First, it is Rebekah’s idea, not Jacob’s. Second, she tells Jacob that she overheard Isaac tell Esau to fetch him some game. Not a lie. I want, Rebekah says to Jacob, you to take advantage of the long time it will take before Esau hunts down some wild game and prepares a meal to just grab a couple of baby goats and she, Rebekah, will prepare them into a delectable meal. You, Jacob, take it into Isaac to get his blessing.  Did Isaac deliberately send Esau on a task that would take some time? Did Isaac know that Rebekah, just as Sarah overheard God’s messengers in discourse with Abraham, was also standing in the doorway overhearing Isaac’s conversation with Esau? Was Isaac aware or unaware of his wife listening to his conversation with Esau?

However, to understand the second metaphorical irony, we must understand that it consists of negation, of denying what is first put forth on the surface, of the trickery in obtaining the birthright. Getting the blessing, getting the guarantee, not a verbal transfer of a phenomenal prize in exchange for a cup of hot soup, is where we will find the real action. The second tale explicates the meaning of the first.

Jacob objects to Rebekah’s initial proposal. He does not say, “I do not even sound like Esau.” He says, in anticipation of his father feeling his arms, that he lacks Esau’s hairiness. Jacob is smooth-skinned. ‘If my father catches me, I will be revealed as a trickster,’ he tells his mother. Rebekah reassures him that it will work. Anyway, if Isaac finds out, the curse will be on her head for she is the initiator of the ruse, not Jacob. There is no explanation of why the trick will work, why Isaac will be taken in by someone who sounds like Jacob, why simply wearing Esau’s clothes, and hence smelling like Esau, why covering his arms with goat skins, will suffice to trick Isaac.

Initially, it seems that Isaac is onto the trick. Who are you? “Which of my sons stands before me?” (Genesis 27:19) Then Jacob tells an outright lie. “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” (Genesis 27:20) It’s unbelievable! Unbelievable that Isaac will be taken in with such a simplistic scam. It is even unbelievable that Jacob would tell an outright lie to his father, even on the direction and command of his mother. Isaac is now even more suspicious. ‘How did you hunt down the game so quickly?’ he asks. Jacob lies a second time. “Because the Lord your [not my or our, but your] God granted me good fortune.” (Genesis 27:21) Even more suspicious, Isaac tells him to approach. He feels his arms and find them to be hairy. He is perplexed. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:23)

Why did Isaac not check Jacob out further? Why did he not call on Rebekah or a servant to verify who stood before him? After all, the person before him sounded just like Jacob and any blind person depends on his ears much more than his sense of smell or touch to decide who or what is in front of him. It was not as Isaac he was about to die. He was in no real hurry. He still had lots of time. Even after he blessed Jacob, he retained his doubt. “Are you really my son Esau?” (Genesis 27:25) Jacob lies a third time. “I am,” he replies.

Talk about identity theft! Isaac then asks for the food and smells his son’s clothes, really Esau’s clothes, and then offers him the first blessing, which is really the second one for the first is given before he eats, but it does not have any content.

Let me ask a number of questions. When did Jacob become so unscrupulous? It seems totally out of character. He is the good son, the obedient son. Jacob’s eldest son will deceive him about Joseph’s death.  That could be excused, for Jacob’s eldest son wanted both to save his own skin (literally) and spare his father pain at the loss of his favourite. But to lie directly to your father and tell him you are the older brother just to get a blessing! For it is clear that he would get a blessing in any case. And why is Isaac literally so unbelievably naïve? And why does Rebekah concoct such an outlandish and virtually preposterous ruse?

I suggest a possible answer. Jacob is the one really being tricked. For what was it all for? Not to supplant Esau to inherit the right of primogeniture. For the blessing he does get, after the empty vessel of the first one, is one of riches. Nations will bow down in gratitude, as the nations do that go to share in the wealth of Egypt thanks to Joseph’s foresight. But those nations do not bow down in servitude, but in appreciation. The only mastery Jacob, and, via Joseph as well, that Isaac will obtain is mastery over his brother.  And even that will not last. For Esau will break the yoke of servitude.

But no nation will bow down to him and his progeny even in just gratitude unless he smartens up, unless he loses his naiveté, unless he learns somehow to become a Machiavellian. As Rav Kook wrote in a commentary on this parsha, “Even negative character traits have their place in the world. Ultimately, they too will serve the greater good.”  And if Jacob can learn to lie boldly to his father, admittedly under Rebekah’s direction, if Isaac is in on the trick and recognizes that Rebekah is correct in her prescience that Jacob is the only choice for the future of the family, then, like Michael Corleone, Jacob must switch course, or be made to switch course, but not as in the case of the Corleone family, by external circumstances, but through the guidance of the parents, primarily Jacob’s mother. He must, as Michael does, learn to acquire the koyach, the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don. Jacob has to learn to be a heel. Bad ways must be aufgehopt to serve a higher purpose. Isaac has to be in on the trick. He may be blind, but he is not stupid. But Jacob is not in on the trick. There is no indication that he recognizes that he is the true spiritual heir, for all he demonstrates is reluctance and his own father’s passivity under the circumstances. But in the process, he learns to tell three very bold lies.

