Friday, November 24, 2006

Toldot (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives for November 2006.

Did Jacob Cheat Esau?

This week’s portion may be seen as beginning a new major section of the Book of Genesis, one which will continue through the end of the book: that which centers around the life of the patriarch Yaakov and his family. Perhaps significantly, Torat Hayyim, the new Israeli edition of the Torah with commentaries (a kind of updated Mikraot Gedolot) published by Mossad Harav Kook, begins Volume 2 of Bereshit with this parasha. As if to say: until now we were dealing with beginnings: the Creation, the fundaments of what it means to be a human being, the Flood, and the life of Abraham—the unique paradigmatic man whose life was wholly devoted to God; from here on in, we begin the story of the family of Israel, that will become a people, which is much more a story of human life as we know it, with all its passions, its loves and hates and conflicts and family problems.

In any event, unlike Avraham—who faces tremendous challenges, from leaving his homeland, through being circumcised at the age of 100, through the Akedah, but who seems (with one or two possible exceptions) a wholly sterling, righteous character—Yaakov is in many ways, at least on the straightforward, literal sense of Scripture, a rather problematic figure. And nowhere is this more striking than in this initial section, where we encounter two very problematic incidents: his buying of his brother’s birthright, taking advantage of his momentary (?) weakness; and the scene where, following his mother’s masterminding, he fools his father into giving him his deathbed blessing. We shall focus upon a number of comments of Rashi on central verses involving these two incidents:

25:31. “Sell me today your birthright.” Rashi: Because the Divine service is performed by the firstborn, Jacob said: It is not fitting that this evildoer should bring offerings to the Holy One blessed be He.

Rashi appears here, as he often does, as the spokesman for the mainstream of Jewish Rabbinic tradition (see Gen. Rab. 63.3) which makes two major assumptions here. First, that Esav is a rasha, an evil person, or at very least a coarse person, living entirely in the here and now, in the gross material world of undisciplined, immediate satisfaction of appetites. That this is true regarding food is evident from the impatient, exaggerated way he speaks about his hunger (“for [otherwise] I will die”–v. 32) and the use of the verb הלעיטיני נא (“stuff me”—v. 30), usually used of force-feeding fowl or other animals, to describe his manner of eating. And, according to one midrash (Gen. Rab. 63.2), it was also true regarding sex—he was a “hunter,” not only of game, but also of girls.

Second, and perhaps more important: the privilege of being the first-born in this case relates, not to property or to other worldly matters, but to spiritual matters: to avodah, to the priestly function of leading and performing the sacred service in the Temple (or in general, as suggested by the Kuzari, continuing the special connection of the seed of Abraham with “the Divine matter”). We continue:

32. “Behold, I am going to die; why then do I need the birthright?” Rashi: Esau asked: What is the nature of this service? He [Yaakov] replied: It involves various sanctions and punishments and death penalties, as in that which we have been taught [in a beraita quoted in b. Sanhedrin 22b]: “These are those that involve the death penalty: [Those who served] when drunk with wine or with disheveled heads.” He said: I am going to die because of it. If so, why should I wish to have it?

Here, “I am going to die” is transformed from a hyperbolic description of his own feeling of famish after a day in the fields to his reaction to the Divine service itself. The central motif here is the element of discipline: the Jew knows that there are laws governing the religious law that must be observed strictly and meticulously (certainly regarding the Temple service, but also in the realm of Shabbat, family life, kashrut, etc.) and which carry strict penalties—but that so long as he follows the halakhah, he needn’t fear. The non-Jewish world (of whom Esau is both progenitor and paradigmatic figure), by contrast, is seen as characterized by fearfulness of entering into discipline. There is even a discussion in Talmud as to why one cannot convert a Gentile unwillingly, even though one can cause someone benefit without someone’s agreement, because he will also see Judaism as in some way detrimental to his idea of the “good life”: “The Gentile prefers his hefkerut—i.e., his free, libertine life-style” (Ketubot 11a). Albeit, a small child can still be converted by his adoptive parents in tandem with the Bet Din.

Paul felt this strongly—“with the Law came death”—as he somehow came to emphasize the punitive element in Judaism. He didn’t understand the joy of living under the discipline of the law, with its clear sharply defined boundaries and limits. For him, the more punishment, the more the fear—“Oy, I’m going to get it!” (Radical Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein, an erstwhile ba’al teshuvah, describes his flirtation with Orthodox practice in similar terms in his book My Brother Paul).

Having seen these two comments, we can understand another puzzling passage in Rashi on this chapter, which I will not quote but briefly summarize: following the description of the two fetuses struggling in the womb, verse 26 depicts Yaakov grabbing Esau’s heel during the moment of birth. Rashi comments that Yaakov wanted to be born first, because he was rightfully the firstborn: he was in fact conceived first, but because the woman’s reproductive organ is like a narrow tube, that which goes in first comes in last. We shall ignore the faulty description of female reproductive anatomy, and the question as to why Rashi doesn’t seem to know the basic facts of anatomy that were already familiar to the authors of Mishnah Niddah and to Galen (the father of Roman medicine). The real point here, again, is that Yaakov was merely trying to get that which was rightfully his—certainly in the spiritual sense, in terms of his character, but also in the simple biological sense.

