J.J Gross

Rivka– truly the sister of Lavan, and Yaakov finally starts to grow up

Before we move on to Parshat Toledot and Vayetze, a question: Why indeed did Avraham send Eliezer to Aram Naharayim to find a bride for Yitzhak? True, the folk of Canaan were nothing to brag about. But then, neither were the people of his hometown – as evidenced by Lavan 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 Yaakov being sent off to Lavan’s house by his parents. Rivka instigates this move ostensibly fearing for Yaakov’s life on account of Esav’s wrath over his stealing his blessing.

Yitzhak agrees to dispatch Yaakov thinking it is so that his younger son might fetch himself a non-Canaanite bride. Clearly Yitzhak is being tricked here by his wife:

וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רִבְקָה֙ אֶל־יִצְחָ֔ק קַ֣צְתִּי בְחַיַּ֔י מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנ֣וֹת חֵ֑ת אִם־לֹקֵ֣חַ יַֽ֠עֲקֹ֠ב אִשָּׁ֨המִבְּנֽוֹת־חֵ֤ת כָּאֵ֨לֶּה֙ מִבְּנ֣וֹת הָאָ֔רֶץ לָ֥מָּה לִּ֖י חַיִּֽים:
And she tells Yitzhak, I am disgusted by the daughters of Het. Should Yaakov take a wife from among them, what is the point to my living? (Bereishit 27:46)

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 Yitzhak and  Rivka altogether. And Rivka clearly lies to Yitzhak in providing a reason for sending Yaakov away. Rather than tell him the truth, she suggests to Yitzhak the very reason Avraham ostensibly sent Eliezer to Haran.

Yitzhak obviously prefers walking safely in the very footprints of his father, never taking any initiatives or decisions that might differ from Avraham’s, even if he does not necessarily grasp Avraham’s logic in making these decisions — and even if such a decision might be unnecessary in his case.

For example, upon arriving in Grar, Yitzhak copies Avraham’s deceit;

וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב יִצְחָ֖ק בִּגְרָֽר  וַיִּשְׁאֲל֞וּ אַנְשֵׁ֤י הַמָּקוֹם֙ לְאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֑וא כִּ֤י יָרֵא֙ לֵאמֹ֣ר אִשְׁתִּ֔י פֶּן־יַֽהַרְגֻ֜נִי אַנְשֵׁ֤י הַמָּקוֹם֙ עַל־רִבְקָ֔ה כִּֽי־טוֹבַ֥ת מַרְאֶ֖ה הִֽוא|

And Isaac settled in Grar”  When asked regarding his wife he said “She is my sister”. (Bereishit 26:6-7).

Clearly the folks in Grar know very well who Yizhak is and who his father was, and what had happened when Avraham had visited previously. Thus it can be assumed that Yitzhak was quite safe being Rivka’s husband, as Avimelech was hardly likely to make the same mistake twice. Can it be that Yitzhak was merely copycatting his father needlessly as was his habit, as he lacked the sense to capably make original decisions of his own?

The Philistines were aware of Yitzhak’s lineage, as they knew precisely which wells to destroy;

וְכָל־הַבְּאֵרֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו בִּימֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יו סִתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וַיְמַלְא֖וּם עָפָֽר:
And all the wells that his father’s slave had dug in Avraham’s time were plugged by the Philistines and filled with dirt (26:15)

Clearly then they had known Avraham, knew who Yitzhak was. Once again Yitzhak was merely stepping in his father’s footprints.

וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו:
And he (Yitzhak) called them the same names his father had called them (26:!8).

Which brings us back to the question; Why did Avraham send Eliezer to Haran to find a bride for Yitzhak? 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 Lavan? Did Avraham, realizing that his son Yitzhak 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 Avraham’s legacy virtually at the starting gate?

It is abundantly clear that Rivka’s role — and it is pivotal — was not only to be the mother of Israel, but to be Lavan’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 Yaakov to Lavan not because she was disgusted by the Hittite girls, and not because she feared for his life at Esav’s hand, but rather because she wanted Yaakov, “the naive dweller of tents” (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, Yaakov indeed learns his lesson well, ultimately outmaneuvering the crafty Lavan 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

וַיִּקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ אֶת־יְהוּדִ֔ית בַּת־בְּאֵרִ֖י הַֽחִתִּ֑י וְאֶת־בָּ֣שְׂמַ֔ת בַּת־אֵילֹ֖ן הַֽחִתִּֽי
(that Esav) bi Yehudit bat Beeri the Hittite and Basmat bat Elon the Hittite” as wives (25:34).

The following verse then states;

וַתִּֽהְיֶ֖יןָ מֹ֣רַת ר֑וּחַ לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּלְרִבְקָֽה
And there was bitterness for Yitzhak and Rivka. (25:35).

This is the last verse in Chapter 25. However I would suggest that it has nothing to do with Esav’s choice of wives and everything to do with the following chapter which relates the crucial saga of Yitzhak’s blessing which he intended for Esav and which Rivka intended for Yaakov. 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 of Jewish origin. The Torah was never carved up by our Sages into chapters. We merely use the conventional divisions that were introduced 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 וַתִּֽהְיֶ֖יןָ מֹ֣רַת ר֑וּחַ  And there was bitterness and the second half לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּלְרִבְקָֽה for Yitzhak and Rivka.