Isaac knows full well that taste and touch and smell cannot be the primary methods of confirmation. Either hearing or sight is needed, and, as well, we recognize that hearing is often, it not always, a better tool for recognizing another’s identity than sight. Isaac knows full well that Jacob will not supplant Esau, except as the don, but he must do it so that the family can continue and thrive, but do it in his own way consistent with his character, but also through a degree of character transformation.

The irony of the story is Isaac’s self-perception, his critically activist role while appearing as a passive dupe. After all, Abraham cannot pass the baton to Jacob except via Isaac. If the key to such a transfer is understanding the positive role of deception, if it requires understanding how getting a birthright cannot simply be accomplished by blackmail, by trading a cup of hot soup in return for becoming the heir to a nation, but requires connivance of a very serious order, connivance which Jacob clearly has to acquire and which we, as Isaac’s progeny, must understand. If the game was as simple as it first appears, then we are the ones who do not understand the sophistication of trickery and its importance, and therefore how we need to proceed as a light unto the nations, as the expression of the lightness of being, by hiding our light, by being seemingly blind, by appearing as a fool and a dupe and, therefore playing the role as one of the wisest of our forefathers.

We will have to see in future blogs whether this interpretation becomes more plausible as we go forward.

Jacob and Esau: Part I Personalities

Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9

Part I: The Character of the Two Brothers

by

Howard Adelman

The Godfather, the original 1972 movie, not the sequels, is a Francis Ford Coppola academy award winning film (for best picture, best actor – Marlon Brando as Vito, the Godfather – best adapted screenplay). It tells the story of a mafia family. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the son evidently chosen not to end up a criminal, but destined for academia or a profession, though he initially appears in a marine uniform that adumbrates that he is not just an ethical and upright person, but one who has the koyach (koach in Hebrew), the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don of the Corleone family.

Michael has an older brother, Sonny (James Caan) who looks like he is an Italian redhead. He is the eldest and presumed heir of Vito, the underboss. He is very tough, but also very rash and not very reflective or calculating. He has an explosive temper. Courage, as Aristotle taught us, is a balance between being rash and being cowardly. Sonny was hot-headed. That characteristic gets him killed by a rival mafia family. (The other brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is the cowardly one who eventually betrays the family when he falls under the wing of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), in real life, Bugsy Siegel, a Jewish mobster and Las Vegas manager of a gambling casino that he runs in partnership with the Corleone family. The tale is not only a story of a crime family, but an account of the politics of a family in rivalry with other crime families in a world that is “nasty, brutish and short.” Making it long and leaving a legacy requires cunning as well as physical strength, intellectual calculation as well as brute force.

Esau did not have it. His father may have loved him for his courage, for his dashing presence, for the fact that “his hunt was in his mouth.” But it is this very last trait that made Esau unsuitable for the responsibilities he would have to undertake. He did not have the power of speech. For what is important for a leader is what comes out of his mouth, not what he puts into it. And Esau, like Sonny, is too much of a womanizer. In the film, when Sonny speaks out of turn in a meeting with a rival mafia family, Vito rebukes him and suggests his affairs have made him soft.

Jacob is to Esau like Michael is to Sonny, only even closer. On the other hand, though, on the surface, the personalities of each of the pair seem to be similar, key differences in both the characters of each of the brothers and the nature of the relationship are crucial in understanding both the similarities and differences between and the two stories. Sonny saw himself as the protector of his smarter younger brother. But Jacob and Esau are not just brothers, but twins. Further, the struggle with one another supersedes any struggle with rival tribes. As is foretold to their mother, Rebekah,

“Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

One might think that the older one serving the younger would depict the older as the weaker, not the mightier. But the possibility is that the mightier will serve the weaker. So hold your judgement. Esau is the older, and Esau will end up serving the younger. But, as we shall see, Esau will remain the mightier, the one who lives by the sword. But the sword will end up in service to the savant.

Tol’dot is the parsha that tells how that came about. And the story starts with the struggle of the two twins in the womb and then their birth. “When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.” (Genesis 25:4-26) Esau seemed to be like Sonny, rash, impulsive, all strength without the brains to match. Jacob seemed, to a greater extent, akin to Michael Corleone. But similarities can be misleading.

