Rebecca's Sophie's Choice

 Dear Rabbi,

I looked at the Fifth Aliyah and at first I could not understand your reverence for Rebecca. Initially, I said to myself that here is another example of one of Matriarchs doing what was in her best interest and what was clearly a selfish act.  Loosely, this is what it says:

Isaac summoned Esau and told him that he wished to bless him, but first he should go to the field and hunt some game for him to eat. Rebecca heard this conversation and advised Jacob to don Esau's clothing and trick Isaac into blessing him instead. Rebecca prepared meat and gave it to Jacob to bring to his father. She also took hairy goatskin and put it on Jacob's smooth arms and neck. Jacob approached his father and presented himself as Esau, and Isaac ate from the repast Rebecca had prepared.

At first blush this seems consistent with what we learned from the First Aliyah that Isaac favored Esau, while Rebecca preferred Jacob. My first reaction was that she did the easy thing and wanted what was best for her favorite son. But in thinking about it, the decision became Rebecca's "Sophie's choice". She must have known that her actions would have consequences and by the Sixth Aliyah, we are told that because of this trickery Esau was determined to kill Jacob, but Rebecca, who got wind of this plot, asked Isaac to send Jacob to Charan to find a wife. Isaac did so, and blessed Jacob again before he departed.

Jacob was the love of Rebecca's life. He was raised in the ways of the Torah even thought it was not yet in written form. She must have known that the decision was one that meant she might not ever see her beloved son again but for the greater good of Judaism, she gave up the one that meant the most to her. I believe that she never saw Jacob again. Rebecca's action led to what Jacob accomplished through his family, which carries on for Jews (our designation through Judah) to this very day. 

Many times before I make a decision of consequence, I sleep on it before I act. This is one of those times, I wanted you to come back and tell me why I should have more sympathy for a Matriarch like Rebecca, but your thoughts to me from earlier exchanges needed some more thought and I think I am agreeing with you in advance.



Dear Mordecai,

Framing Rebecca’s choice as a “Sophie’s Choice” is extremely helpful. Our purpose is not to let the patriarchs and matriarchs off the hook but to seek ways in which their behavior makes sense – even behavior we disapprove of, like favoring one child over another.

As for reverence for Rebecca, the case is even stronger. Consider 24:18-20, 25, and 28 and compare them to 18:2-8. The Torah is making a favorable comparison between Rebecca and Abraham. Just as Abraham hurried to serve his guests, the three angels, so too did Rebecca hurry to assist Abraham’s servant at the well. The recurrence of the verbs for “run” and “quick” are indicative of the similarity.

The scene in which Jacob deceives his father is rightly disturbing. One small mitigating factor relates to what was just written above. Note 27:14. The verbs occur in sequence and what’s missing? No mention of hurrying. Jacob acted reluctantly.

Returning to Rebecca and the aftermath of Jacob stealing/receiving the blessing, note what Rebecca says in 27:45: “Let me not lose you both in one day.” Perhaps this is an expression of love and caring for Esau, which we haven’t seen yet. Rebecca certainly paid a price for helping Jacob deceive Isaac, as you point out. 



Dear Rabbi, 

Even when I try to agree with you, you act with your rabbinical training to try and protect the "chosen one", Jacob. We will get to him in the upcoming parshahs, and I will explain Jacob as I see him, but even in this week's parshah, your "mitigating factor" which led you to allege "Jacob acted reluctantly" doesn't hold up if one reads this weeks parshah.   


In the First Aliyah does it not say the following: 


Now Jacob cooked a pottage, and Esau came from the field, and he was faint.                  

30And Esau said to Jacob, "Pour into [me] some of this red, red [pottage], for I am faint"; he was therefore named Edom.                     

31And Jacob said, "Sell me as of this day your birthright."               

32Esau replied, "Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?"                     

33And Jacob said, "Swear to me as of this day"; so he swore to him, and he sold his birthright to Jacob.  


Where in these lines do you see any reluctance in Jacob's stealing Esau's birthright while his brother thinks he will die if he is not fed immediately? Where is there any act of kindness that you say Abraham and Rebecca showed to strangers? Is one's own brother to be treated with less kindness? 

Even during the exchange of receiving the blessing, where does Jacob hesitate when asked if he is Esau? His father detects something is amiss because the person  in front of Isaac, who he cannot really see because of his blindness, has the voice of Jacob but the body of Esau. Where is the reluctance when Jacob immediately responds that he is indeed Esau and makes sure the trickery is accomplished as he appears to be Esau with the hairy body he puts in the hands of Isaac? Would you ever consider deceiving your father for your own gain? I guess the part about "honor your father and mother" didn't exist when Jacob did what he did and that somehow this can be excused by those that interpret this sort of thing for a living as opposed to a layman's reading of the script.   



Dear Mordecai

Your case against my claim of reluctance is strong. I wonder, however, whether the pendulum has not swung too far in the opposite direction. Surely, we can't affirm everything that Jacob does, but doesn't Esau still appear in many respects like a buffoon? For example, while the kind thing to do would have been to just give his brother the lentils, Jacob did not deceive him in this instance. Why would Esau sell his birthright? 

The question cannot be, Would I deceive my father for my own gain? Rather it is, Would I deceive my father because my mother told me to? In any event, in both cases the answer is no. 

Sometimes the layman's read is keener than the one with the training. I'm anticipating your case against Jacob.