The voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment


The experience of losing my voice this week has had me thinking a lot about the power of speech. The ability to ‘have a voice’ – in the sense of being able to speak for ourselves – is indeed critical to our sense of self-worth.

In this week’s Torah portion, we hear the story of Rebekah’s ruse: Isaac is ready to give a blessing to one of his sons. The exclusive nature of the blessing would seem to indicate that it has some legal weight; perhaps Isaac is ready to retire from his role as head of the household. One presumes that he had been leading his family clan for some time; there is no mention of the transfer of power from Abraham to Isaac. Perhaps after the binding and near-sacrifice, Abraham was no longer interested in formal ceremonies.  But Isaac was willing to engage in the custom of giving his sons a blessing as he retires. His son Jacob and his grandson Joseph will do the same when their turn comes.

Isaac had always favored Esau, his outdoorsman son, and he tells him to make a festive meal for just the two of them, and they’ll talk.  Esau, however, is not a man of many words; he says one word in their brief exchange (the Hebrew word for ‘here I am’) and he leaves, ready to go into action. He is a powerful man and a skillful hunter. He speaks rarely, and in nearly every conversation he speaks of death. There is something about him that makes people tremble, a quality that puts others on their guard.

Rebecca is Isaac’s wife. She has no voice, at least when it comes to her husband. She speaks in whispers, of controversies and of plots. As we read, “Rebekah had been listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with the Lord’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you.’”

Jacob, in turn, tries to tell mom why this is a Very Bad Idea, but when he does, he gives the wrong reason: he doesn’t say ‘Mom don’t try to use me to trick my father and my brother.’ Rather, he’s worried that they will get caught. Her irritation is evident in the text as she exerts her power over him in her response: “But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”

Then there is the scene in which the son attempts the trick. Though the scene could certainly be played straight, there is an element of comedic farce: for example, exactly how hairy is this brother if they have to use sheepskin to mimic his arms and neck?

When Jacob comes in, more or less dressed as a sheep, his father Isaac asks who’s there:

[Jacob] went to his father and said, “Father.” And he said, “Yes, which of my sons are you?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.”

But Isaac is not convinced. He objects that Esau could not have made it back that soon:

Isaac said to his son, “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune.”

That’s the first objection voiced. Now he’s sounding really suspicious:

Isaac said to Jacob, “Come closer that I may feel you, my son-whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him.

That’s the second objection voiced. Imagine what that scene would look like if it were hammed up with over-acting. Played broadly, it’s actually pretty funny to picture the old blind father patting down the sheepskin on Jacob’s neck thinking it’s really Isaac.

But he’s still not fully convinced:

He asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And when he said, “I am,” he said, “Serve me and let me eat of my son’s game that I may give you my innermost blessing.” So he served him and he ate, and he brought him wine and he drank.

That’s the third objection voiced. But even after dinner he expresses his doubt:

Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come close and kiss me, my son”; and he went up and kissed him. And he smelled his clothes and he blessed him, saying, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed.

That’s the fourth objection voiced. And again the farce: Just how stinky is Esau if he’s that distinctive in his smell? You could imagine the father sniffing Jacob deeply, making an exaggeratedly sour face and then declaring – oh yeah, that’s Esau all right!

Which of course makes you wonder: maybe the father knew all along?

Here is another question to consider: who is the villain, and who is the hero in this story? You can argue plausibly for any two. I have seen a variety of commentaries, and they don’t all agree as to who is right and who is wrong, nor do they agree as to the reasons why. It’s not so simple, is it?

If we look at this text through the lens of the Rabbinic literature, for example, we will notice that the rabbis treat the two boys as archetypes, with Jacob as the people of Israel and Esau the nation of Rome. From their perspective, Rome’s endless brutality more than justified the trickery. In their version, Jacob the hero is always right and Esau the villain is always wrong.

If we look at this narrative through the lens of family dynamics, we will notice that the preferential treatment Abraham showed for one of his boys appears here again in Isaac’s treatment of his two sons. And these family dynamics get repeated endlessly: Just as Jacob tricks his brother, so too will he be tricked a pair of sister-rivals. The lesson here is that we tend to recreate our family dramas, down to the small details, carrying them from generation to generation. In this reading, Rebecca and Isaac bear the blame for not being more self-aware. And there are no heroes.

If we look at the story through the lens of feminism, we will notice that Rebecca is hidden, unable to venture out, unable to speak for herself. She must rely on subterfuge and reside in shadows. Her use of trickery is an expression of her weakness in the face of the more powerful male.  Here Isaac is the one who is wrong, the patriarchic villain, and Rebecca is the hero for getting what she wants even in a position of relative powerlessness.

