THE CHILD A PARENT WOULD PREFER.
Jacob and Esau each had his parental champion. Rebekah preferred Jacob; Isaac preferred Esau (Gen. 25:28). Jacob was quiet and studious, finding his pleasures in and around the home; Esau was macho and active, enjoying being out and about. The family dynamics were full of tension, son against son, and at least on some days, parent against parent.
Sforno says Isaac loved Esau for selfish reasons, namely that Esau brought him the sort of food he liked, and Rebekah loved Jacob because he was so different from Esau. Others say that the cleavage was ideological and each parent liked the philosophy of life that their particular favourite son represented.
The situation recurs over and over again throughout history, not excepting our own generation.
A week or so ago in Parashat Vayyera, we found this discussion happening between Abraham and God. God tells the patriarch to take the son he loves and offer him on the mountain. “The one I love?” says Abraham; “I love them both!” Yet we all know families where a parent plays favourites, to the extent that they shower the preferred child with both material and emotional largesse.
What a recipe for disaster in years to come!
BOTH SPOUSES PRAYED.
Before Esau and Jacob were born, Rebekah was barren for many years, and Isaac prayed for her. In fact they both prayed, according to the Talmudic interpretation (Yevamot 64a) of the word “l’nochach” (Gen. 25:21). The Torah says Isaac prayed “l’nochach ishto”, which literally means “facing his wife”.
One possible translation is that he prayed *concerning* his wife, beseeching God to give them issue. But the rabbis are certain that they both prayed, Isaac in one corner of the tent and Rebekah in the other.
This rabbinic interpretation may be construed in two ways, both narrowly and also broadly. Narrowly in the sense that the lack of children was distressing to them both, and they were both desperately anxious to become parents.
The broader interpretation tells us something important about the path to marital happiness. It shows that on the really important things in life, both spouses must share the same feelings, the same wishes, the same principles, the same priorities. On smaller things there is room for disagreement, dialogue, and compromise, but on the big issues they must be agreed.
This is one of the reasons that Judaism is opposed to mixed marriage. It says that when there is basic religious and cultural agreement between the parties, the two of them work together and their marriage is strengthened. Everybody knows cases where a mixed marriage has lasted, but exceptions to the rule only prove the value of the rule itself.
LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS.
Does Rashi always know what a Biblical verse means? The answer no. This week’s sidra gives us an example.
“Isaac sent Jacob away,”
“and he went to Paddan-Aram, to Laban ben B’tuel the Aramean, brother of Rebekah the mother of Jacob and Esau” (Gen. 28:5).
Concerning the final phrase, “the mother of Jacob and Esau”, Rashi says,
“I do not know what this teaches us”.
His expression of humility puzzles many of the later commentators, though in fact it is missing from many early Rashi manuscripts.
Presuming, however, that his words are authentic, one understands his problem. The whole story is building up to the point at which Jacob leaves home and goes to live with Laban, and no-one is in any doubt that Rebekah, Laban’s sister, is Jacob and Esau’s mother. Is Rashi merely fulfilling the rabbinic rule,
“Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know'”?
Possibly, but other commentators do find an explanation to fit the puzzling words.
They recognise that Esau and Jacob have become enemies, and Esau will willingly kill Jacob for taking the birthright and the blessing. Jacob on the other hand may need to step in first and get to Esau before the latter gets to him. If both sons stay home, one or both will die. Sending Jacob stops Esau from murdering Jacob, and Jacob from pre-emptively killing Esau. As the verse says, Rebekah is the mother of both of her sons; she loves them both; and by sending one away she protects the lives of both.
If this is the right explanation, would Rashi be worried that it needed a later scholar to propound it? It is likely that it would have given Rashi great pleasure and satisfaction. The fact is that nobody, however great, can know everything and achieve everything, and a new generation has to have the opportunity of achieving its own triumphs. The important thing is to lay the foundations on which others can build.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.