These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE Dvar Torah] Parshas Toldos: Family Wounds and Holy Missions

Posted on November 21, 2014 by Yocheved Retig

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yocheved retigParshat Toldot finds us smack in the middle of a generations-long family dynamic concerning favoritism and absenteeism that has yet to be resolved or recognized. The dynamic comes to a climax when Rivkah Imanu compels Ya’akov Avinu to deceive his father into receiving the blessing that Hashem pre-ordained for Ya’akov (כה:כג), but that Yitzchak intended to give to Esav. An act of deception enables Hashem’s will to be done, and an unassuming reader is left feeling torn: howare we to feel about the possibility that goodness of Hashem’s will, while technically being carried out, was possibly subverted through an act of trickery ח’’ו (G-d forbid)?

Before we make any final decisions about how to relate to Rivkah Imanu and Ya’akov Avinu’s actions, let us further understand both of our ancestors.

Rivkah entered Yitzchak’s life shortly after Sarah Imanu’s death, and in their marriage וינחם יצחק אחרי אמו (and Isaac was comforted after (the death) his mother) (סז). The midrash tells her that Rivkah Imanu was similar to Sarah Imanu in three respects:

שכל זמן ששרה קיימת היה נר דלוק מערב שבת לערב שבת

וברכה מצויה בעיסה

וענן קשור על האהל ומשמתה פסקו וכשבאת רבקה חזרו

בראשית רבה ס:טז

When Sarah Imanu was alive, three blessings were constantly in her tent and with the family:

each time she lit the candles they would last from Erev Shabbes until the next Erev Shabbes,

the mixture of the (challah) dough was blessed,

and a cloud (of the Shekhina) was attached to the entrance of the tent.

When she died, these blessing ceased, and when Rivkah arrived, they returned.

Gen Rabbah 60:16

These blessings, though mystical and religious in nature, are also practical: the light maintained their ability to go about their daily lives, the dough allowed them to eat, and the cloud of the Shekhinah brought compassion and protection in an otherwise ruthless desert. Why did only Sarah Imanu provide these blessings? Were Avraham Avinu or Yitzchak Avinu not able to?

We know that Sarah and Rivkah were similar in the blessings that they brought to their household. I would add that they are similar in yet another way: their ability to do what needs to be done, even when their husbands drag their feet. They both possess a certain perseverance to enact Hashem’s will at the exact moment their husbands lack both will and foresight. Sarah Imanu tells Avraham Avinu that Ishmael must go in Parshat Vayeira, and Avraham Avinu drags his feet before finally agreeing. Sarah initially told Avraham to conceive through Hagar, thinking the blessing would not be passed down because they were childless.

After she bears her own child, however, the fear and uncertainty that brought her to encourage Avraham to conceive with Hagar is replaced with understanding of the threat Ishmael poses to the Divine enterprise, and she resolves to rectify the situation. She tells Avraham Avinu what needs to be done. Avraham eventually listens to his wife, but lost in his own ambivalence, does not give Hagar and Ishamel enough provisions to weather the journey, and perhaps does not give them adequate directions, either. Whereas Sarah goes through a process of fear and uncertainty leading to understanding, resolve, and enacting solutions, Avraham only does what he is told, and does not anticipate problems. What may he have done differently when he sent away Hagar and Ishmael away had he not simply reacted, but anticipated, the way Sarah Imanu did?

In our parshah, we have a similar arc: Rivkah experiences ambivalence and fear during her pregnancy when it becomes difficult (כה:כב), and talks to Hashem about it (כג). Hashem explains that there are two peoples in her womb, and the younger will rule the older. We see in the coming years that she resolves to ensure the younger child, Ya’akov Avinu, will receive the bracha, and not Esav, just as Hashem intended. But, unlike Sarah, she apparently resolves to do this entirely on her own.

Why did Rivkah Imanu speak to Hashem about her concerns, but not her husband, when she had a difficult pregnancy? Did she not trust his judgement? Why did she not tell her husband about her conversation after the fact? Was he even aware that she had an encounter with the Divine?  Was her husband, similarly to his father, lacking in certain middos (character traits) to do what was necessary, to do what had to be done, and she simply took matters into her own hands to an even greater extent than Sarah Imanu did?

When Rivkah Imanu and Ya’akov Avinu finally deceived Yitzchak Avinu to give him the bracha, their ability to pull it off hinges on Yitzchak’s inability to see:

ויהי כי זקן יצחק ותכהין עיניו מראת ויקרא את עשו בנו הגדל ויאמר אליו בּני ויאמר אליו הנני:


And it was when Isaac was old that his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esav his elder son, and he said to him, “My son,” and he said to him, “Here I am.”

“מראת”, here translated as “too see,” is an important word and root in Yitzchak’s life. It appears many times in the  עקידת יצחק, the Binding of Yitzchak, and is a word that many believe hints at the inner meaning of the עקידה. “Sight” and “seeing” are words repeated many times throughout what is, arguably, the most definitive moment of Yitchak Avinu’s life, and suddenly we are told he cannot see? When did this happen? Rashi explains:

דבר אחר: כשנעקד על גבי המזבח והיה אביו רוצה לשחטו, באותה שעה נפתחו השמים וראו מלאכי השרת והיו בוכים וירדו דמעותיהם ונפלו על עיניו, לפיכך כהו עיניו.

When Yitzchak was bound on top of the altar, and his father wanted to slaughter him, the heavens were opened and the angels saw and the angels wept, and their tears came down and fell into his (Yitzchak’s) eyes, and thus his eyes were dimmed.

