By Cantor Sheri Allen
So there we were, sitting at the kitchen table: me and my younger siblings, Mark and Jill. I must’ve been no older than 10, and, being the oldest, I decided it was time to set the record straight. So I posed the question that I’m sure has been asked by countless children throughout the centuries: “Mommy, who’s your favorite? Which one of us do you love best?” My mother hesitated for a moment, looked at each one of us and then said, matter-of-factly, “Your father.” That shut down that argument. I imagine my mother thought that she was either being extremely clever or brilliantly diplomatic, and perhaps she was both. In any case, I never forgot that conversation.
Years later, when my own children asked me the same question, I simply shot back, “Whoever made their bed this morning.” I thought that bestowing the honor of “favorite child” was the perfect incentive for getting my kids to do their chores. Thankfully, they are all best friends, which, if not a miracle, is truly a blessing.
Things didn’t work out as well for Jacob and Esau. When Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins, God tells her (Genesis 25:23): “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.”
This last phrase sets off a series of events that will change the course of our ancestors’ lives, but the verse might not be as straightforward as it seems. Rabbi Daniel Nevins points out that “the problem is that this prophecy is ambiguous, especially in its final clause, v’rav ya-avod tza-ir. Richard Elliot Friedman suggests that this could mean either ‘the elder shall serve the younger,’ or ‘the elder, the younger shall serve.’”
Rebekah obviously chooses to interpret it according to translation No. 1, and takes on the responsibility of making sure that this oracle is fulfilled. So, she devises a plot that would rival any soap opera. She tells Jacob, her favorite, younger son, to hunt some game, disguise himself in his brother’s clothing (complete with attachable animal skins to resemble his hairy brother), bring his father his favorite meal and snag the blessing in the process. When Jacob attempts to protest, she shuts him down.
And the plan succeeds. Sort of. Isaac, although blind, is suspicious enough to ask, “Which of my sons are you?” And Jacob, acquiescing under pressure, plays along and deceives as well, replying, “I am Esau, your firstborn; I have done as you have told me.” And after touching him, Isaac still has his doubts: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” But he goes ahead and bestows the blessing anyway. And when Isaac and Esau discover that Jacob has deceived them both, they react with shock, tears and anger. Jacob is forced to flee to escape the wrath of his brother, who has vowed to kill him.
We are left with many questions. Was Jacob an unwilling player in his mother’s game of deception? Did Isaac not recognize his own son? Was Rebekah justified in her actions?
I wonder what would’ve happened if Rebekah had gone to Isaac and revealed her own revelation? Perhaps Isaac would’ve gone back to God to either affirm, deny or clarify the Divine pronouncement. No deceit necessary. Rebekah suffers heavy consequences for her actions. She witnesses the emotional pain of her husband and the wrath of her son Esau, and must send her beloved Jacob away. She is truly left alone.
And what of Isaac? He is clearly doubtful when Jacob tries to pass himself off as Esau. Perhaps he really did suspect that Jacob wasn’t who he said he was but wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and thus decided to give him his blessing anyway — only to find out that he was, indeed, deceived.
Jacob pays a price for his duplicity as well. For in a biblical “what goes around comes around” chain of events, Jacob is later tricked by his father-in-law into marrying the wrong girl, and then, later, is tricked by his own sons into thinking that his favorite son Joseph is dead.
One can say that this was cosmic payback. But perhaps Jacob consciously decided that, after being duped, he would not fight back or cry foul, because he had done the same thing years ago. Maybe this was his way of rejecting hypocrisy, acknowledging that he made a mistake all those years ago and accepting that it was now time to atone for it. Rabbi Abigail Treu states, “The important thing is that Jacob outgrows the behavior we see and dislike. We don’t need to pretend that Jacob never lied; we realize that Jacob did lie and cheat, and that he successfully struggled to abandon those behaviors. That is what makes him worthy of being our patriarch.”
Our ancestors weren’t perfect. And we don’t need to defend them. What we do need to do is learn from them, their struggles, their pain and their ultimate striving to truly hear and follow God’s voice — the voice that never let them stop striving for holiness.
Sheri Allen is the cantor and co-founder of Makom Shelanu Congregation in Fort Worth. She is an associate member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.