Toldot – On birthing, on blessing, and on bible as literature

In this section we have the by-now familiar trope of the barren woman. Rebecca has trouble conceiving and then has a troubled pregnancy. She goes to God and asks that if procreation is so difficult for her, “Why do I exist?” This type of existential questioning is something to which readers throughout the ages can relate. Many people ask these kinds of questions of a God; we externalize the conversation about life’s meaning because it is scary to imagine that we alone can define the meaning of our existence and the direction our lives will take. Although in this narrative the God-character answers Rebecca, we know that she was already pregnant. One reading of this is that sometimes the answers to our deepest questions and fears, like Rebecca’s baby, are already inside us.

Rebecca is not just mother to her children, but figuratively to our people. Rebecca is the reason the Abrahamic promise can come to fruition. Isaac, a patriarch but one who is painted as both weak and sort of comic in the text, is not responsible for the continuity of the Abrahamic line. He prefers their son Esau (whose progeny become the Edomites), but Rebecca knows that Isaac is the more suited to fulfill the covenant and the promise of the generations.

Another repeated trope in the biblical narratives is the rivalry between brothers and the younger brother’s usurpation of the elder’s birthright. Just as we saw with Cain and Abel and Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob are conditioned by conflict. Esau gives Jacob his birthright in exchange for a plate of lentils. While Rashi has a beautiful analysis of lentils as symbolic of mourning and tradition due to their round shape, a much more simple reading is that Esau didn’t value his birthright very much if he was willing to give it away for so little. Jacob is the one who values tradition, family, and responsibility. Esau is coarse while Jacob is refined. Rebecca is able to manipulate Isaac so that Jacob can act on the birthright he procured from his brother. As Isaac ages he becomes blind. He sends for Esau in order to bless him, but Rebecca compels Jacob to take his place. Jacob dresses in Esau’s clothes so Isaac will be fooled by the smell, and Rebecca puts pelts on Jacob so that he feels hairy like his brother. Isaac bestows his blessing upon Jacob instead of Esau. Rebecca, having pulled the strings to make all of this occur, is clearly the stronger figure. She does not waver in her preference for Jacob and she is not cowardly about it. She acts. Rebecca is powerful and, although commentators and interpreters take exception to her trickery and deception, valiant.

One aspect of Rebecca’s character that Humanistic Jews find objectionable is her distaste for Esau arising from his choice to marry outside of their tribe. His wife Judith (about which we learn nothing in this text) is forgotten in the Jewish tradition but reclaimed elsewhere. Biblical texts are contradictory when it comes to intermarriage. For Tziporah (a Midianite who marries Moses) and Ruth (in the Book of Ruth) it is celebrated. Here it is condemned. We can have sympathy for a matriarchal figure like Rebecca, whose identity rests in being a mother and a mother to a nation, for wanting to preserve the purity of her progeny. We also know, however, that all genetic lines are strengthened by mixing (culturally but also genetically according to Darwinian thinking), and thus Rebecca’s hatred of the other is one of her poorer qualities. Nonetheless, Rebecca is sympathetic in her power, her love, and her searching for meaning.

Traditional midrash holds various interpretations of how Isaac could be so easily fooled. One is that he secretly prefers Jacob but is too afraid to tell Esau. He therefore lets himself be deceived in order to bless Jacob. This is a lot of twisting in order to maintain the power of the patriarch in the light of this comic (and strange!) story. Those of us who are not invested in the truthfulness of the narrative can see this as a great tale. This vignette in which Isaac is fooled by such a ridiculous charade calls attention to the story’s own narrativity. Any story, especially a comedic one, gets embellished for effect. This narrative is no exception and is a moment in which the literary nature of the text is especially apparent.

The question of whether the bible is literal or literary has been fraught. For Humanistic Jews it is the wrong question altogether. A better question is what these narratives can teach us about our humanity. This parshah teaches us that the matriarchs have been overlooked and deserve more exploration and respect, that power should not be transferred by birthright alone but attained by those who are deserving of it, and that life is significantly enriched by really good stories.


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