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 Yitzhak and Rivka rather than one between the two parents and Esav.

Esav in this regard is clueless. The first time he gets wind of his father objecting to Canaanite women comes after Yitzhak agrees to send Yaakov away at the very end of the Parsha;

וַיַּ֣רְא עֵשָׂ֔ו כִּ֥י רָע֖וֹת בְּנ֣וֹת כְּנָ֑עַן בְּעֵינֵ֖י יִצְחָ֥ק אָבִֽיו
And Esav saw that the girls of Canaan were bad in his father’s eyes  (28:8)

And, so, realizing this for the very first time, Esav turns to Yishmael in order to take Nahalat, Avraham’s granddaughter, as a wife “above” his other wives.

The utter lack of communication between Yitzhak and Rivka is obvious throughout – from the moment Rivka sets her eyes on Yitzhak in Hayyei Sarah and throughout Toledot.

At the very beginning of Toledot, 20 years after her marriage to Yitzhak, when Rivka is finally pregnant and her fetuses are running amok in her womb – yes BOTH boys­ וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ (25:22) she is told in prophecy וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר (25:23), and the elder shall serve the younger.

Surely she should have shared this critical piece of information with her husband? And surely Yitzhak should have paid heed? Can anyone imagine a wife NOT bringing such critical information to her husband’s attention?

Clearly, Rivka felt that in the case of Yitzhak there was no one to really talk to. Had their 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.

Yaakov: The evolution of a patriarch (Vayetze)

Yakov has a long way to go before he ceases being a momma’s boy and an immature איש תם יושב אהלים , naïve man who sits in tents,and emerges as the real man, ישראל Israel.

In our next parsha, Vayetze, when Yaakov has his famous dream of the ladder, God tells him

הארץ אשר אתה שוכב עליה לך אתננה ולזרעך
I will give to you and to your progeny the Land on which you now lie

To which Yaakov’s reaction is:

מה נורא המקום הזה
How awesome is this place

Clearly, Yaakov doesn’t yet grasp the full picture. He thinks God is referring to the spot on which he is sleeping, not the totality of the Land. He is like the Diaspora Jew who comes to Israel, leaves a note in the kotel, ‘this awesome place’ — he is (still) merely a pilgrim with no real commitment and no grand vision.

וידר … אם יהיה אלהים עמדי ושמרני בדרך .. ונתן לי לחם לאכל ובגד ללבש [כא] ושבתי בשלום אל בית אבי והיה ה לי לאלהים
And he swore … If God will be with me on my way, and will protect me … and will provide me with bread to eat and clothing to wearAnd I shall return in peace to the house of my father then Hashem shall be a God for me (28:20-21)

Having just heard directly from God in his dream, Yaakov sets material conditions for an ultimately retroactive acceptance of God who must first prove Himself. Clearly he has learned nothing from his father and grandfather, and must do a lot of growing up before he can become venerated as a patriarch.

וישא יעקב רגליו וילך
And Yaakov lifted his feet and went

This is, to say he least, weird phrasing. Why not simply say, And Yaakov rose (ויקם יעקב) which is the typical phrasing used in the Torah?

I notice here an interesting parallel to the phrasing in Parshat Noah regarding the Ark:

וישא את התבה ותרם מעל הארץ
(and the waters) elevated the ark and it was raised above the earth (Bereishit 7:17):

Just as in Parshat Noah the elevation וישא is of a spiritual nature – an elevation above the norm – likewise here, too, with Yaakov the word וישא should not be interpreted as ‘lifted’ i.e. and Jacob ‘lifted’ his feet, but rather as Yaakov was ‘elevated. Finally he is about to take the first tentative steps in his spiritually uplifting odyssey.

At this stage Yaakov is consistent with his material ambitions. He is equally enamored of the sheep belonging to ‘Lavan the brother of his mother’ as he is of ‘Rachel the daughter of the brother of his mother’.

One wonders whether he would have been as interested in Rachel if her father would have been poor – sort of like the immature and utterly inexperience yeshiva bochur who will only make a shidduch with a girl who is both beautiful and rich, or at least rich.

Note, too, the constant reference to ‘Lavan the brother of his mother’. For it is to Lavan, the professor of deception, that he has been dispatched by Lavan’s sisterly sibling in craftiness in order to acquire the street smarts needed to become a leader.

…כאשר ראה את רחל בת לבן אחי אמו ואת צאן לבן אחי אמו …
וישק את צאן לבן אחי אמו
… when he saw Rachel the daughter of Lavan the brother of his mother, and the sheep of Lavan the brother of his mother, and he gave the sheep of Lavan the brother of his mother to drink (29:10)

וישק יעקב לרחל
And Yaakov kissed Rachel (21:11)

Note that the word וישק “And he gave to drink” is IDENTICAL to the word וישק “And he kissed”.  Clearly Yaakov is interested in both the girl and in her father’s flock.

There are three times in this Parsha where Yaakov impressively lifts a heavy stone. The first is after his dream with the ladder. The second is at the well in front of Rachel. And the third is at Gal-Ed/Yegar Sahaduta when he makes a covenant with Lavan who had pursued him and his family with malicious intent. Apparently these are all superhuman feats of strength intended to either fortify Yaakov’s self-confidence and/or inspire awe in his adversaries.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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