“Are you Esau my son or not?”

The theme of Jacob’s justification in “stealing” or cheating Esau out of both birthright and blessing is continued in the comments on the famous scene in which Yaakov impersonates his brother, who has gone out into the field to hunt some game for his father. Rashi takes great pains to show that neither Yaakov nor his mother Rivkah did anything really dishonest or wrong in this incident. First, a little-noticed comment about Rivkah:

27:9. “Go to the flock and take me from there two good young goats…” Rashi: “take me.” They are mine and are not stolen, for Isaac wrote in my ketubah that I am entitled to two goats every day.

Rashi here observes that the goats, which she will cook and give Yaakov to presented before Yitzhak as if they were game caught by Esau, rightfully belong to her and that she is not misappropriating her husband’s property in order to deceive him. She is the legal owner, and thus has the right to do with them what she wishes. Modern readers will surely find this a bit strange, for surely the issue is not one of ownership of the goats, but the dishonest ruse in which they play a central role.

A bit later we have the scene in which Yaakov goes in to his father, and is asked, “Who are you, my son?” Yitzhak already seems to feel that something isn’t quite right; two verses later he asks how he has come so quickly; he realizes that not enough time has elapsed for Esau to go to the field, catch something, return, and prepare the food. Note his answer:

12. “I am Esau, your firstborn.” Rashi: “I am” the one who is bringing it to you; “Esau is your firstborn.”

And some verses later, when he is about to eat, he again asks, “Are you really my son Esau?”

24. Rashi: He did not say “I am Esau,” but he said “It is I.”

In both these verses, Rashi takes what a common-sense reading would see as an outright lie, and saves Yaakov from the stigma of lying by a rather artificial rearrangement of the syntax of the sentence. Pardon me if anyone finds this sacrilegious, but I find this reminiscent of the sort of white lies, or technical non-lies, told by school-children to protect themselves from the wrath of parents or teachers, while being able to say that they haven’t actually lied.

But I would now like to turn to another problem, not directly related to Rashi: reading this whole chapter, it seems clear that Yitzhak knew, whether in a vague, semi-conscious way or more clearly, that it was really Yaakov standing before him. He asks repeatedly “Are you my son Esau,” he notes that he’s returned too quickly, and even remarks “the voce is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (v. 22)— yet he nevertheless blesses him. Interestingly, once he begins actually giving the blessing he no longer refers to Esau at all but refers to him (with deliberate ambiguity?) simply as “my son” (בני) in three consecutive verses (vv. 25, 26, 27). In other words, Yitzhak was aware that he was being tricked and, at least on some level of his mind, accepted it. The question is: Why?

I would suggest that, during the course of this scene, he came to realize that he had made a grave mistake in judgment in favoring Esau all these years. What was it within the personality of Yitzhak that made him love Esau? There is the old saw that “opposites attract.” He felt a kind of longing for that which he never had—the free, simple, unfettered, “natural” life. To translate it into concepts of early modern civilization: he was filled with romantic fantasies of the “noble savage.” Perhaps, too, after the Akedah, notwithstanding his willing participation, he saw something dark, frightening, even demonic in the stern faith of his father, and saw something fresh and vital in the earthy life-style of Esau.

But all this was good for everyday life. The blessing scene was a moment of truth (although not a real deathbed blessing; notwithstanding what he says in 27:2 & 4, Yitzhak lived on for more that two decades, dying only after Yaakov’s return to the land; see Gen 35:29). When he began to contemplate his own death, he began to ask questions about ultimate meanings, about the heritage he was leaving, and which of his sons was most worthy of continuing his task in life, of passing on the heritage of what he most deeply believed in. For Yitzhak was also the son of Abraham, one who spent long hours wandering in the fields in a kind of mystical trance, detached from everyday, practical tasks. Suddenly, when Yaakov was already before him, seeking the blessing, he saw things clearly.

After the blessing, just after Yaakov takes leave of his father, the real Esau returns from the field carrying his game and expecting his blessing. The Torah says that, when Yitzhak suddenly realized what had happened, “Yitzhak felt a very great terror” (ויחרד יצחק חרדה גדולה עד מאד; v. 33). I would suggest that this great terror or dread was not because he had given his blessing to the wrong son, but because he had almost given blessing to this coarse oaf, whom Yitzhak saw for the first time as he really was—that the “noble savage” was still… a savage.

This reading—that Yitzhak underwent a profound conversion in his attitude towards his two sons—is confirmed by one last Rashi I will cite here:

33. “He shall also be blessed.” Rashi: That one may not say that had Yaakov not deceived his father he would not have received the blessings. Therefore he consciously agreed to bless him.

This phrase could have been read as a kind of fatalistic statement by Yitzhak, simply agreeing to the fact of blessing: “he will be blessed and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” That is, that the blessings are efficacious by themselves, that words have a certain power beyond the intentions of those that utter them. But no: Yitzhak is shown here by Rashi (in the wake of Gen Rab 67.2) as agreeing that Yaakov is in fact the one truly deserving of blessing.


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