“Rosemary’s Babies,q” Parashat Toledot 5777

The older I get, and I find myself getting older all the time, the more difficult it becomes for me to digest the stories in the Torah the way they were taught to me as a child. The latest example is the story of Rivka’s pregnancy.

Rivka, barren for nearly 20 years, finally becomes pregnant. This is not the pregnancy she prayed for [Bereishit 25:22-23]: “The boys struggled inside of her and she said ‘If this is so, why did I pray for this?’, and she went to ask of Hashem. Hashem told her, ‘Two nations are inside your belly, two peoples from within you will be separated, and nation from nation will be strengthened, and the great will serve the younger.”

Here’s what I was told happened by Mrs. Newhouse in kindergarten: Rivka’s twin sons, Yaakov and Esav, had well-developed personalities even within the womb. Yaakov was righteous and Esav was evil. Whenever Rivka would pass a house of idolatry Esav would struggle to leave the womb and whenever she passed a house of monotheism [1] it was Yaakov who did the struggling. Rivka thought that she was pregnant with a child that had trouble making up its mind. Hashem’s response is enigmatic but at least Rivka understands that she is pregnant with twins and so she is satisfied by the answer. Not only does she know that she has twins, but she knows that the older one will eventually be subsumed by the younger one. For this reason she prefers the quiet Yaakov while Yitzchak prefers the rambunctious Esav.

Here’s what makes this explanation difficult to accept: In the very next verse we are told [Bereishit 25:24] “The days before she gave birth were filled and, behold, there were twins in her womb”. Behold? The Rashbam [2], Rashi’s grandson, teaches that whenever the Torah uses the word “behold” it is an indicator that something unexpected has happened. In other words, Rivka grew much larger than the average pregnant woman until it was clear that she was pregnant with twins. Behold? Hashem explicitly told her that she was pregnant with twins only one verse ago [3]. What’s the big surprise here?

This question forces us to take a hard look Mrs. Newhouse’s explanation and to revisit the story, this time through the lens of a middle-aged adult. The key to deciphering this story lies in understanding perhaps the most misunderstood part of Hashem’s words to Rivka: “the great will serve the younger”. The most common understanding is that the older child will eventually become subservient to the younger child. But wait a minute — the Torah never uses the word “older”. It only mentions the word “rav,” literally “greater.” But even more interesting is the ambiguity that is built-into the verse. I first saw this idea in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ “Not in G-d’s Name”, but this week I ran into the same idea in the commentary of Rav David Kimchi (RaDaK) who preceded Rabbi Sacks by about a thousand years [4]. Rav Kimchi notes that the Hebrew word “et” is missing from the verse. “Et” has no meaning of its own. Rather, it is an indicator. In this case it would indicate who is doing the serving. If the verse would have been written “V’rav ya’avod [et] hatza’ir.” it would be translated as “the greater will serve the younger.” Alternatively, if the verse were written “V’[et ha]rav ya’avod tzair,” it would be translated as “the greater will be served by the younger.” But without the word “et,” the verse is multi-valenced. It could mean one thing, or it could mean the other. Rav Kimchi suggests that it could mean both: if the younger is worthy, he will be served by the elder. If he is unworthy, then he will serve the elder.

With the explanation of Rav Kimchi in hand, we can now weave in the explanation of Rabbi Yosef Meir Weiss of Spinka, writing in “Imrei Yosef.” It is well-understood that the forefathers were more than just the first leaders of the Jewish nation. The Ramban teaches that everything that the forefathers experienced will be eventually experienced in some way by all of their descendants (Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim). With this in mind, the Imrei Yosef posits that the story of Rivka’s pregnancy is an archetype for the pregnancy of every Jewish woman. The Imrei Yosef understands the phrase “shnei goyim b’vitneich” — translated above as “two nations are inside your belly” — actually means “two personas [good and evil] are inside your belly”.

Contrary to what Mrs. Newhouse told us, inside the womb a person is neither good nor evil. Before birth a person has unlimited potential for both good and for evil. It is only after birth that these “two persona’s from within you will be separated”. The choices that a person makes during the course of his life will determine if he will become a saint, a villain, or something in between. But it is not enough merely to choose good over evil. Hashem tells Rivka that “Nation from nation will be strengthened”, meaning that good and bad are too often intricately intertwined and they can often feed off of each other. Choosing good over evil is more often than not much more difficult than choosing whether or not to eat a cheeseburger. Our mission is much more difficult: our mission is to distil the good from within the evil[5]. The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh places a cherry on top of this explanation. By telling Rivka that “the greater will be served by the younger,” and not “your greater will be served by your younger,” Hashem is telling her that His message is relevant to every single Jewish baby who will ever be born until the end of time.

Make no mistake: Hashem’s message does not cure Rivka of her angst; it only reinforces it. Rivka begins to understand the gravity of her situation and the weight that hangs around her shoulders. Rivka’s pregnancy reminds me of the movie “Rosemary’s Baby”, a movie based on a book of the same name written by Ira Levin, about a woman who gives birth to the devil. Here is how IMDB.com describes Rosemary: “As her pregnancy progresses, Rosemary feels a mounting sense of dread and angst. What is wrong with her? Why won’t anyone acknowledge it?”

Rivka is an archetype. Every Jewish mother is Rosemary. Each time she brings a child into this world she holds an awesome responsibility. I like to tell people that raising a child is simple: you simply point the child in the direction that you want him to go and you can be certain that he will go in that direction, plus or minus one hundred and eighty degrees[6]. I’ll be brutally frank: after eight children we’re still not sure we have gotten it right. Do we approve of the choices that our children have made? Can we really influence these choices? Until when does our input carry any kind of weight? Until the child leaves home at eighteen? Until his bar mitzvah? Until he first enters kindergarten? And do we even know what “the right choices” are?

Our role as parents has always been and will always be fraught with angst. Our concern never goes away. The problems never end — they just continually morph into something different. And yet I maintain that there is hope. Because Hashem has given us a measuring stick: His Torah. Transforming the Torah into a book on “Child-Rearing for Dummies” is no trivial task. But at least the Torah gives us a clear perception as to the definitions of good and evil, which makes a good starting point. The next task, distilling the good from the evil, is up to us, and it will most likely take 120 years to find out how well we did.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Mrs. Newhouse actually told us that Yaakov tried to exit “Whenever Rivka passed by a shul”. Given the fact that there were exactly three Jews in the world at the time, there were, at most, three shuls.

[2] For years I thought that this interpretation of the world “behold” was the innovation of Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, the author of the “Torah Temima.” This year I discovered that the Rashbam came up with the same idea nearly one-thousand years earlier.

[3] The sharp reader will have noticed that in verse 22 the Torah says that the “[two] boys” struggled inside of her, meaning that she was already aware that she was having twins. The Ibn Ezra teaches that the plural is used “al shem sofo” — “using a later understanding” –– meaning that what was causing her horrific morning sickness was indeed the fact that she was carrying two boys, except that Rivka was still unaware of this fact.

[4] This seems to be becoming a motif in this shiur.

[5] The Rambam, writing in the Moreh Nevuchim [Chapter 1], teaches that good and evil were originally separated. Adam caused them to become inexorably blended after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

[6] Rocket scientist humour. To understand please consult a rocket scientist.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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