Why was Rivka's Aramean cosmopolitanism so crucial an ingredient for Israel's national roots?
What personal crisis caused Esav to abandon his family's path at the age of 15?
How do the personal traits of Yaakov and Esav find expression in the Hebrew and Western civilizations they produced?
Parshat Toldot, as the name suggests, shows us the transition of the Hebrew mission from generation to generation. The major focus of this week’s parsha is on Yitzḥak preserving his father Avraham’s teachings and passing them on to his twin sons Esav and Yaakov.
B’reishit chapter 28, verse 20, informs us that Yitzḥak was 40 years old when he took Rivka as his wife. But in doing so, the verse refers to her Aramean identity three times – in naming the place of her birth and as a defining characteristic for both her father and brother – indicating that this is something important for us to understand about Rivka.
The Arameans were an important Semitic civilization – descendants of Shem ben Noaḥ – who had spread out across Mesopotamia. It’s noteworthy that their language, Aramaic, ultimately became the universal language of communication for the region until the Muslim conquest of the Levant.
Avraham’s brother Naḥor was an ethnic Hebrew – descending from Ever – a different branch of Shem’s offspring. Naḥor had set up shop in the bustling Aramean city of Ḥaran and attempted to influence the society around him with Hebrew teachings.
But the fact that his son B’tuel and grandson Lavan are explicitly referred to in the Torah as Arameans – despite being ethnic Hebrews – shows the extent to which the family had assimilated into the Aramean identity, which at that time had been humanity’s leading universal, cosmopolitan identity.
We mentioned earlier that in keeping with our ancient teaching that “ma’ase avot siman l’banim” – “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children” – the story of Teraḥ’s family, just prior to the formation of the nation of Israel, mirror the major events that befell the Jewish people in the 20th Century.
Teraḥ had three sons – Avram, Naḥor and Haran. Haran, one third, was killed in an oven in Ur Kasdim. Teraḥ then attempted to bring the family back to their homeland – the land of the Hebrews – but only reached the Aramean city of Ḥaran. His surviving sons, both dedicated to the teachings and mission of Ever, differed on what direction the family should take.
Avram, a traveling revolutionary preacher, received prophetic instruction to continue on to the land of the Hebrews and to create there a unique holy nation that would ultimately influence all human society.
But Naḥor – Rivka’s grandfather – preferred to integrate into the Aramaean culture, which was the dominant culture of his time. He considered it most effective to influence the peoples of the world from within.
It’s important to note that this point of view, “galut lishma” – “exile with a purpose” – was later championed by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who had lived in 19th century Germany and argued that the calling of the Jewish people was to live among the “enlightened nations” and to influence them from within. We can also see this perspective alive and well today amongst many Jewish leaders in the United States. But Naḥor didn’t manage to survive as a Hebrew.
In his family’s self-identification as Arameans, we see a very classic Jewish temptation to forget Hebrew uniqueness and become “normal people” by assimilating into dominant host cultures. It’s also important to note that this phenomenon shouldn’t be limited to Jews living outside their own country.
In today’s more globalized world, we even see a significant number of Israelis desiring to throw off their Jewish uniqueness and become “normal people” or a “normal country” by assimilating into the dominant global culture.
In any event, we can say to a certain extent that Rivka brought this aspect of Aramean identity into Yitzhak’s family. This is because the cosmopolitan side of Hebrew identity is crucial for our mission and must have its place in comprising Israel’s national make up. It’s of course problematic when this cosmopolitan feature of our identity becomes too dominant – as we can see from many recent and contemporary examples – but it’s important that this be present as part of our larger holistic identity.
Because narrow nationalism on its own wouldn’t really fit the Jewish people or serve our universalist mission, we see that both Yitzḥak and Yaakov took wives from the house of Naḥor, so that – in establishing the nation of Israel – the specifically Hebrew component of our identity would be most dominant, but a measure of cosmopolitanism would also be present in our national roots to pull us towards engagement with the outside world.
In addition to bringing an element of cosmopolitanism into Israel’s national roots, Rivka also brought the power of ḥesed, to balance Yitzḥak’s g’vura. When Eliezer was dispatched to find a wife for Yitzḥak, he specifically sought out a girl of immense ḥesed, because that was exactly the kind of “ezer kenegdo” – “assisting counterweight” – that Yitzḥak required.
Israel’s patriarchs married women who were very much their opposites in personal attributes and the s’firot they expressed, in order to create a healthy counterbalance in the Hebrew nation’s roots. Avraham was ḥesed, Sarah was g’vura. Yitzḥak was g’vura so his wife needed to be ḥesed.