Jacob had his hand on his elder, fraternal rather than identical, twin’s heel. Instead of emerging from the womb after some interval, Jacob is usually portrayed as struggling to supplant and replace his older brother even when in the womb. But that seems to be at variance with the character of Jacob who is portrayed as bookish, retiring and very uncompetitive. In fact, the whole idea of Jacob supplanting his brother comes from their mother, Rebekah, not from Jacob. Jacob’s hand is on Esau’s heel because he will be the one in the end, best able to control and manipulate the passions. (As Rav Kook writes, the heel represents instinctive nature, for the Hebrew words for ‘foot’ and ‘habit,’ regel and hergel, share the same root.) Jacob will be the one able to calculate like his mother, able, as in Plato, to bring the wild horses under the control of the brain through the mediation of real courage.

Jacob means someone who follows at another’s heel. To follow at another’s heel is not the same as following in another’s footsteps and certainly not taking over those footsteps. Some have suggested that the meaning refers to Jacob as “heeled,” that is one who overreaches through cunning. But, as I will try to show, Jacob is initially anything but cunning. Calculating and cautious, yes, but cunning, no. Rebekah is the cunning one, not Jacob. It is she who will conceive the ruse to win Isaac’s blessing. Jacob is the epitome, not of one who insists that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for.” (Robert Browning from his sonnet, Andrea del Sarto) Jacob’ story is not a tale of a character who has zeal, deep passion and an ambitious desire to achieve lofty goals and aspirations. Like many characters in The Torah, he will be chosen to do so in spite of his personality that on the surface makes him out to be quite unsuitable to the task.

Instead, Jacob’s hand took hold of Esau’s heel rather than reaching out on its own towards heaven. Further, though Jacob will win his father’s blessing, he never supplants Esau. The two brothers go their separate ways. Besides, if the Torah meant supplant, then the Hebrew equivalent of the planta, or the sole of the foot, would have been used as a metaphor, not the heel. Jacob does not pursue his older brother’s birthright. He is commanded and guided by his mother to do so. Rather than charging out to beat his brother, Jacob is a momma’s boy. His victories come about by clinging to his brother’s heel, not by supplanting him. They come through some degree of calculation, not by energy and zeal, by obeying his mother’s commandment and not his own inner determination.

Later, he will not emerge as a victor when he wrestles with the angel. He prevails precisely because the match ends in a tie, with Jacob himself wounded and crippled. This is not the portrait of a person whose ambition leads him to supplant his brother. So Jacob is not really like Michael Corleone. When Jacob holds onto the heel of his brother in emerging from the womb, he is not trying to pull Esau back so he can get ahead of him, but clinging to Esau to allow Esau to drag him out of his cozy and protected cave. Jacob is clearly not someone portrayed as overreaching, but someone who depends on another for physical strength.

What about Esau? Is he a Sonny, rash and impulsive, to some degree thick, but very strong? Esau is even often portrayed as the epitome of evil. But there is no evil here. Rather, Esau is the heir of the personality of both Abel – a hunter – and of Cain, who was quick to become angry. Esau combines the traits of those founding brothers and rivals. But, in the tradition of Cain, and like his brother Jacob, Esau will end up a farmer yoked to the land until his restlessness sets him free to once again pursue adventure and daring.

Esau is confident, assertive and competitive, brash but not really rash. Wasn’t he rash in selling his birthright to Jacob in return for a good hot meal? No, he just gave little value to the distant future. He was a man of the moment, someone who liked the hunt and adventure. Aggressive and full of self-confidence, he did not need Jacob’s cautionary approach to ensuring his future. He was assertive and decisive, possessing the typical character of a first-born or only-born. He was a very skilled hunter and loved the outdoors. If he lived today, he might have become a great fighter pilot.

When the boys are grown up and Esau returns from the hunt famished, instead of Jacob simply sharing his meal with him, Jacob insists on a trade, offering him food in exchange for his birthright. Esau seems to have no problem with that. He was totally confident and reliant on his own inherent capacities, unlike his supplicant brother, Jacob. He was skilled in the ways of the world, confident in his ability to make a living. Why would he need to rely on the privileges and rights of primogeniture (bechorah)? He was internally motivated and needed no external props to let him get ahead. Further, the immediacy of life interested him far more than any long-range planning, necessary for one not as well endowed in the ability to make his way on his own. At the moment he was starving, not literally, but hungry for immediate experience of taste, smell and the texture of food. Further, Esau loved his younger brother in a way that Jacob did not reciprocate. As far as Esau was concerned, his brother needed the birthright much more than he did. So he gave it up in exchange for a bowl of hot soup.