Genesis Rabbah 65:6

Yitzchak’s experience with the Divine, which blinds him, is later that which enables Rivkah and Ya’akov’s deceit to work. It’s the same brush with the Divine that many understand as the cause of Sarah Imanu’s death, for she was so grief-stricken by what her husband had almost done. And then Rivkah, who comforts Yitzchak after this slew of events, seems to keep her brush with Divinity a secret from Yitzchak. On some level, it is this family’s experience of Divinity, and their inability to truly grapple with it, that is at the core of their dysfunction. Yitzchak’s experience with Divinity (i.e., his blindness) is easily used as a cover-up or excuse for his “mistake” at giving Esav’s blessing to Yitzchak (27:32-33), but it seems that from Yitzchak’s initial resistance to blessing the disguised Ya’akov (27:18-27) and from how quickly Yitzchak figured out what Ya’akov had done, that he had a strong suspicion, if not (subconscious) knowledge, of what was going on all along.

What are we to make of all of this? It seems that Yitzchak Avinu’s brush with Divinity overwhelmed him to the point that he did not have the ability to be present in his family’s spiritual process. Rivkah did not tell him of her brush with Divinity, in which Hashem told her what was to become of the two brothers, and so she was left to do the work herself. Of course, because she did not tell her husband (and consequently, she did not have a partner in the work), Yitzchak became more of an obstacle to the work that needed to be done. The same person who loves and knows Yitzchak intimately enough to comfort him after his mother’s death is also capable of deceiving him. It is important to see, though, that what makes Rivkah capable of loving and comforting Yitzchak, as well as deceiving him, is the same thing: her knowledge of him and her desire to protect him. The source of Yitzchak’s need for comfort and ability/need to be absent from his family are also the same: he has not yet healed his wounds. Combine Rivkah’s desire to protect and comfort Yitzchak, Yitzchak’s unhealed wounds, and the family’s Divine mission, and we are left with a family that accomplishes the great spiritual mission with which Hashem has entrusted it, but does so at a great cost. They avoid, and davka enflame, much of the emotional work they need to do, as they stumble and lead the bracha toward its proper recipient, and, in the process, hurt each other significantly. Rather than working through their individual and collective wounds, they work around them, and they accomplish Hashem’s mission, but with dishonesty and the enforcement of family secrets.

It’s important to note that Rivkah Imanu seems aware that the deception will come at a cost (כו:יג). When Ya’akov protests at his mother’s plan to trick his father, she says  עלי קללתך בני (“[if you shall be cursed,] your curse is on me, my son”). Why is she willing to risk so much, and hurt her family members so much, if she is even marginally aware of the risks?

Because it needed to be done. It was a holy mission, and Hashem had a plan, and for a myriad of complex reasons Rivkah Imanu felt she was the only one in the family who could handle this truth, and consequently she sought to fulfill this truth by means of deceit.

It speaks volumes about our holy ancestors’ capabilities and devotedness to Hashem that, despite great suffering, struggle, and tests, they were able to ultimately accomplish what Hashem wanted them to do: built a great nation, with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov as its founders. That much of this spiritual work and accomplishment was done through dishonesty and caused considerable pain, however, speaks to our holy ancestors’ humanness.

What if Yitzchak Avinu had done the emotional and spiritual healing necessary to be a full partner to Rivkah Imanu? To notice when her pregnancy was difficult, to help her figure out what was going on, to be a part of the Divine encounter she had that explained what was to come? What if he had healed himself enough to be present to the dilemmas and difficulties in her life? What if Rivkah Imanu had understood that she could both love, comfort, and treasure Yitzchak Avinu and hold him accountable to his responsibilities to her as a partner? If they had truly been partners– if Rivkah Imanu was not caretaking to Yitzchak and Yitzchak Avinu was not turning a willingly blind eye to the deceit and manipulation taking place in the family? Could the bracha instead have been passed down honestly, lovingly, and through bringing the family closer together?

This parsha calls on us to appreciate and treasure the great spiritual feats of our ancestors. It also calls on us to see their humanness, and how their humanness shaped the work they did to accomplish their holy missions. It calls on us to understand the sacred tasks of our own families– our families of origin, our families of choice, and the families we build and rear. Though our accomplishments will not be as great as our ancestors, Hashem has created each of us and our families with a dream of what we could accomplish and contribute, with a mission in mind for each of us. What wounds prevent us from carrying out these holy missions? Who are we “protecting” in our families when we should be helping them to “see,” name, and heal their wounds in order to enact the holy missions with which we have been entrusted? Or, are you or I the family member that has not yet taken responsibility for our wounds and the woundedness this lack of healing has caused in others? Who in our families is burdened with being (one of) the only one(s) who sees what must be done, while others turn a blind eye? Are you and I taking on too much responsibility for what “must” be done, and enabling family wounds to fester, as Rivkah Imanu did, when we should be explicating to our loved ones what needs to be done both practically and emotionally?

This parsha calls on us to be brave, honest, and vulnerable; to work hard to accomplish our holy missions and to heal the wounds that may lessen our missions’ goodness, ח’’ו. To do the work that is required to heal and strengthen families, all families, individuals are required to approach anew those with whom we have the oldest relationships and the deepest histories, including ourselves. We are required to understand that how we behave individually and as a family may feel inevitable, but can in fact be changed, if we are able to have the rooted compassion that enables us to lovingly hold both ourselves and others accountable for our actions, no matter how much pain we may be in. To do so does not dismiss our loved one’s pain, but encourages them to heal it so that they (and we) are able to be our best selves, to accomplish our holy missions, and so that, ח’’ו, our woundedness does not become our legacy.



Thanks to R’ Mike Feuer for meeting with me to help me develop my thoughts on the parsha and to my wife, Yudis Retig, for editing help (though all mistakes are mine).