Parashas Toldos (5762)
The sedra relates the birth of Isaac's two sons, Esau and Jacob and the ensuing tensions between them. Jacob buys the birthright from a famished Esau. Years later, before their father's death, he craftily usurps his father's blessing from Esau.
"Many quills have been broken and much ink spilt" to explain Jacob's actions both regarding the birthright sale and regarding his receiving the blessing from Isaac. Certainly, our father Jacob doesn't come off looking too innocent. However, a close reading of the Torah's words sheds a surprisingly different slant on the story than it is usually understood. I will not go into all these subtleties here. (For a detailed elucidation of the birthright sale, see my book "Studying the Torah: A Guide to In-depth Interpretation" Jason Aronson Publishers.) Our point here is to analyze Rashi and we will do so, but we will keep our eye, as well, on the larger picture - the Torah's view of Jacob's behavior.
"And Jacob said to his father 'It is I, Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please rise, sit up and eat of my game so that your soul will bless me.'"
It is I, Esau your firstborn: RASHI: [He meant] I am the one who brings you [food] - and Esau is your firstborn."
I have done: RASHI: Many things - as you told me.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi has cleverly added a few words to Jacob's answer. By making these additions he has turned Jacob's not-exactly-honest response into an honest one.
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
Clearly Rashi is bothered, a we should be too, by what seems to be Jacob's dishonest answer to his blind, unsuspecting father. Rashi (on the basis of a midrash) found a way to "clean up" Jacob's answers and divest them of any dishonesty.
A Question: But we can ask: Really now! Is that really what Jacob said? He may have mumbled those words to himself, but his father didn't hear them. So what sense does it make for Rashi to make these additions to Jacob's answers?
Can you think of a defense for Rashi?
An Answer: The Gur Aryeh pints out that Jacob used the Hebrew word "Anochi" while Esau said "ani" (verse 32). The difference is that "anochi" can stand by itself, it means, in a sense, 'I am whom I am.' So when Jacob said "Anochi, Esau your firstborn" It could be interpreted to mean " I am who I am - the one who brings you food. But Esau is your firstborn."
This is the accepted interpretation of Rashi's comment. But we shouldn't leave the matter so easily. We continue to ask:
A STUBBORN QUESTION
A Question: In ordinary human discourse, answers are given to questions in order to satisfy the questioner. Maybe Jacob had some innocent intention in his answers to his father, but, in the final analysis, his father was fooled! Isaac didn't learn Rashi! So he didn't know what Jacob thought, he only knew what he heard. And what he heard was misleading.
One the commentaries on Rashi asks the question in an even more biting manner. He teasingly asks, can we likewise interpret the first verse in the Ten Commandments as:
"I (am who I am) and someone else took you out of Egypt." !! (Note: There also the word is "Anochi" and not "ani.")
So we need a more forthright interpretation and a less clever one.
I think we have to tread a line that is both intellectually honest and which at the same time reflects due respect and understanding of Jacob's actions.
Jacob was not honest, he did deceived his father. Alas, his father was deceived.
And the Torah does not gloss over this act. Jacob is, in turn, deceived by Lavan and as result we have centuries of tension between Rachel's firstborn, Joseph, and the other brothers. You may recall that the Kingdom splits after Solomon's death. It splits along the lines of Judah (Leah's son) and Ephraim (Joseph, Rachel's son). Much dissension resulted as a consequence of Lavan's deception of Jacob. And Lavan deceived Jacob as a consequence of Jacob's having deceived Esau. Lavan said "It is not done in our place to give the younger before the firstborn." (Genesis 29:26) As if to say: "Maybe in your place the younger comes before the firstborn, but not so here! We are more ethical!" As a result he received Leah. And as a result, all that followed, followed !
So Jacob is not let off so easily. But we must see Jacob's act in a fuller perspective. On the hand, Jacob was caught in a serious bind. His mother planned the whole thing and put him up to it. A close reading of Jacob's words to his mother and his actions will show that he was quite conflicted. He did what he had to do because his mother asked to do it, but he remained quite passive and ambivalent. (As one of several examples, note that his mother dressed him! (verse 27:15) Jacob, a man of 63 years old, and his mother had to personally dress him up in Esau's clothes!) So Jacob was in an untenable position. Rashi sought some justification for Jacob's words. He did so to preserve Jacob's righteousness. For he was righteous. But, in spite of all his conflicts and hesitations, the Torah seems to pass severe judgement on him. As we see from the consequences of his actions.
Rashi is not just a Torah commentator. He is a teacher. His commentary always goes beyond mere commentary. It bears an educational, moral or spiritual message. In this case, the message, may have be: Don't be too quick to judge Jacob. While he did deceive his father, his did so because of his obligation to honor his mother. While he took the blessing from his brother, in so doing he was actually following the wishes of both his mother and his father.
Human motivation is complex and multidetermined. The Fathers were giants; their actions were to be scrutinized by millions of people over centuries. They remain giants after all the scrutinizing. We must strive to understand their complex motivations. Rashi, by his seemingly apologetic comments here, has helped us balance the picture.
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."
Dr. Bonchek will be in the States IY"H this coming February on a lecture tour. Congregations or organizations interested in having him lecture for them are invited to contact him at email@example.com.
The Institute is in the process of preparing the Devorim volume of "What's Bothering Rashi?" This volume will feature Rashi and the Ba'alie Tosephos. Readers interested in sponsoring a sedra in this volume are encouraged to contact us for further details at firstname.lastname@example.org
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