This was not so much an impulsive act as a gesture of good will. It was not a rash act, but an action born of someone who is confident, and, unlike Jacob, self-motivated. Esau did not have to ask or rely upon someone else to tell him what to do. Self-reliant, self-motivated, he had full confidence in his own abilities. This did not make him impulsive. A skilled hunter has to be patient, possess highly developed hand-eye coordination, be very earthy and rooted to the ground rather than prone to flights of fancy, esoteric thinking and visionary dreams.

Esau may not have been a profound thinker, but he clearly was no slouch. He just loved action more than reflection, but he had to be of superior analytic skill to be a skilful hunter. He just loved the adrenaline-driven life of action. Essentially, he was a man for whom the excitement of the moment, the smells and tastes of a material and richly embodied life, counted much more than any calculation to protect long-term interests. He loved a driven, fast-paced life, one that led him to marry two Hittite women disapproved of by his parents. Although a hedonist and a materialist, he clearly is quite capable of thinking and reasoning. And there is no evidence of any evil whatsoever.

Further, Esau truly loved his brother. He might have become angry at his brother’s betrayal and his mother’s trickery, but he also proves very forgiving when the two brothers meet up once again after a separation of many years. In fact, Esau proves to be loyal rather than suspicious, trustworthy rather than an opportunist. He may seek to dominate and be restive with service, but that also makes him ill-equipped to rule over others. Esau is NOT evil. Only an elitist bookish nerd might consider him as an evil person. He is simply an extrovert, a man of few words and very driven, pushed by his inner compulsions and instincts more than careful deliberation. He is also very agreeable and personable, in contrast to Jacob, who is somewhat of a coward, calculating and clever in figuring out how to protect himself, but not driven to dominate or have power over others. Esau wants to experience life. Jacob wants to give in service to the future. Esau has a synchronic personality. Jacob has a diachronic one.

Before I try to defend that position any further and my interpretation of how Jacob succeeds through trickery in winning his father’s blessing ostensibly meant for Esau, in the beginning of the next half of this commentary, I will focus on the rewards themselves and analyze each of the blessings.

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

by

Howard Adelman

See Rachel Adelman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDz_isnR0RI) “Reading Rebekah Unveiled: A Study of the Female Ruse in Genesis” presented at the Harvard Divinity School last spring.

There is nothing original in my interpretation, in contrast to that of my daughter. I simply fuse her innovative reading with those of others and my own. I steal freely from my daughter, but I take full responsibility for what I have written. Though there are differences over the particulars, the general meaning is more or less clear and my take is not idiosyncratic. The parsha is called, “The Life of Sarah,” but it is really about her afterlife and the heritage she left behind, both through her only son Isaac and herself as resurrected in Rebekah. For the parsha is about both Abraham’s negotiations for a burial space for Sarah after Sarah died as well as about obtaining a wife for Isaac and its consequence. It is about the meaning of Sarah’s life as it is revealed in the unveiling of spirit as it is realized in history after her death.

Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba, in Hebron. Sarah is buried there in the Cave of Machpelah with the permission of the local people who offer not only the cave, but the field around it to Abraham who is by then a wealthy and notable person. However, Abraham refuses to accept the grave site as a gift and insists on paying for it. To repeat what I have written before, this is an axial moment of the shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Some of the local people of Canaan, specifically the Hittites, may have converted to the belief in a single God. Yet what is now called the West Bank is not seen as a place from which a proper wife can be found for Isaac. Isaac is not allowed to have a bride from the local people. The locals, even when they have adopted the beliefs of the Hebrews, are not into a contractual system. They look askance at getting 400 shekels from Abraham for the burial site. Ephron initially treats the offer as an insult. But Abraham insists on paying the money. He wants a contract, a quid pro quo. With contracts there is guilt, either before the law or in moral terms, for failing to fulfil the terms of the contract.

Yet, Abraham wants a wife for Isaac who does not have initially to be observant, but one who is akin to his own beautiful wife, Sarah, someone from his own homeland. Isaac really loved his mother. Three years after she died, he is still mourning her death. He needs a wife, but he needs a wife to replace and fill his soul as his mother had. His mother had been dedicated to him, her long promised son, born of her old age. But she could not prevent her husband from taking him off to sacrifice him. And she dies when her husband and son return. From the shock of his return? Is that why she dies? Or is she the real sacrifice so that her son may finally leave his studies and his prayers and go in search of a wife to replace the love she had for him. It is ironic that a child named after laughter turns out to be studious, pious and introverted.

Sarah’s death produces in her other-worldly nerdy son a desire for a wife, a desire for a woman that can fill his mother’s shoes. Isaac is a momma’s boy. Sarah sacrifices herself for the future of her son. And Abraham sends his most trusted servant to organize an arranged marriage between Isaac and someone from the homeland, the place of his and Sarah’s birth. Unlike the tradition of arranged marriages, this is a love story, a story of two who contract the marriage themselves in spite of whatever external arrangements have been made.