The story has neither hero nor villain, just people behaving badly. You are the one who picks the hero, the one with whom you identify, and you are the one who chooses the villain.

But the story also hides a deeper pain, which is why it is so endlessly interesting to us. Why is it that this family can’t talk to each other? Why does Rebecca feel the need to manipulate her younger son in order to trick his father into giving him recognition? Why does the older son keep getting duped by his brother and his mother?

What happens in these situations – what drives folks to engage in these elaborate schemes – is the belief that they will not be heard.

I have used this example before, but it is apt: let’s say you are swindled and you take the guy to small claims court. You prepare your case, organize your papers, and practice your speeches. You are going to explain exactly how you were wronged. You are going to have your day in court. And when the day comes, before you even get to speak, the judge summarily rules in your favor without hearing the case. Would you feel satisfied with that result?

To a large extent, we would rather be heard, even if it means that we might lose our case.

We all want to be heard, on our own terms, in our own voice. So, in listening to this story – and to the stories you hear as you go into your week – ask yourself: who is not being heard? Seeking out that voice and the perspective that it represents might go a long way toward relieving unresolved pain.  It’s not always possible, of course; just as I have lost my voice this week, others too can lose the ability to give voice to their perspective. But do try to listen. We all want to be heard, on our own terms, in our own voice.

Getting Lucky

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment


Abraham wishes to find a wife for his son Isaac, and sends his servant to find one among his kinsmen. Approaching the well near where Abraham’s kinsmen dwell, the servant stops and says a prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”[1]

It is a rather odd prayer: He is asking to be lucky.

As the Medieval commentator Abravanel comments: “If the servant relied on Divine Providence and for that reason prayed to [God], how could he invoke the workings of chance and ask [God] to engineer a coincidence when these are two mutually exclusive categories? What happens through the workings of Providence cannot be termed chance or coincidence.”[2]

“Moreover,” our more contemporary commentator and teacher Nehama Leibowitz adds, “is it conceivable for one who believed in Divine Providence to accept the existence of such a thing as ‘chance’ and even go so far as to request that the Almighty…to prepare such a situation?”[3]

Either God is in charge of all of these small details, arranges things to happen the way they do, and therefore it is no coincidence, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck – or – God is not in charge of these details, and does not make such things happen, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck.

There’s a third option, one that Leibowitz proposes: “Abraham’s servant entreated the Almighty as the Prime Mover behind all things to arrange that matters should work out in accordance with his desires.”[4]

In other words, there is luck – God is not a micromanager – but ultimately it was God who created the situation in the first place.

I think that these points would be clearer if we use the metaphor of a casino:

Option 1 is that the game is rigged, and you are asking the casino owner to load the dice in your favor. Except then it is no longer a game of chance. This is what’s called a deterministic universe, in that the outcome is determined in advance. The notion of divine Providence requires at least some amount of determinism in order to work.

Option 2 is that the game is not rigged, and the casino owner is not able to intervene. You get what you get. In that case, it’s not particularly useful to ask the owner to load the dice for you.  This is what we mean when we speak of free will: you pay your money and take your chances. And you get what you get. Free will requires that the outcome is not determined in advance. In order for it to be a real choice, either outcome must be possible. And therefore not already determined.

Option 3 is that the game is not usually rigged, but under special circumstances it’s possible to load the dice, if you should ask the casino owner nicely.  This is what we mean when we use the phrase “Special Providence.” Most of the time the rules are in place, but God can intervene as needed.

I use the imagery of a casino for a reason: Most of us would prefer that we had the power to rig the game. Or rather, that we had the power to convince the casino owner to rig the game in our favor.

Yet, at the heart of it, the rigged game is not just or fair, is it?

Can justice flourish if the game is rigged so that the good always win?

And would you want to participate in a system where what is good is defined exclusively by what the casino owner likes? Let us hope that it is a benevolent casino owner. Most of us would prefer that there was some benchmark, some absolute by which goodness could be measured, rather than having to bend to the caprice of another.

Okay, so let’s agree that God is infinitely good, unlike our hypothetical casino owner, and God is also just, and fair – and let’s say that the notion of God’s goodness is used as the benchmark. Would it work to have the game that is rigged in favor of those who were good, as God is good in an absolute sense?

But now you have another problem: are the ones who are being good really actually being good – or are they merely being prudent?

For example, imagine a cashier at that casino with a cashbox that will be audited at the end of the shift. If the cashier gives you correct change and does not cheat you, is the cashier doing what is right because it is indeed right, or is the cashier merely doing what is necessary to keep out of trouble?

