Wednesday, 15 Nov 2023

Written by Yael Tischler

Vatahar vateled, vatahar vateled. She conceived and she bore, she conceived and she bore. The stories of our matriarchs repeat this phrase, focusing on how each woman became pregnant, then gave birth, as though nothing existed between those two events. In the hands of patriarchal authorship, this is what matters in a woman’s narrative: her ability to make babies. It is rare for the Tanakh to give any attention to the period between conception and birth. Yet, a full-term pregnancy is 37-42 weeks – not an insignificant period in a person’s life! 

Rebecca is unique amongst the matriarchs. She does get a pregnancy story. We have insight into her experience as an expectant mother, when she is pregnant with Jacob and Esau. In this week’s parashah, Toldot, we read: “The children [moved with such force that it felt to her that they] ran in different directions inside her womb.” Rebecca cries out in enigmatic Biblical Hebrew, “Im ken, lama zeh anokhi?” This literally translates as, “If so, why this I?” Our medieval commentators offer several suggestions of how to understand her question: “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I desire and pray for this pregnancy?” (Rashi). “Why is it like this for me in this pregnancy, [so] strange?” (Ibn Ezra). “Why am I different from the rest of women in this?” (Radak). “If it will be thus for me, why am I even in the world?” (Ramban). The ambiguity of the text enables it to contain all of the above and more. 

Rebecca isn’t content to accept her suffering without a good explanation. After asking her question, “Vatelekh lidrosh et YHVH – she went to inquire of YHVH.” The idiom “lidrosh et YHVH – to inquire of YHVH” often means to seek oracular advice. According to Rav Kohenet Rabbi Jill Hammer, it is possible that Rebecca actually visited an oracular shrine. Our medieval commentators suggest that she went to visit the scholars or prophets of the day. There is a long tradition of reading this verse as a deliberate, purposeful quest. Rebecca went somewhere to get answers. And not just any answers, answers from the highest authority. In response to her question, Rebecca receives a prophecy from YHVH:

“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”

Rebecca immediately takes this prophecy on board. After the birth of her twins, she dedicates her whole life to its fulfilment. She favours her younger son, Jacob. She encourages and facilitates the deception that enables Jacob to steal the blessing that her husband, Isaac, intended for their elder son, Esau. As a result, Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebecca helps Jacob escape, sending him away to her homeland of Haran to live with her brother. Jacob does not return for 20 years.

Until this year, I admired Rebecca’s wholehearted devotion to the fulfilment of her prophecy. Even now, there is much I respect and celebrate about her: Rebecca is an incredibly active character. Throughout her narrative, she proves herself repeatedly a person who chooses her own destiny. She is a paragon of how it might be possible for a woman to claim power and amplify her voice in a patriarchal context. Last week, it was on her own initiative that she left Haran to journey across the desert to marry a man she had never met. This week’s tale shows us Rebecca’s continued commitment to what she feels is right, and how she takes action to bring about what she understands to be YHVH’s plan. I appreciate her determination to take action to bring about what she perceives as the best possible future. 

And yet, I’m left with a question. In accepting the Divine word – or at least, her own interpretation of it – did Rebecca ultimately act to bring about the best possible future? It’s one thing to be determined to shape one’s own destiny; what about when one’s actions impact the future of others? Rebecca sets up her sons as rivals, rather than equal partners. She creates a rift between the boys, one that ultimately leads to one threatening the life of the other. In order to save the life of her favoured son, she sends him away. Rebecca’s actions tear apart her family. Her devotion to the prophecy drives a wedge in the relationship between her sons. (And presumably the relationship between herself and her husband, and her sons’ relationships with each of their parents.)

Critically, Rebecca’s prophecy is not fulfilled. After 20 years, Jacob and Esau repair their relationship. (Spoiler alert for Parashat Vayishlach). On the eve of their reconciliation, Jacob is, understandably, terrified before meeting his brother again. Perhaps a remnant of the enmity that Rebecca nurtured between the brothers? But Jacob is committed to a peaceful resolution. He sends ahead gifts to Esau, hoping to soften the heart of the brother he remembers as murderous. Jacob approaches Esau with caution and respect; he bows low seven times. What does his estranged brother do? Esau runs to greet him and kisses him. The brothers weep. In doing so, they cast Rebecca’s prophecy in the proverbial bin. The potential for a healthy relationship between the brothers was there all along. 

Divine words can offer us solace in difficult times. Rebecca’s prophecy helps her through her painful and confusing pregnancy, enabling her to make meaning during a precarious and emotion-laden period in her life. And yet, when we become too attached to “the Divine word,” whatever form it takes, we can become inflexible, and cause untold suffering, to ourselves and others. This is especially dangerous when “the Divine word” not only becomes our own guide, but is something we attempt to impose on others. Jacob and Esau model that sometimes it is time to cast aside a prophecy, to take ownership of the stories in which we are living, and to write a new story. Though as children Jacob and Esau internalise Rebecca’s vision for them, as they grow up, they are able to interrogate that vision, and decide, like their mother before them, to take ownership over their own paths. The story of Jacob and Esau shows that a prophecy only has the power with which we imbue it; human agency trumps fate in determining the course of future events. We do not have to live in the stories handed to us by previous generations, or even by God. We can take responsibility and author our own stories.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.