Eliezer, Abraham’s most trusted servant, travels to Mesopotamia to seek a wife for Isaac. Before Eliezer can arrange a shidduch, organize an arranged marriage, he sees Rebekah at the well at dusk when the women draw their water. Rebekah happens to be the niece of Abraham. the daughter of Bethuel, son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Rebekah offers Eliezer not only water from her jar, but also water for all his camels. That is about 250 gallons; she has to draw all that water. Camels can really drink water! Eliezer is overwhelmed. Rebekah has passed the test of loving kindness.

Rebekah is unique in the Torah. She is the only one of the matriarchs who is given a family tree and is chosen as the real mother of the Jewish people. She is the essence of the Jewish people – giving to another out of sheer goodwill. Only then does Eliezer learn that she is related to Abraham. Rebekah’s older brother was Lavan. Eliezer tells Lavan of the dowry that awaits Rebekah if he agrees to give Rebekah as Isaac’s wife. But Lavan knows his sister’s character, her independence of mind, forthrightness and wilfulness, even though she is also kind-hearted. He knows he cannot force her to leave her homeland. And he asks Eliezer, what if she chooses not to come? Eliezer replies that it will depend on God’s will, with the implication that God’s spirit will speak through her actions. It does. She is asked whether she will go to a new land, to Isaac. She, without hesitation, says, “I will go.”

She and Isaac fall in love, but not because the two are related. That is only revealed later. But because they are related, the love may have come easier. Isaac falls in love with Rebekah. Rebekah in turn loves Isaac. The love seems instant. But is it? How does it come about?

Look at the way they first see each other. Isaac continues and is heir to the blindness of Adam and in his old age he will actually be physically blind when he has to give the blessing to one of his own sons. For when Isaac first sees Rebekah, he does not actually see her. He sees camels approaching in the distance and the picture is a haze produced by the sand of the camels’ feet. He sees patience and tolerance. He sees long-suffering and endurance. He sees the Ships of the Desert. In that haze is the hidden Rebekah, someone who is calm and collected, direct and responsive on the surface, but underneath is resolute and will never forget. She will protect and eventually realize what is deepest in her heart, not with malice aforethought, but through cunning and subversion. Finally, she will carry that burden of trickery on her shoulders so that her son Jacob will not be burdened with the guilt of tricking his father. She will be the true purveyor of what it means to belong to a guilt culture.

Isaac, on the other hand, is walking with his camels. Rebekah can clearly see him. She is struck in awe. She knows. But knows as Eve knew in a deeper way than requiring any direct test or examination. Though she has the ability of this inner sight, it is she who is attuned to the smell of the camels, the taste of the sand, and the rest of the unforgettable sensuous experience of that first moment.

Rebekah covers her face, but in embarrassment, not in shame. She is awestruck. And the gesture will adumbrate her whole marriage with Isaac. For although she never surrenders her esteem for him, for his holy ways, for his learning, she herself will reveal that she has a more direct access to God. She need not receive instructions or revelations from Isaac. She can get them directly from God. But she must also veil this non-rational, non-deliberative direct intuitive contact with the spiritual world. That part of herself must remain hidden from Isaac. She does not don a naqib because her parents tell her, but to hide her awe, to hide her embarrassment at her flushed cheeks and feelings, and most of all, to hide that SHE KNOWS. For a woman of audacity even as a young teenager, of decisiveness and one who clearly knows her own mind, she also has to hide her superior access to God’s word in spite of her enormous respect for her husband.

One cannot avoid that the story is about love. But what kind of love? For Rebekah it is love at first sight. This is the only real love story in the whole of Torah. Yet the section is called “The Life of Sarah”. Last week I jumped ahead to understand Sarah’s death to comprehend her character and the role she plays. But this tale ends up being about the lifelong love story between Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac loves Rebekah all his life. The parsha is not ostensibly about Sarah. Yet it is called the story of the life of Sarah when it is about what happens after Sarah dies. But it is a story of how love begins and grows between Rebekah and Isaac. He not only never takes another wife, he never sleeps with another woman. What has this love story to do with Sarah’s death?

Because Rebekah is very forthright, though also very modest, she literally falls for Isaac at first sight. She falls off her camel and then puts on her veil to hide her flushed cheeks. She is embarrassed at what she feels. She is also afraid – not of Isaac, but at what she is feeling. Instead of Abraham’s fear and trembling when he takes Isaac to fill the command of the sacrifice, we have awe and embarrassment.

