This week’s Parsha, Toldos, tells the story of Yaakov and Esov. It also tells of the patriarch Yitzchok, and of the matriarch Rivkah. In many ways it’s a very dynamic Parsha, because it features lots of very relevant topics; favouritism, sibling rivalry, and differences in human nature. It’s inspiring, and like every Parsha, it teaches us how to live; how to deal with hardships, how to make difficult decisions, and how to react to others’ actions. The Parsha begins with the tale of Rivkah’s childlessness. She and Yitzchok remain childlesness for twenty years, until their prayers are answered, and Rivkah finds that she is expecting twins. The twins, Esov and Yaakov are opposites. Esov is a hunter; he spends more time outdoors, and is Yitzchok’s favourite. He isn’t entirely bad, due to his great honour for his father, but he is a master of deceit and Rivkah sees through this. She prefers the younger son, Yaakov, who is a wholesome man. She disguises him as Esov, and together they ‘trick’ Yitzchok into giving the younger son the blessing intended for Esov, who sold his birthright for a pot of red lentil stew years earlier. When the deception is revealed, Esov is furious, and Yaakov flees to Charan, hoping to find a wife there.
Many of my questions about this Parsha were answered when I read Rabbi Sacks’ insight, in which he deals with the topics of Yitzchok’s (and Rivkah’s) favouritism, and the reasons for it. Sacks writes about Rashi’s interpretation of the issue, quoting Rashi on 25:27; ”He knew how to trap and deceive his father with his mouth. He would ask him, “Father, how should one tithe salt and straw?” Consequently his father believed him to be strict in observing the commands”. Essentially, Esov entrapped his father with his words; he deceived him, and this is the reason for his father’s preference.
Initially, this revelation- that deceit was at the root of their relationship- was troublesome for me, because Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel stated, ”No man ever honoured his father as I honoured my father, but I found that Esau honoured his father even more”. If Esov was deceitful, then how could he have been honouring his father? Rabbi Sacks explains that R’ Shimon ben Gamliel derives this statement from the fact that Esov reserved his best clothes for serving his father, as opposed to going out. This leads to the topic of Esov’s intentions v.s his actions. No matter what his intent was- deceitful or not- he honoured his father through his actions. R’ Shimon’s comment suggests this is more important than merely having positive feelings towards one’s parents, but not acting upon them. In fact, a mitzvah is more special when one struggles to do it. In Esov’s case it was not necessarily a struggle per se, but it conflicted with many aspects of his character.
Having grown up with the inherently deceitful Laban, Rivkah saw through Esov’s deceit. But wasn’t she deceitful to suggest that Yaakov took his brother’s blessing, and to aid him in doing so? This is a serious moral issue which doesn’t just effect the Parsha, but our interactions with others, too. Does this mean that it is right to lie? Does this mean that deceit is acceptable? It requires serious halachic commentary to find answers to these questions. I, personally, cannot answer these questions. However, my own opinions on the Halachic viewpoint are supported by most rabbonim, including Rabbi Sacks. As a general rule, lying is wrong. Deceit is wrong. And just as deceit was Esov’s expertise, it was also his downfall. However, in this case, the circumstances were exceptional. They involved not only Rivkah’s judgement, but a different matter entirely- the oracle which she had received from G-d before either Esov or Yaakov were born; this oracle stated that Yaakov was born to rule over Esov, and so, in many way, Rivkah was merely fulfilling G-d’s will when she ‘deceived’ Yitzchok.
Additionally, Rivkah was making a decision based on Esov’s nature. She knew he was a violent hunter; she knew he was deceitful; and she knew he despised his birthright. Indeed, she had received a message from G-d that Yaakov would rule Esov. But the oracle had not told her to deceive Yitzchok into giving Yaakov the birthright. Nor had it told her how. So the decision was, in fact, still hers. Rivkah was introspective and wise, and these were traits she passed on to Yaakov. She was also an honest woman, and probably had concerns about what she was going to do. But all of these traits serve only to teach us about making decisions. This is a major point of Rivkah’s decision, and of the Parsha.
Despite any possible qualms about her decision, despite any concerns that she was doing the wrong thing, and despite Esov’s short temper, Rivkah did what was right- because it was what she thought G-d wanted. She didn’t do it for personal gain. She didn’t do it because she preferred Yaakov. She did it to fulfil G-d’s will. And this should be at the heart of every decision we make.