When Eliezer – a grown man – approached Rivka at the well in Ḥaran and asked her for water, she could have easily assumed he was trying to take advantage of her. It would have been completely appropriate for her to tell him to get his own water. But her generous response to not only give Eliezer water but also to fetch water for all of his camels indicates that she likely assumed that if he was asking her for water, then there must have been some reason why he couldn’t get it himself. The way in which Rivka processed the situation displayed her incredible attribute of ḥesed.
There are two ways we can look at Rivka’s partnership with Yitzḥak. One way would be to see their relationship as the ideal Jewish marriage. Unlike Avraham and Yaakov, Yitzḥak had only one wife. We see explicitly that he brought her into his tent and loved her. The Torah even tells us that they were seen displaying some kind of public affection in Grar – to the point that the Philistine king, upon witnessing their behavior, realized that they were married.
And even when Yitzḥak was preparing to bless Esav as his successor, Rivka didn’t confront her husband or threaten his honor. She simply took matters into her own hands and did what she knew to be right.
But from another perspective, we can look at Rivka’s need to go behind Yitzḥak’s back as revealing a lack of healthy communication between them. In fact, the Torah doesn’t really show us much dialogue between Yitzḥak and Rivka.
When they first met, we see that B’reishit 24, verse 64, states “va’tisa Rivka et eineiha vatere et Yitzḥak vatipol m’al hagamal” – “And Rivka raised her eyes and saw Yitzḥak and she fell from the camel.”
Rivka appears to have fallen off her camel when she saw Yitzḥak for the first time. This might have been due to the shock of his appearance. We already learned that Yitzḥak’s nefesh – his outer soul – never came back from the akeida and that he essentially became a man of the world to come acting as a living breathing person fully involved in the day to day realties of this world. This might have caused him to display a powerful spiritual charisma shining through his face and body that took Rivka by surprise when she first saw him. And, despite the fact that Yitzḥak was fully able to engage this world successfully, it also might have made regular communication with him difficult.
Yitzḥak was likely a hard man to have a relationship with. Exemplifying the trait of g’vura, Yitzḥak’s nature was to set boundaries and seek justice and preserve and transmit his father’s teachings to the next generation.
He was a highly successful farmer – a profession avoided by the other patriarchs but later central to the nation following its conquest of the land. He was a man vision and ideals but might have been challenged when it came to interpersonal relationships.
There might have been times when this even worked to his advantage. Unlike his father Avraham, Yitzḥak had a hard time dealing with the Philistines. They didn’t respect him as they respected his father – certainly not when he lived among them. They resented the wealth he acquired and viewed his success as coming at their expense. In many ways, we can see Yitzḥak’s experiences in Philistine territory as foreshadowing later Jewish experiences in exile.
But when Yitzḥak finally moved away to B’er Sheva, on the border of Philistine territory, he became recognized and respected as a spiritual leader. Suddenly, Avimelekh – the king of the Philistines – wanted to make peace and forge an alliance with Yitzḥak.
As we said, “ma’ase avot siman l’banim” – “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children” – when Jews try to live amongst gentile nations, it’s very hard for us to achieve success without inviting jealousy or hatred. Part of it might also be that it’s near impossible for us to be our true selves when living in foreign lands away from our natural habitat. But when Jews return to our land and are able to succeed as our true selves, the possibility exists for other nations to recognize what we are and desire a healthy connection with us.
In any case, after marrying Yitzḥak, it took Rivka 20 years to become pregnant. But when she finally did, she discovered that she was carrying twins. Whenever she’d pass a house of idol worship, one of the twins would agitate to escape her womb and whenever she passed the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, the other would do the same.
She didn’t tell her husband or father-in-law about this but, according to our sages, she went to inquire of Shem and Ever. And in response, Rivka received an important prophecy that spoke about her unborn twins as two mutually hostile civilizations whose values would be in direct conflict for most of history. Our sages identity Esav with the civilization that first gained dominance as the Roman Empire, conquered Europe through Christianity and then evolved into the modern West.
Our sages further teach that the civilizations of Esav and Yaakov cannot be simultaneously dominant on the world stage. They are constantly subordinating one another and when either rises the other must fall. History has shown us that not only the nations but also their cultures and values have perpetually been in conflict. The prophecy Rivka received guaranteed that the younger twin will eventually triumph.
The story of Esav and Yaakov growing up is complicated. Until the age of 15, when their grandfather Avraham left our world, they both appeared to be loyal to their family’s teachings and mission. Esav was clearly the leader of the two. But following the loss of Avraham, their paths began to separate.
The differences between Esav and Yaakov came from the duality of their parents Yitzḥak and Rivka. Yitzḥak was a man of g’vura who advanced in life by constantly refining this attribute and subordinating it to ḥesed. Just as Avraham had to separate between pure and impure ḥesed, so did Yitzḥak have to separate between pure and impure g’vura.