Isaac, is also overwhelmed by her kindness, by her loving kindness, her hesed. Though she is described as beautiful, he cannot see that physical beauty since she wears a veil, but he does see the beauty of her character. The match is beshert. It was meant to be. So though there is an element of preparation, of calculation and judgement by Abraham’s servant, a response to what is observed, what basically happens is that each is struck with Cupid’s arrow. They barely talk to one another. He knows but requires evidence to come to that knowledge, the very evidence Abraham’s servant brings back to Canaan. It is akin to the same type of empirical evidence that will later fool him when he gives his blessing to Jacob rather than Esau. Though they love one another, Rebekah is also the trickster without whom Isaac could not have fulfilled his mission. Requiring evidence is Isaac’s weakness.

Rebekah, in contrast, knows directly. She does not need evidence. But why for Isaac is she the right one? She is a woman from Abraham’s homeland in Mesopotamia and not yet a follower of Abraham’s faith in the belief in the one God. Isaac is religious and sees her after he finished his afternoon prayers. He does not fall in love because she observes the same faith in the one God, but because she comes from the same homeland as Sarah. And because she is a very kind woman. She is sensitive. She can pick up social cues that go beneath appearances. But like Abraham, resolutely and immediately, she decides to leave her homeland as a young teenager to return with Isaac. She is very decisive. She is very straight. She knows what she wants. There is no hesitation. The spirit of Abraham is now to be transmitted through Rebekah even though Isaac is the pious one.

Isaac and Rebekah remain faithful to one another their whole lives. It is indeed a love story. But this is not because they were totally compatible. They are not. They come from opposite poles of human existence. They are two very different characters. Isaac is other-worldly. Rebekah is very grounded. Further, Rebekah has to trick Isaac – this other-worldly nerd – into giving his blessing to Jacob and not to Esau. Isaac is a social conformist who believes in continuing the tradition of bestowing the blessing on the older one. But Rebekah, like Abraham, is the rebel. Primogeniture be damned. She knows what social science and psychology will discover in the twentieth century, that first-borns tend to be rash and adventurous – they become the fighter pilots. Second-borns have a propensity to be more reflective, more contemplative, more cautious.

Rebekah chooses Isaac to get the blessing, not because she does not love Esau, her other twin and older son. But she is the one with common sense who recognizes the child who can best carry the future of a people on his shoulders. Rebekah is not only the epitome of loving kindness, but she is shrewd and calculating, careful to take into account the best interests of her family and both her children. She knows what Isaac can never know even with all his time spent in study.

Rebekah, however, is not the woman who divides her family, but the one who yokes the two different peoples that will arise from her children. As her name suggests, she is the link that ties differences together, between her and her husband and between her two very different sons. She recognizes the real differences between the twins. She is the true visionary. But she will pay for her sin of foresight by assuming the guilt for the trick played on Isaac. She remains to the very end a woman of virtue, a woman wiling to give of herself for the future.

Parshat Vayeira: Genesis 18:1-22:24

Halloween is a holiday of masquerades and disguises, a time of playful exploring and giving oneself an alternative identity. It is an evening of devilish and subversive laughter, of transforming the self – so appropriate to what Sarah had to do to imagine and then once again become a young fertile woman capable of giving birth. Giving birth, more precisely, to Yitzchak, to laughter itself, to an expression of pure joy. As Sarah says after she gives birth (Genesis 21:6) “God made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me”

Parshat Vayeira: Genesis 18:1-22:24

To my daughter Rachel who informed and so inspired this commentary and whose new book, Female of the Ruse: Deception and Divine Sanction in the Bible, has just come off the press. See also Rachel Adelman, “On Laughter and Re-membering” in Nashim 8 (2004), 230-244. However, I take full responsibility for what I have written.

by

Howard Adelman

“What is comical…is the subjectivity that makes its own actions contradictory and so brings them to nothing.” G. W. F. Hegel

This is one of the most important sections in the Torah for the Jewish people. It is a compilation of multiple stories, as are the various series we watch on Netflix or the intertwining plots of novels. In a very short space, those stories include:

  1. The visit of the three strangers to Abraham (Avraham) and the revelation that Sarah would have a son;
  2. Sarah’s laughter at the promise;
  3. Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom;
  4. The story of Lot, his two virgin daughters and his wife who became a pillar of salt;
  5. The daughters sleep with Lot and give birth of Moab and Ben-Ammi, the patriarch of Ammon;
  6. Abraham tells Egyptians that Sarah is his sister who becomes a concubine of Abimelech, king of Gerar;
  7. Birth of a son, Isaac (Yitzchak), to Sarah;
  8. Circumcision of Isaac at 8 days old;
  9. Story of Sarah casting out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness;
  10. Hagar’s weeping and God’s promise to Hagar;
  11. Covenant between Abraham and Abimelech;
  12. Sacrifice of Isaac: , הִנֶּנִּי

This is then followed by the Begats, including the birth of Rebeccah to Abraham’s nephew Bethuel, as the transition to the next parsha.

