(This is an update version of a piece I wrote some years ago – jjg)
Before we move on to Parshat Toledot, a question: Why indeed did Abraham send Eliezer to Aram Naharayim to find a bride for Isaac? True, the folk of Canaan were nothing to brag about. But then, neither were the people of his hometown – as evidenced by Laban the master sneak, and the one who the Talmud labels “Arami oved avi” – the Aramean who would destroy my father – something for which no contemporary Canaanite has even been credited.
Toledot ends with Jacob being sent off to Laban’s house by his parents. Rebecca instigates this move ostensibly fearing for Jacob’s life owing to Esau’s wrath over his stealing his blessing.
Isaac agrees to dispatch Jacob thinking it is so that his younger son might fetch himself a non-Canaanite bride. Clearly Isaac is being tricked here by his wife: “And she tells Isaac, I am disgusted by the daughters of Het. Should Jacob take a wife from among them, what is the point to my living? (Genesis 26:46)
This is the first time there is any discussion between the two regarding any problem with the local girls. Indeed it is the first and only time we know of that any conversation takes place between Isaac and Rebecca altogether. And Rebecca clearly lies to Isaac in providing a reason for sending Jacob away. Rather than tell him the truth, she suggests to Isaac the very reason Abraham ostensibly sent Eliezer to Haran.
Isaac obviously prefers walking safely in the very footprints of his father, never taking any initiatives or decisions that might differ from Abraham’s, even if he does not necessarily grasp Abraham’s logic in making these decisions — and even if such a decision might be unnecessary in his case.
For example, upon arriving in Grar, Isaac copies Abraham’s deceit; “And Isaac settled in Grar” (Genesis 26:6-7). When asked regarding his wife he said “She is my sister”. Clearly the folks in Grar know very well who Isaac is and who his father was, and what had happened when Abraham had visited previously. Thus it can be assumed that Isaac was quite safe being Rebecca’s husband, as Abimelech was not likely to make the same mistake twice. Can it be that Isaac was merely copycatting his father needlessly as was his habit, as he lacked the wherewithal to capably make original decisions of his own?
The Philistines were aware of Isaac’s lineage, as they knew precisely which wells to destroy; “And all the wells that his father’s slave had dug in Abraham’s time were plugged by the Philistines and filled with dirt” (26:15) – clearly then they had known Abraham, knew who Isaac was, and, again, Isaac was merely stepping in his father’s footprints. “And he (Isaac) called them the same names his father had called them” (26:!8).
Which brings us back to the question; Why did Abraham send Eliezer to Haran to find a bride for Isaac? Can it be that it was PRECISELY because he wanted for his son a girl who had the same cunning and capacity for deceit as her brother Laban? Did Abraham, realizing that his son Isaac lacked the clarity and intelligence to make the right decisions, choose for him a bride who had the necessary cunning to prevent his son from making a catastrophic mistake that would terminate Abraham’s legacy virtually at the starting gate?
It is abundantly clear that Rebecca’s role — and it is pivotal — was not only to be the mother of Israel but to be Laban’s sister (as she is repeatedly described) in her talent for chicanery, subterfuge, and outright lies in order to effect history’s trajectory.
And, indeed, it might well be that she, in turn, sent Jacob to Laban not because she was disgusted by the Hittite girls, and not because she feared for his life at Esau’s hand, but rather because she wanted Jacob, “the innocent dweller of tents” (Genesis 25:24) to acquire the necessary skills to survive and flourish as the patriarch of his progeny. For, as we will see in Parshat Vayetze, Jacob indeed learns his lesson well, ultimately outmaneuvering the crafty Laban who by example serves as his professor of deceit.
This brings us back to the whole business of Canaanite girls. The first intimation we have of there being any prejudice against the local females comes after the Torah tells us that Esau took “Judith bat Beeri the Hittite and Basmat bat Elon the Hittite” as wives (Genesis 25:34). The following verse then states; “And there was bitterness for Isaac and Rebecca.” (25:35). This is the last verse in Chapter 25. However I would suggest that it has nothing to do with Esau’s choice of wives and everything to do with the following chapter which relates the crucial saga of Isaac’s blessing which he intended for Esau and which Rebecca intended for Jacob. Surely this was the bitterness – the bitterness between a husband and wife who have a fundamental and unbridgeable disagreement whose outcome will determine the course of history.
The chapter divisions in the Torah are not Jewish in origin. The Torah was never carved up by our Sages into chapters. We merely use the conventional divisions that were initiated by Christian scholars. It is thus entirely possible that they erred in designating this verse as the concluding sentence of Chapter 25 rather than making it the opening verse of chapter 26 which would make a GREAT DEAL more sense.
Furthermore, this very sentence has a curious pause in it, an etnahta between the first half “And there was bitterness” and the second half “for Isaac and Rebecca”. Grammatically there is NO reason for an etnahta here. Indeed the etnahta makes the entire verse almost unintelligible UNLESS we understand it to signify the rupture between Isaac and Rebecca rather than one between the two parents and Esau.
Esau in this regard is clueless. The first time he gets wind of his father objecting to Canaanite women comes after Isaac agrees to send Jacob away at the very end of the Parsha; “And Esau saw that the girls of Canaan were bad in his father’s eyes” (28:8) And, so, realizing this for the very first time, Esau turns to Ishamael in order to take Nahalat, Abraham’s granddaughter as a wife “above” his other wives.
The utter lack of communication between Isaac and Rebecca is obvious throughout – from the moment Rebecca sets her eyes on Isaac in Hayyei Sarah and throughout Toledot. At the very beginning of Toledot, long after her marriage to Isaac, when Rebecca is finally pregnant and her fetuses are running amok in her womb – yes BOTH boys – “Vayitrotzezu ha-banim” (Genesis 25:22) she is told in prophecy “V‘rav yaavod tzair” (25:23), and the elder shall serve the younger. Surely she should have shared this critical piece of information with Isaac? And surely Isaac should have paid heed? Can anyone imagine a wife NOT bringing such critical information to her husband’s attention?
Clearly, Rebecca felt that in the case of Isaac there was no one to really talk to. Had the relationship been more normal, a great deal of the sturm und drang, deceit and subterfuge, lies and displacement that make Toledot such fascinating reading might have been completely unnecessary.