Desperate Housewife*

by Eliezer Segal

Genesis 27

41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, "The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob." 42 But the words of Esau her older son were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called Jacob her younger son, and said to him, "Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself by planning to kill you. 43 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran, 44 and stay with him a while, until your brother's fury turns away; 45 until your brother's anger turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and fetch you from there. Why should I be bereft of you both in one day?" 46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, "I am weary of my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women such as these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?"

Genesis 28

1Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, "You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women. 2 Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethu'el your mother's father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother's brother. 3 God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. 4 May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your descendants with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings which God gave to Abraham!" 5 Thus Isaac sent Jacob away; and he went to Paddan-aram to Laban, the son of Bethu'el the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob's and Esau's mother. 6 Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he charged him, "You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women," 7 and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and gone to Paddan-aram. 8 So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, 9 Esau went to Ish'mael and took to wife, besides the wives he had, Ma'halath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham's son, the sister of Neba'ioth.

The closing verses of Parashat Toledot have been a source of puzzlement, to say the least, to many commentators. The preceding chapters were devoted to the story of how Jacob had incurred Esau's anger when he received Isaac's blessing under fraudulent circumstances. We have been told that Esau's fury reached murderous proportions, and that Jacob had to flee for his life.

And then, abruptly, from verse 27:46 onwards, the narrative undergoes a complete about-face. Everybody is suddenly concerned with finding wives. Jacob's departure is now attributed to his parents' dissatisfaction with the local bride market. The fear of Esau's revenge does not merit the slightest mention. In fact, the only interest that the story now has in Esau's life relates to his own efforts to find an acceptable life-mate from Ishmael's family.

What is going on here? Some modern Bible scholars blame this bizarre situation on bad editing, assuming that two separate stories about Jacob's departure have been spliced together.

According to several Jewish exegetes, the about-face should not be blamed on an inconsistency in the narrative, but on the persuasive skills of the matriarch Rebecca. As she has been doing since the beginning of the episode, here too, she continues in her attempts to define the terms of reference for the other members of her family.

She is the only one who knows about Esau's intention to kill Jacob. Jacob had left the scene before Esau's return, and though Esau had uttered his threat "in his heart," it was somehow reported to Rebecca. (Maybe she employed the household servants as personal spies. She strikes me as the type who, if she were lving in a later age, would peek into her children's confidential diaries or hack into their email accounts.) Rebecca warns Jacob of the danger to his life, but evidently she never divulges this crucial information to her husband.

Several of the commentators. including Rashbam and Rabbi Isaac Arama (author of the Aqedat Yis-haq ), make reference to Rebecca's hokhmah in handling this situation. This Hebrew word can encompass quite a wide range of meanings, and it is not clear whether they are using it here in the approving sense of "wisdom," or merely as "cleverness," "cunning" or "shrewdness."

Rabbi Arama implies that he is equating Rebecca's hokhmah with shrewdness, in the sense of psychological perceptiveness. He discerns this quality in her decision to represent Jacob's flight to Padan Aram as if it were simply some sort of singles cruise to find him a mate. She reasons that if Esau were to catch on that Jacob was fleeing for his life, the scent of his brother's fear would provoke him to chase after Jacob immediately; whereas, as long as he had no reason to suspect that Jacob was aware of his murderous designs, he would postpone his revenge to a more opportune occasion. Following her elaborate strategy, Rebecca convinced her husband Isaac of the urgent need to send Jacob to Laban's house to find a wife, thereby creating the impression that his departure was motivated by obedience to his father's commands.

According to Rabbi Arama's reading, Rebecca was so successful in concealing the real reason for Jacob's departure that even Esau fell for the ruse, and turned his energies to the new project of finding himself an acceptable partner from Uncle Ishmael's family and, forgetting all about his quarrel with Jacob over the blessing.

When Don Isaac Abravanel paraphrases this passage, he states that Rebecca twisted the facts "for the sake of peace." He is, of course, alluding here to the midrash about how the Almighty misquoted Sarah's response to the news that she would bear a son (Genesis 18:12). Sarah had found this news impossible to accept because of Abraham's advanced age. However, when reporting the conversation to Abraham, God quoted her as if she had been referring to her own age: "Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? (verse 13)". The rabbis inferred from this that domestic harmony is so precious that it overrides the obligation to tell the truth--even for the one whose name is Truth.

By alluding to that midrash, Abravanel seems to be implying that Rebecca too was acting out of noble motives.

These days, one hears frequent calls for openness in a relationship. Experts tell us that spouses should never keep secrets from each other, and that they should strive to be frank and honest no matter how unpleasant the immediate consequences. In my own limited experience, I have not found that uncompromising honesty is usually conducive to the stability of a marriage. Clearly, the rabbis whom we quoted here did not share that commitment to unconditional honesty, at least not in cases where it would lead to hurt feelings or resentment.

Nevertheless, I am not really so sure that Rebecca's conduct here can be read in such a positive manner, or whether the Torah is encouraging us to emulate her approach to dealing with family problems. After all, there is a great difference between God glossing Sarah's innocent slip of the tongue, and Rebecca's refusal to own up to her responsibilities for a deep rift in the family.

It would seem that what went on in Isaac and Rebecca's household was more serious than a few little diplomatic white lies. Rebecca seems inherently incapable of holding a direct or open conversation with Isaac. When she hears of her husband's intention to bless Esau (evidently by spying on their conversation), she does not approach him to voice her concerns, nor does she encourage Jacob to do discuss the matter with his father. She always prefers to operate deviously behind the scenes, and she urges Jacob to do the same.

In fact, when we take a closer look at Abravanel's interpretation of the passages, we see that he is also quite critical of Rebecca's motives. He ascribes her concealment of the true situation to her fear of Isaac's reaction: If he were to realize the degree to which her meddling has destroyed the harmony of their household and driven a wedge between the two siblings, his outrage against her would have been unbearable. It was in order to avoid this confrontation that she worked so hard to put a positive spin on the disintegration of their family. As far as Isaac is aware, it is not fear and loathing that are driving their son away, but the constructive desire to seek a wife among Rebecca's kinfolk.

Isaac is easily taken in by her version of the situation. When he makes his farewells to Jacob it is as if he has internalized all of Rebecca's complaints about the local women. He seems completely unaware of any danger to his son's life, or of his wife's part in the tragedy.

Certainly, there is much to be said for sparing people's feelings by protecting them from upsetting truths. Open communications between spouses and family members is also an important value. The complexities of real life make it very difficult to know which approach is the correct one to follow in a given situation. The Torah offers us guidance and models for emulation, but it cannot provide us with simplistic solutions to all of life's difficulties. When all is said and done, it is up to each of us to draw form the wisdom of the tradition and choose the responsible course of action that is appropriate for the individuals and the situation.


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, December 3, 2005.