So what would you do? What would you do if you discovered, finally, what your life was really all about, what you were put on earth to do…and realised that this put you at odds with your partner, your children and the whole way in which your society was structured? Would you ignore your vision as unrealistic? Grasp it with both hands regardless of the consequences? Or work out a messy compromise, that takes you part-way to your goal, but may exact an uncomfortable price?
In Genesis 25 the pregnant Rebekah asks an existential question: “If so, why – this – am I?” (Im ken, lama, zeh, anochi?) This is often interpreted as complaining about her pregnancy, but the text doesn’t say she’s in pain. It feels like a much more profound question about what her purpose is in life. And like many people with existential questions about the meaning of their life, Rebekah ends up in conversation with God; not just God, but with Y-H-V-H, that sense of God that is actually a version of the Hebrew verb “to be”. She begins by wondering what her life is all about and begins a process that ends up in a spiritual encounter, during which she comes to an understanding about how history needs to unfold, and maybe intuits, even before her sons are born, what her role needs to be in making this happen.
Rebekah doesn’t talk to her husband about her anxiety – she goes straight to God who speaks to her directly and tells her that her elder child shall serve the younger1. It’s a hint that she needs more out of life than bearing two children – she needs to be involved in the unfolding of the covenantal promise.
We do not know whether Rebekah wanted children. In her time and culture, it was not a question that anyone would have asked – children were a married woman’s reason for existence and the only way of ensuring status in a polygamous society. But we can assume that she was a very young woman, probably a teenager, when Abraham’s servant found her at the well. The speed with which she agrees to leave with him, despite her family wanting her to stay2 , suggest someone in need of adventure and a strong desire to escape from home. Unlike her future daughter-in-law Rachel, she does not plead with God to make her pregnant – it is Isaac who makes that request. Rebekah, I think, is more concerned with making history and ensuring that her vision survives.
So the machinations and deceptions involved in making sure her younger, favoured son gets his brother’s blessing need to be seen in the context of a woman who has been given a sacred mission to make sure history continues to evolve. If Esau were to get the birthright and blessing and Jacob stay at home, then Jacob would never meet Rachel and Leah, and would have no transformative encounter with an angel, turning him into Yisrael. It is in running away that Jacob finds himself. Sometimes there are only hard choices to be made. Sometimes you just need to work with what you’ve got.
Carol Meyers3 notes Rebekah has informal power rather than formal authority, telling Jacob three times: shema be’koli (listen to me); when she first tells Jacob of her plan, when he argues against her, and when she sends him away to escape Esau’s death threats. She has power over her youngest son and that’s what she uses. Rebekah pulls her family apart and as far as we know never sees her younger son again, but she fulfils the promise God made to her and in so doing makes sense of her own life.
At the end of this week’s parashah Rebekah acknowledges both her sons – her older son Esau and her younger son Jacob – and saves them both – Jacob from death, and Esau from the sin of murder. “Why should I lose both of you on the same day?”4 She is their mother and there is evidence that she cares about both of them – she is certainly very concerned about Esau’s choice of wife5 – but she is impelled by something else – the great sweep of history. And she cares about that more.
While Rebekah’s role as a visionary and prophet is great for the Jewish people, it is somewhat unfortunate for Jacob and Esau that their mother is willing to cause personal devastation to achieve the greater goal; because their father is a trauma victim, weighed down by Abraham’s willingness to kill him on Mount Moriah. His passivity is a mirror to Rebekah’s visionary activism. He may be complicit in the deception – there is a debate about whether he is really ignorant of Jacob’s disguise or whether he is just playing along, letting Rebekah do the dirty work, while he seals the deal – but he is also blind in more ways than one.
Arguably Toledot completes the trauma series begun by the Akedah – remember that Rebekah married Isaac shortly after the death of his mother, Sarah, who, midrash tells us, died from the shock of thinking her husband had killed her son. The Akedah casts its shadow on their children.
Esau is isolated, spending his time out hunting, not understanding the implications of his birthright. He repeats the words of his mother’s existential cry when he sells it for a pot of soup: Anochi holech lamut; lamah zeh li bechorah?” I am going to die; why is this my birthright (or of what use is my birthright?)“ Aviva Zornberg describes him as living out the family angst at its harshest.6
Jacob is described as tam – complete, wholesome, but a word that can also imply innocence. He needs to leave the tents of his home and rely on his own resources before he can truly reach adulthood and find himself.
Rebekah is the catalyst thrown into this traumatised family. She doesn’t do blind faith – she knows that if she wants the divine plan to play out, she needs to take action herself. Like Eve, who disobeys God by eating forbidden fruit and in so doing kick-starts human life as we know it, Rebekah’s role is to make the changes that are needed for the future. Sometimes everyone needs a push to get out of their comfort zones and make the changes they need to grow and actualise their potential. Rebekah’s actions may seem harsh, but they are what her family needs.
Student Rabbi Naomi Goldman
1 Gen 25:23
2 Gen 24:58
3 Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, 1988. p41 (cited in Eskenazi and Weiss’ The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 2008, p143) .
4 Gen 2
5 Gen 26:35
6 Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg The Beginning of Desire, 1995, p161
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.