At the beginning of Parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 26) there is a declaration to be made when an Israelite brings his first fruits to the kohen.
The Israelite begins by encapsulating the history of the people until then. He explains why they went to Egypt and how God brought them out and led them to the Promised Land.
The story opens with the words, “Arami Oved Avi”, “My father was a wandering Aramean” or (alternatively) “An Aramean sought to destroy my father”. The Aramean in this version is Laban, and it is in today’s sidra of Tol’dot that he is described in this way: “Rebekah was the daughter of Betu’el the Aramean and the sister of Laban the Aramean” (Gen. 25:19-20).
It is possible that “Aramean” is to be understood geographically as a person from Aram. There is probably a double entendre here, since the root “r-m-a” means to deceive, and “rama’i” or “Arami” indicates a person known to be untrustworthy, a professional con-man.
That’s what Laban was – a man (like his father Betu’el) who preferred deceit to decency.
OUR WORRIES ABOUT REBEKAH.
Isaac and Rebekah played favourites with their children. Isaac loved Esau: Rebekah loved Jacob. Neither was an entirely good parent, and unfortunately this phenomenon echoes time and again in family dynamics.
Rebekah desperately wanted Jacob to receive his father’s blessing and was prepared to use desperate means to achieve it. Knowing that Isaac’s sight was almost gone, she put hairy animal skin on Jacob’s arms so that when Isaac felt the young man, he thought it was Isaac.
No-one in the story comes out as a paragon of virtue, but the one we are most worried about is Rebekah herself. Whichever way we read the story, she is guilty of an act of deception.
In her mind, Esau is simply unworthy of the blessing that Isaac is about to offer. Indeed, God has already said,
“The older one shall serve the younger” (Gen. 21:13).
Esau is a rough hunter, a materialist: Jacob has the spirituality, intellect and vision to lead the family into its destiny.
Clearly Rebekah wants to show Isaac how easily he can be deceived; his love of Esau is based on false premises. He thinks that Esau deserves commendation because he makes sure that Isaac gets his favourite foods.
But Isaac is not necessarily going to be persuaded by talk or logic. Time is running out and if Esau gets the blessing now, just before Isaac’s death, the future which God has mapped out for the family will be frustrated.
Let’s ask, too, why Jacob goes along with his mother’s plans without an apparent protest.
The Targum deals with this question by not only putting into Rebekah’s mouth the assurance that any blame will be hers and not his, but by reporting (based on rabbinic tradition)that she heard an oracle that this was what God wanted, and she had to find a dramatic way of doing what the prophecy told her.
True, she appeared to employ a pretence, but she could not think of a better way.
There are so many questions that need to be asked about the family dynamics of Isaac and Rebekah. One of the least commonly asked questions has to do with Isaac’s intention to give a blessing to Esau.
Surely Isaac knew what sort of person Esau was, a wild, rough man with hardly any refinement or spirituality. Surely Isaac knew that Esau was not likely to respect the family tradition and be an example to his descendants. How then could Isaac even think of bestowing “the blessing of Abraham” upon such an unworthy son?
Yes, we recognise that Esau knew how to win his father over with sweet talk and tasty venison. But was Isaac really so easily deceived?
The fact is that there were two types of blessing at Isaac’s disposal, and his original plan was probably to give Esau the materialistic blessing (corn, wine and oil) and to give Jacob the spiritual blessing (Divine approval and historic destiny).
Rebekah, however, disagreed with her husband’s plan. She saw that the material and spiritual had to go together. As Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says,
“Im ein kemach ein”
“im ein Torah ein kemach”
“Without flour there is no Torah: without Torah there is no flour” (Avot 3:21).
Without a material foundation, Torah will struggle to survive; but without Torah ethics, material prosperity will lack meaning.
Rebekah felt her husband had to be taught this lesson and indeed to see that it would be no service to either son to get only one aspect of the blessing. The Midrash suggests that Isaac’s eyes were finally opened and he realised what a mistake he might have made by preferring Esau, even though he had only intended to give Esau a material blessing.
Looking at the story this way there is a lesson for parents in every generation. Limiting their children to material blessings short-changes them. Thinking that they can live on spirituality alone is also to do them no service. They need both “gashmiyut” and “ruchniyut”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com