In an earlier blog I referred to the half lie that Abraham told the Egyptians, that his wife was his sister (she was his half-sister), but he did not tell Abimelech that Sarah was his wife. In this blog, I will concentrate on the visit of the three strangers who promise that Sarah would have a son and then an analysis of her response – inner derision. But I will also jump ahead to one aspect of the sacrifice of Isaac – the Akeida – and, unfortunately, skip the rest.

Chapter 18 begins with a revelation when Abraham is resting in his tent recovering from his own circumcision. Just after he was initiated into the covenant with God in the last parsha, he was personally directly promised by God that he and Sarah would have a son. He rolled over in laughter at the craziness of the idea that he and Sarah, at their ages, could conceive and give birth to a son. At the beginning of this section, three men appear before Abraham. (I will ignore the connection and disconnection between this story and the three wise men who appear before the parents of Jesus in the manger as told in the Christian New Testament.) They are usually interpreted to be three angels, in Midrash – Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Abraham prostrates himself before them, insists he is their servant and invites them in for food and a fresh bath. He prepares a feast of the finest of his produce and herds.

As the three feasted, Abraham is asked where his wife was. Were they there eager to take advantage of her? Was that why Abraham prostrated himself before them to appease them? Evidently not. For one of the men (angels?) said that he would return in a year and Sarah, who for decades had been barren, in her old age would give birth to a son. This was a promise that God had already conveyed directly to Abraham. Clearly, this message was intended for Sarah who stood hidden in the doorway of the tent, but not in the line of vision of the guests. Sarah, as it is told, laughed inside. Her private and unshared laugh contrasted with that of Abraham when he received the prophecy earlier and guffawed openly and publicly because he thought that his bearing a son at his and Sarah’s age was ludicrous and just the biggest joke that he had ever heard. In this passage, when Sarah heard the prophecy, she did not just see it as a joke. Instead, in her heart she mocked the idea that she, well beyond the age of giving birth to a baby, and Abraham, who was also old, could give birth to a child. Sarah was rebuked, not simply for laughing to herself in derision, but then for lying when she denied that she had laughed.

My daughter in her commentary on this section asked, “Why is Sarah rebuked for having laughed, when Abraham responds similarly with impunity?” God addressed Abraham directly. But it is not clear who rebukes Sarah who was the one who laughed inwardly at the idea, who chuckled inside instead of convulsed on the floor. Among the interpreters, there are three possibilities about who rebuked Sarah – God, one of the angels or Abraham. In the first interpretation, God insists that no miracle is too hard for Him. Sarah denies then that she laughed at the idea, but God insists that he knew that she laughed even though it was a silent mockery. In the second interpretation, the rebuke comes indirectly from God via an angel and God never addresses her directly. In the third interpretation, it is Abraham who rebukes her (Ramban). In all three interpretations, this would mean her transformation was not a self-transformation, but one mediated by another. But an angel lacks such power. And certainly Abraham does. Onlt God could both know and facilitate the transformation.

The story then suddenly turns away to the men leaving and heading for Sodom. Somehow there is a connection between the denial of the responsibility for laughing and the destruction that will be meted out to the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Recall last week in the commentary on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, that there too Eve denied what she had done. But for her, it was an overt act. For Sarah, it was just an inner thought and a smile within. But the issue is really not whether what they did could be seen. Sarah and Eve, instead of taking responsibility for how they responded to a commandment, tried to hide their response, cover it up. So Sarah represents a continuity, a refusal to own up to what she did. Are they both passive aggressors, indirectly hostile towards God and His control? After all, God controls her destiny, was responsible for her barren state and now the prospect of giving birth. On the other hand, Sarah represents embodiment, someone who discovers in her old age that she has a body and what it is for. Laughter, after all, is the expression of the joy in life, of celebration for life’s riches as when Proverbs 31:25 says, “she laughs unto the end of days.” But laughter can also be cruel and punitive.

There is another link to the Adam and Eve story. In the latter, Adam saw Eve as a projection of himself. He did not recognize her as an individual, as an Other with desires of her own. And he did not recognize his body as his own but projected it as an Other. He disowned desire in both ways. In this story, it is Sarah who had done the projecting. She sees her own body as barren and projects that infertility onto Abraham. Just as Adam reduced Eve to a projection of himself, Sarah now sees Abraham as a projection of herself. Whereas Adam denied Eve subjectivity and agency, Sarah now does this not only to herself but to Abraham as well. Instead of defining herself in terms of unlimited and unboundaried desire, she has compressed herself into an empty vessel incapable of giving any type of birth. However, whereas both Adam and Eve felt ashamed and engaged in a cover-up, there is no suggestion that Sarah did. Though she initially did not take responsibility for what she did, she could not have transformed herself miraculously into a fecund woman if she had not.