Rivka came from a family of Hebrews who had assimilated into Aram and constantly carried within herself a conflict between her Hebrew and Aramean identities. The former was expressed through her incredible ḥesed while the latter manifested as a pull towards cosmopolitanism and a natural aversion to what she saw as excessively narrow tribalism.
The inherent qualities of Yitzḥak and Rivka could be combined in different ways. One way would be Yitzḥak’s purified g’vura in conjunction with Rivka’s ḥesed. This combination led to Yaakov representing the s’fira of tiferet.
But Yitzḥak’s impure g’vura, combined with Rivka’s Aramean cosmopolitanism, produced Esav. The excessive g’vura would later be expressed in the Roman Empire’s penchant for violence and cruelty in the name of order, which will ultimately seek balance through the adoption of Christianity – a religion of ḥesed. Combined with the Aramean component inherited from his mother, Esav’s impure g’vura would ultimately be driven towards an imperialist universalism that demands human uniformity.
As the twins were growing up, Yitzḥak felt spiritually and psychologically closer to Esav, while Rivka favored Yaakov. Yitzḥak actually understood the birth of twins to mean the Hebrew nation would consist of two main tribes. And it was his hope that Esav and Yaakov would form Israel together, and take on roles similar to the tribes of Ephraim and Levi. Esav would be the economic, political and military leader while Yaakov would be the spiritual leader. And at least until the age of 15, this seemed to find expression in how the twins interacted. Esav would impressively hunt and work the land while Yaakov would stay home to study and prepare food for the family.
But a major difference between the two could actually be found in the fact that Esav was a static personality. Although he might have seemed far more impressive as a young man, he had already reached his potential for growth. Yaakov, on the other hand, spent his entire life advancing towards perfection. His potential was therefore significantly greater than Esav’s.
We can see this difference between Esav’s completeness and Yaakov’s dynamism expressed in the civilizations each brother produced. European philosophy, for example, tends to strive for all concepts and ideas to be well-defined, complete and neatly organized.
But Hebrew spiritual constructions – as seen in both the Talmud and the Kabbalistic literature – tend to always be unfinished and require further development. There’s a general direction. But then the initial concepts of any given construction are determined and refined through the process of its further engagement.
It tends to be a Jewish characteristic to be perpetually on the move, constantly smashing social norms and established beliefs as we progress. Our worldview isn’t static but dynamic, which actually makes dialectical materialism far more Jewish than it is Western.
In any case, for the first 15 years of their lives, Esav was the clear leader – the star of the family – and Yaakov was in a subordinate role. But Avraham’s death shook the family structure to its core – and in doing so made it possible to change the entire hierarchy. Esav, whose nature was g’vura, had a very “all or nothing” attitude when it came to emuna and therefore had trouble understanding how the Creator could take Avraham from the world. He experienced a crisis of faith and spiritual exhaustion.
Yaakov, on the other hand, decided to step up at this critical juncture and take responsibility for the family’s future. He saw in Esav’s sudden weakness a danger to the Hebrew mission and decided that his brother needed to be replaced. The agreement to trade some red lentil stew in exchange for Esav’s birthright, his position of leadership, was not Yaakov taking advantage of his brother – as is commonly understood in the West – but actually assuming responsibility for the family and taking his first step towards leadership.
Whoever held the birthright would be responsible for the direction the family would take as it transformed into a nation. It was also associated with serving HaShem, as practiced by the spiritual leader of the Hebrew family. As a result of his personal crisis, Esav was no longer interested in that role. But because Yitzḥak was still alive and head of the family, Yaakov demanded an oath that the leadership position would be his once Yitzḥak left the world.
From the moment he traded the lentil stew for the birthright, Yaakov began a gradual transformation that saw him slowly acquiring some of Esav’s characteristics and integrating them with his own. This process would be completed many years later when he’d receive the name Yisrael after fighting Esav’s malakh.
When the time came for Yitzḥak to bless his sons, he had planned to bestow the primary brakha onto Esav. But Rivka intervened and forced Yaakov to disguise himself as his brother and receive the brakha. We’ve already seen that when it comes to the issue of toldot – the successive generations and determining the Hebrew nation’s roots and lineage, the matriarchs had stronger prophecy than the patriarchs.
In any event, the son that Yitzḥak blessed was a mysterious hybrid of the twins. Yitzḥak says in B’reishit 27, verse 22 that “HaKol kol Yaakov v’hadayim yadei Esav” – “the voice is the voice of Yaakov yet the hands are the hands of Esav.”
Rav Kook teaches that this verse is actually part of the brakha itself – that Yaakov’s children would be able to don the “hands of Esav” when necessary yet be able to remain internally Yaakov.
(Originally published in Vision Magazine)