Thursday, 01 Dec 2016

Written by Zahavit Shalev

“Listen to me!”

Does that mean “let me tell you what I’m thinking”? or “do what I tell you”?

In Biblical Hebrew the verb shama, occupies a continuum that ranges all the way from “hear” through to “listen”, “perceive”, “understand”, “consent” and finally “obey”.

Verbs connected to this root pepper the story in which Isaac tries to give his deathbed blessing to Esau, while Rebecca diverts the blessing to her favourite son, Jacob.

At first, the word shama seems to be only about obedience.

In a kind of introduction to the story about the blessing, God appears to Isaac during a famine and tells him not to go to Egypt in search of food. God recalls Abraham’s earlier obedience “because Abraham heard My voice [shama bekoli] and kept My charge, My laws and My teachings.” (Genesis 26:5) Traditional commentators connect the events here with the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac – where God blesses Abraham’s obedience using almost identical language. (Genesis 22:18) Evidently listening to God’s voice means obeying God’s orders.

But the verb shama appears six times in Chapter 27 of Genesis and here it occurs mostly in relation to Rebecca.

In the first two instances it is associated with the passive end of the of the shama continuum. It’s nothing to do with obeying, and refers instead to hearing, or perhaps better still overhearing what someone is saying. Rebecca overhears Isaac instructing Esau to go and prepare his favourite meat and then return for his father’s blessing. (27:5). And then she explains to Jacob what she has overheard (27:6). Ironically, Rebecca hears her husband’s plans and overturns them.

The next two uses of shama are used in the sense of commanding and demanding obedience, at the extreme active end of the verb’s meaning. So Rebecca outlines her plan to Jacob using shama to command. “Listen to my voice [shema bekoli]!” (27:8) she orders Jacob, explaining how he is to slaughter two kids that she can cook for Isaac and Jacob can serve to him. And when Jacob objects that his father will not be fooled by this pretence she insists “just do as I say [ach shema bekoli]!” (Genesis 27:13).

Rebecca and Isaac do not discuss their plans for their children. Instead, the family has formed two teams, each consisting of one parent and one child. There are no normal conversations in which people take it in turn to speak and to listen, but rather eavesdropping and the issuing of orders.

At the climax of the story there is an animal howl of anguish. At the moment when Esau walks in to discover his brother receiving the blessing that should have been his, language – already functioning somewhat poorly – breaks down completely. “When Esau heard [kishmoa Esav] his father’s words” he lets out a massive bitter scream. (27:34) Here is all the pain and sorrow of a family completely divided against itself, and the results of the shama used only to eavesdrop or command.

This moment of betrayal and devastation is the absolute nadir of the story. But it contains the germ of redemption. Isaac digs deep and finds a blessing for Esau too. Rebecca however is not present. With some poetic justice we are told: “When it was reported to Rebecca the words of her older son, Esau…” (27:42) Having adopted eavesdropping and issuing unilateral orders as her strategies, she has lost her opportunity to sit around the table with her husband and sons.

And so “she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him: ‘your brother is consoling himself by planning to kill you.’” (27:42).

The end of this episode has Rebecca instructing Jacob to run for his life saying: “Now my son, listen to my voice [shema bekoli], arise and flee to my brother Laban in Haran.” (Genesis 27:43)  Here too, apparently listening to someone’s voice means obeying their orders. So the brothers go off, each one to build his own life.

But this isn’t the absolute end of the story. And there is one clue that things are on the mend – if not between the brothers – that rift will take decades to heal – then perhaps between their parents. For almost at the end of the portion we are told that Esau sees that their father has blessed Jacob and sent him off to find a wife from among their own clan. The Torah makes a point of telling us that “Jacob listened [vayishma Yaakov] to his father and his mother” (28:7) And Esau too, learns that his father dislikes his Canaanite wives and takes a wife from the family clan.

The sons have gone off in different directions to live their own lives. They have successfully separated from each other and from their parents. And their parents’ marriage appears to have weathered the storm too. Isaac and Rebecca – it seems, are left together. Empty-nesters, perhaps better able to converse normally with one another – not forming alliances against one another, nor spying on one another, nor issuing commands, but – we hope – thinking, chatting and ruminating about their two very different children. I hope they are exploring the conversational world between “let me tell you what I’m thinking” and “do what I tell you”.

LBC rabbinic student Zahavit Shalev