With this foundation, we can jump to the last few stories that circle around and then the famous tale of the Akeida, the sacrifice of Isaac. Is Sarah punished for her inner mockery, for she dies after the Akeida in the next parsha, but Abraham and Isaac do not? The commentators are all over the place on this event. Was she punished then for how she greeted the promise or because she kicked out Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness? Or did she die content knowing that she had served God’s purpose in giving birth to Isaac and that she had always had faith in both God and Abraham, so much so that she left Isaac in Abraham’s hands, knowing and trusting that he would be protected by God when he went out of the household to sacrifice Isaac? Or did she die as a sacrifice for her son, becoming the real substitute for the sacrifice? The ram was only symbolic.

ust re-enact the subsequent scene of the ostensible sacrifice. Abraham has been commanded by God to give up his long-promised son as a sacrifice. Isaac is only told by his father, but willingly accompanies him knowing at least that something is up and that he is at risk. Yet he goes quiescently. Sarah gets the situation without having been told by either God or her husband. Does she think she was being punished for mocking God’s promise? Why is she not described as going into a hysterical fit as her husband and son leave on this ominous journey? Some say she was punished for her lack of belief. Others say she was rewarded in heaven for her stoical performance, a much more difficult role than that assigned to Abraham.

I think the key clue to understanding the story and Sarah’s role in it is comprehending the meaning of her inner mockery. When we mock someone – in this case the someone is God – we smile on the outside and feel contempt on the inside.  We are duplicitous. In Psalm 2:4, it is written that, “He who sits in the heavens smiles, God mocks him.” So if you are in an argument with a raving person who shows no respect for factual evidence or logical reasoning, one may respond with a smirk even more than a smile. Inside you feel only contempt for that person. Was this Sarah’s response to the three men or angels who came by and whom she heard promise Abraham that she, Sarah, would have a baby within a year?

But how is it alright for God to engage in mockery of man? Further, why is God’s mockery aimed at those totally self-contented with themselves as if they were in perfect heaven? Perhaps the three men were neither angels nor even wise men, but men who had perhaps witnessed that Abraham had been given the promise by God and they were taking advantage of the situation and enjoying their indulgence at Abraham’s expense. Further, how could God ever engage in making fun of someone else or even just mentally doing so? Does not justice require empathy and understanding rather than a secret put-down? Is not a just woman one who is forthright about what she sees and hears and not duplicitous about her own feelings and thoughts?

If rolling on the floor laughter is positivity, derisive laughter is negativity. Rebuke and overcoming of that negativity is a negation of negativity and laughter becomes the instrument of the lightness of being, of spirit.

So what are we to make of the original derisive laughter? Is it the case, as they say, that falsehood is the coin and ideological fabric of public life? After all, it is not clear that Abraham has told Isaac where they are going and why, because Isaac asks where the sacrifice is. On the other hand, though Isaac could easily resist his elderly father, he cooperates fully in being tied up and put on the altar. So there is not only an issue of the moral perspective but of the facts, of truth itself. It is not sufficient that Isaac be saved by an external and contingent miracle. There must be a facing of the truth, a very deep understanding of the miraculous, a way in which truth can once again be aligned.

Recall as well that we are in an axial period of transition from a shame to a guilt culture. In mocking the message, Sarah reveals she belonged to a shame culture. While Abraham when he arrived in his new land refused a gift of land lest he be beholden to another and shamed into submission, insisted on buying the land via a contract with terms clearly spelled out. Sarah challenges the shame culture, but in a radically different and even more profound way. For once rebuked, she rebukes herself. God’s voice is her own. She rises to the occasion, transforms herself, accepts the miracle of the promise and fully realizes herself as a sexual and fertile being. This is a true realization of subjectivity, of an elevation of the self and of self-consciousness. Objectively, the transformation is impossible. Nor is the transformation the result of any inter-subjective relation with another person in love or out of friendship. It is a process of self-transformation. But it is not without cost. For when her son, her only son, is taken away to be sacrificed, the pain becomes too much. In a perverse way, she died because she laughed. Abraham and Isaac both survive the Akeida, but Sarah does not. This was the cental message of my play, “Kill Yourself Laughing”.

Sarah was reborn in order both to become pregnant and to give birth. She became fertile and no longer barren because she was enabled to overcome the boundaries and, literally, give birth to real laughter, not scorn and derision, but laughter that is shared. Instead of dying and being reborn, Sarah is reborn, gives birth and then dies. She is the foundational sacrifice on which the Jews will build a nation.