Tangled Web

These are the weeks that we read of our heroes. The book of Genesis tells the stories of the faith and tenacity of the fathers and mothers of our nation for whom every day was another stride in the uncharted waters of living in covenant with God. It was their passionate determination to keep the vision of a righteous and holy people alive that ultimately produced the Jewish people. But it wasn’t always easy.

There were many times when it was hard to know where the right path lay. And as a result, there were decisions made and actions undertaken that, in retrospect, appear morally very troubling. Today’s parsha presents one of the marquee examples of this phenomenon. The Torah presents it to us in great detail, for successes and failures alike are our teachers.

By the standards of Jewish law, the deception of Isaac that was conceived by Rebecca and executed by Jacob, was flat out sinful. It was Isaac’s intention to bless Esau, and Rebecca and Jacob exploited Isaac’s blindness to steal from Esau what was intended to be his. The questions we are to ask ourselves are these: What are we, the inheritors of this purloined blessing, to make of these facts? What is it that the Torah intends to convey to us in so explicitly describing our father Jacob’s actions?

For the record, similar questions can be asked concerning a central episode in the parsha a couple of weeks ago. There, our mother Sara was determined to insure that only Isaac, and not Ishmael, would inherit the blessing of Abraham. The method she chose to obtain her goal was none too savory. She demanded that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be summarily evicted from the household. Abraham sent them out with only minimal provisions, and were it not for divine intervention on their behalf, they would have perished. What are we supposed to make of these events? What are they meant to tell us about ourselves, about our story, and about the aspiration to bearers of God’s blessing?

It is important to note that the rabbinic tradition does not whitewash either of these stories. Nachmanidies, for example, explicitly labels the actions taken against Ishmael to have been sinful, and proclaims that they are responsible for the enmity that exists between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael to this day (Nachmanidies lived in Spain in the 13th century). We can find similar candidness in the rabbinic tradition regarding Jacob’s actions. The Midrash portrays Leah as upbraiding her husband Jacob for his having deceived his father. It is clear that the stories are presented so that we can learn from the holy errors of our parents.

I’d suggest that the premise of the intended lesson is that Isaac and Jacob would have emerged as the fathers of Israel regardless of the machinations that they and their mothers performed. God had already chosen them, and regardless of the steps that Sara, Rebecca and Jacob would — or would not — have taken, this divine will would have been fulfilled.

These aren’t stories about how their selection came to be. Rather, they are stories about how easy it is for the aspiration for greatness to accidentally turn into the trampling underfoot of others. Sara, Rebecca and Jacob were completely committed to the vision that God spoke to Abraham. They wanted to “be a blessing” for the nations of the earth. They wanted to be the embodiment of God’s wishes for the betterment and growth of humankind. And when that aspiration seemed threatened by an Ishmael or an Esau, they acted forcefully and aggressively to counter that threat. At the time it probably seemed to them that this was the only way to go. We, their children who inherited their dream, are obliged to question their methods, and draw the lessons about the privilege and perils of being commanded to be great. It would have been irresponsible of the Torah to have presented the idea of our chosenness without also presenting for us the inherent dangers of this idea — dangers which if not minded, could undermine all that we strive to do.

I know that there are important segments of our Jewish community that are quite uncomfortable with the notions of chosenness, and of divine selection of Israel from among the nations. The idea that the Torah itself is sensitive to the complexities of the issue can, I believe, further enlighten and inform the lively and holy discussion over this issue.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.