<I>Toldot</I>: The Mothers of Our Nation

Rivka Imeinu calls all the shots: in a one-of-a-kind prenatal diagnosis, only she is given the prophecy of the destinies of her twin boys. She recognizes the essences of the developing boys, and it is Rivka who devises and puts into motion the plan that brings the blessings to Yaakov.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch,

Aryeh Hirsch
Aryeh Hirsch
What is the difference between a Jewish mother and a terrorist? With a terrorist, you can sometimes negotiate. -- from the mother of Prof. Allen Dershowitz, in Chutzpah p. 247

In this week's parsha, Toldot, we see such a Jewish mother in action. Rivka Imeinu calls all the shots: in a one-of-a-kind prenatal diagnosis, only she is given the prophecy of the destinies of her twin boys (although Rashi does say that Avraham knew the full evil of Eisav and therefore refrained from blessing Yitzchak, Breishit 25:11). She recognizes the essences of the developing boys, and it is Rivka who devises and puts into motion the plan that brings the blessings to Yaakov.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, in Midbar Shur, drush 29, explains what motivated Yitzchak. He was aware of the evils of Eisav; however, Yitzchak operated under a cloud of doubt: Was the historical process of the choice of Yisrael, as am hanivchar, segulat HaShem (the chosen people, treasured one of the Lord), finished or not. If finished, then the obvious choice for the blessings was Yaakov, the ish tam yosheiv ohalim ( the complete man, who dwelt in the tents of Torah). But if the process of sifting out the segulah, which had begun 2,000 years earlier with Adam and Eve, was not done, then it was very possible that Eisav was the chosen one.

Just as the essence of the segulah had passed through twenty-one generations from Adam, so too it still had to pass on beyond Yaakov and Eisav. And just as righteous Noach and Avraham had descended from evil forebears, so too the chosen one, the future Yisrael, would descend from Eisav. Why? Because his power, used to fight and conquer evil, would be needed by Yisrael (as the Midrash Rabbah 66:3 says, "This is why the beracha begins 'V'yitein lecha HaElokim,' using not the Tetragrammaton as in all the blessings to Avraham, but rather Elokim, the name of God connoting power - God will give you power."). And therefore, "Vaye'ehav Yitzchak et Eisav" - Yitzchak loved Eisav; yet, vaye'ehav is "loved" in the future tense, because Yitzchak loved Eisav with an eye to future generations.

But "Rivka ohevet et Yaakov," she "loves Yaakov," in the present tense. Only she knew that the sifting process of history was over, and that Yaakov truly was Yisrael. No longer was the segulah treasure to be hidden among villains, but rather the overt tzaddik, Yaakov, was also going to be the one to "unite all of humanity, to enthrone order and righteousness, repairing evil" (a job that Yitzchak was constantly educating Eisav to do, but Eisav had other ideas about what world conquest meant; Emunat Iteinu vol. 4, page 64). He would be the one to need the beracha of "Elokuta," of godly power to rule (see "Toldot, Mother Rivka's Call to Arms", December 1, 2005).

It is Mother Rivka who brings all this about, because she recognizes and nurtures ("mothers") the essence. Not only do Jewish mothers halachically define Jewish identity, but, in the words of Rabbi Matis Weinberg, "Rivka?s motherhood defines the essence of everything she touches. Without her, Eisav becomes a parody of his father Yitzchak (gevura, power) to a fault. With her, Yaakov becomes most himself - and a nation discovers its own identity.... Rivka was capable of absorbing all the valuable essence (segulah) from the family of Avraham's father, while seeing beyond their personal perversions and failures."

How did Rivka accomplish this trick, of taking the valuable segulah from her ancestors, refining it and passing it on pure and holy to Yaakov? Through Jewish mothering. Through recognizing that essence and forcefully moving to pass it on. This is is really not an "essence" at all, but "ish tam-hood", completeness (Breishit 25:27). And how can an essence be a "completeness"? It is a paradox.

Again, both Rabbi Weinberg and Rabbi Kook stress the same idea: Yisrael is the firstborn, the firstborn of Creation itself. Yisrael exists to complete (tam = shaleim, as per Targum Onkelos, ibid.) the B'riah. Yisrael's "being demonstrates the self that can exist only in a wholesome and complete context of past and future. It is this psyche that drives the alienated Jew to teshuvah (return to the Adam-state at Creation) or to the forefront of every mad cultural, social and religious experiment, in a never-ending search for the lost wholeness." (Frameworks, pages 130, 132)

In Neshama La'Am Aleha (pages 109-110), Rabbi Tau quotes Rabbi Kook: "Secular Zionism cannot speak in the name of the whole nation, Klal Yisrael, because it is cut off from its roots, from all its previous generations." It is the Jewish mother who knows the roots, who is the roots, and who passes them on.

This is no little subject. It forces Federations to have GAs, and Jewish think-tanks to put out reams of papers. Prof. Dershowitz has written eloquently on the subject in at least two volumes. In Chutzpah (pages 189-190), he outlines the problem of "generational definitions of Judaism," and rightly points out that without the links to the halachic roots of past Jewish generations, Jewish mothers have a (insurmountable, in my opinion) problem of "passing it on." In The Vanishing American Jew, Dershowitz rightly points out that Judaism is a "wholeness," and just as Rivka passed on the flavor of the Jewish wholeness with the goat stew she gave Yaakov to feed Yitzchak, so too Dershowitz's mother and grandmother passed on that essence with their chicken soup.

Prof. Dershowitz recognizes this as a unique recipe, as it is an essence that is a "wholeness," but then he continues on to violate that thesis and writes a whole book trying to define the essential elements of the "wholeness." To Rabbis Kook and Weinberg, it is impossible: you might as well go on and define all the elements of Creation, throughout all history, to which the "whole Jew" relates.

Although it is a noble enterprise to identify many of these educational, cultural, halachic, social, political, etc. details, this is really the activity of a father. That is what Father Yitzchak did to define Yisrael - and he ended up with an Eisav. This job requires a Jewish mother.