Our Torah stories are the same every year. But as we change and grow, we find new ideas and understandings in the same old stories.
In the verses from Toldot that we just heard, Isaac is old and his eyes have grown dim. He is preparing to die, and he wants to give his firstborn son a special blessing. Esau and Jacob are twins, but Esau was born first. Isaac sends Esau off to hunt, saying, “bring me back some stew and I’ll bless you.”
That’s when Rebecca steps in, instructing Jacob to fetch a couple of goats. She’ll make a stew that he can bring to his father, and that way, he’ll get his father’s blessing. “But Mom,” says Jacob, “Esau is hairy and I’m not. If Dad touches my arm, he’ll see me as a trickster and I’ll get a curse, not a blessing!”
“If he curses you, let the curse be on me,” says Rebecca. “Just do what I told you to do.” So he does, and she covers him with Esau’s clothes and with goat skins so he feels hairy to the touch. He takes the stew to his dad. He claims to be Esau. He gets his father’s special firstborn-oriented deathbed blessing.
When Esau gets home, he’s furious. He begs his father for a blessing, and the blessing he gets is not a very happy one. Esau starts muttering about how he’s going to kill Jacob as soon as their dad dies. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee, and that’s what sends him off on his big life’s journey.
In previous years, reading this story, I’ve thought about how in the ancient world the older son was always supposed to inherit. Yet throughout Genesis, it’s the younger son who gets lifted up. Maybe Torah’s teaching us that status, or birth order, doesn’t determine our fate.
I’ve thought about how Jacob, whose name means “Heel” because he emerged from the womb clutching Esau’s heel, is kind of being a heel here. It feels like poetic justice when his uncle Laban tricks him into marrying the wrong sister. Maybe Torah’s teaching us that the karma of our choices stays with us.
This year, all I can think is: Rebecca in this story is really not teaching the kind of moral lesson that I wish for. It looks like she wants to make sure her favorite kid gets the blessing, so she tells him to trick his father by pretending to be someone he’s not? I don’t feel good about that.
Earlier in the story, when pregnant, Rebecca asks God why it feels like there’s warfare in her womb. God tells her that two nations struggle inside her, and that the older will serve the younger. Maybe that’s why midrash teaches that she was a prophet: she knew that Jacob had a special destiny.
Maybe she was practicing what would later be called consequentialism: as long as the outcome is good, then the act that produced that outcome must be moral, right? If it gets us to “Jacob becomes the ancestor of the Jewish people,” then whatever steps she took to get there must be okay?
I disagree. How we work toward our goals matters at least as much as whatever those goals are. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. I would never instruct my child to pretend to be someone he’s not, even if there were some kind of reward for that pretending.
And generally speaking, Jewish tradition takes integrity really seriously. Rambam teaches that we should never “be one thing in mouth and another in heart,” that our insides should match our outsides, that deceiving another human being is like stealing their mind and we should never do it.
So why are most of our sages okay with what Rebecca did here? Most of the sages of Jewish tradition argue that this wasn’t really a deception, because our mystics teach that Jacob’s soul was formed first in the womb. His essence was special. They see Rebecca as helping Jacob become who he truly is.
My friend R. Mike Moskowitz compares it to someone coming out and changing their clothing style. When Jacob changes his outward appearance, with Esau’s borrowed clothes and the goat skins on his arms, now his dad is finally able to experience him as he’s always seen himself, as he truly is.
I like that interpretation. I agree that parents need to see our kids as they truly are! But for me, it’s a stretch to read these verses that way. If we choose to do that, I think we need to be honest with ourselves that we’re doing a lot of work to make Rebecca’s actions okay when on the surface, they just aren’t.
Maybe what Torah is teaching us here is that even our patriarchs and matriarchs were human just like us, and they made mistakes, just like us.
Because even if you want to argue that only the outcomes matter — the choice that Rebecca makes harms Esau, at minimum. And I think we can make a case that this choice harms Jacob and Isaac’s relationship, too. Even if her intentions were good, Rebecca’s choice has negative impacts on the entire family.
(Just wait until you see how Jacob’s kids treat each other. Let’s just say the unfortunate tradition of parental favoritism doesn’t stop here, and the next generation is a little bit of a mess as a result. Maybe you remember a kid named Joseph, whose brothers hate him so much they sell him into slavery…)
I wish that Rebecca had been able to say to Jacob: don’t worry about your brother, just go be real with your dad. Tell him you love him, and ask him for the blessing you most need. Ask him for the blessing you’re going to need after he dies. Ask him for the blessing that will help you set off on life’s journey.
And as for me, I bless you to be continually growing and changing, to wrestle with our traditions and with God, and to always act with integrity as you live into the wholeness of who you are. I wish that Rebecca had been able to say something like that to Jacob. But at least I can say it now to you.
This is Rabbi Rachel’s d’varling from Shabbat morning services at CBI (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)