If you know that the cashbox will be audited, and that there are indeed consequences when it is not kept accurate, then it is simply foolish to give incorrect change, except by unconscious mistake.

Interestingly, my friend the Christian fundamentalist believes that people will only do what is right if they know that their behavior is being judged. The cashier with the cashbox, in his opinion, gives correct change only if it is well-known and well-established hat the cashbox will be audited.

I tend to disagree with him about that, but I am also an optimist by nature.

But let’s return to our example: For the game to be fair, it can’t be rigged – right? You pay your money, you take your chances, and you get what you get.

So let’s look again at the servant and his prayer: why would he be asking the casino owner to bring him luck, if the game is not rigged? As if the casino owner could help! And if the casino owner can help, then why ask for luck? You ask instead for a good outcome. The casino owner has no power over ‘luck’. Luck is not helpful here.

This paradox is precisely why some commentators (including me) prefer to read the servant’s statement as a test rather than a prayer: He is calling out to God to be a witness, not a guarantor.

The servant’s camel request is actually somewhat annoying and difficult to accomplish. The young woman is to bring water for him and for all ten of his camels as well. That’s a lot of water – a lot more than what can be carried on her shoulder. The laws of hospitality require that she give a drink to a stranger – so the first part of his test is one of basic civility – but as for watering his camels, well, he’s on his own.

So he’s seeking out a woman who will go out of her way help more than is required of her – and who is strong enough to do it. He has, after all, ten camels with him, and every one of them can drink several troughs full.

To give some Biblical background: In the Biblical stories, the extent of a person’s hospitality is considered a reliable indicator of a person’s character. For example, the people of Sodom and Gemorrah are considered wicked because they wish to inflict harm on strangers in their city. Abraham is considered righteous because he immediately extends hospitality to the three strangers that appear at his encampment – he runs to serve them. And the refrain ‘be good to the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’ appears repeatedly in the Exodus narratives.

So the servant is looking for a righteous woman, and a strong one, and (interestingly enough) one who will talk to strangers. And he indeed finds her in the person of Rebecca.

Though the Bible does not say that his request (or prayer, or test) was fulfilled by God, the narrative gives us that sense: no sooner than he had finished speaking did she appear. And not only does she fulfill the requirements by offering to give him water and to water his camels as well, but it says repeatedly that she hurried to do so. And she does so with such graciousness and charm that she must have seemed heaven-sent.

Still, we need to be careful here. If we accept that this woman is sent out by God in fulfillment of the servant’s prayer, then we also have to accept those times when she does not appear, when the prayer does not work, when things don’t work out right.

This date is also the date of Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazis’ reign of terror against the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Do we blame God for that one too?

Let’s then go back to our casino example: if the game is fair, then it is not rigged. We don’t automatically win. That only happens when we are small children and our parents indulge us.

Good does not always win – but it should. It is a moral imperative that we make that happen, that we engage with the universe and see to it that it is fair and just. The game is not rigged – but somehow the outcome matters, and it matters greatly. Which is, of course, where the casino metaphor breaks down.

Because, of course, we are not merely throwing dice. The outcome matters greatly.

So let’s look for a moment at a different kind of prayer, at the Misheberach, the prayer for healing. The phrase ‘misheberach’ means ‘the One who blesses’ – may the One who blesses, who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca Rachel and Leah, heal this person.

Is this prayer some kind of foolishness? Certainly not. But are we not asking for something that cannot happen? Are we not asking for God to intervene to create a favorable outcome.

Not exactly. When we try to get God to do our will, that is called theurgy. Theurgy is a fancy word for magic. We are trying to cast a spell that will cause the Godhead to do our bidding. The Misheberach prayer is not theurgy; it is not magic.

Nor are we invoking it to say that we think that this illness is some kind of test, in the sense of ‘if we pass this test, then we will be righteous.’

Rather, it is a statement of outcomes. It is the expression of a wish to be whole again, to be healed, the acknowledgement of our fear in the face of disease, our desire to hold on to what we love, our interest in rising above our mere flesh to have a life of meaning.

It is a request that all of the spiritual energy that is available to us – and it is considerable – be focused on the goal of healing, this one person, right now.

The servant was not praying for luck: he was praying for the ability to discern the results of his test. And we are not praying for luck: we are praying for the ability to respond in the best possible way to the challenges we face.

And that is a very real prayer, and a very powerful one.

[1] JPS translation

[2] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

[3] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit. I removed the word ‘Himself’ in order to make the phrase gender-neutral.

[4] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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