One of the many glories of the Bible is that it recognizes the complex personality of great individuals and the fact that strength and weakness, virtue and vice, can sometimes all reside in the very same soul. Even more significantly, that which may superficially appear to be dishonest — an act of deception — may very well provide the necessary ingredient which ultimately creates grandeur.
The most obvious question which strikes us is, why did Rebecca have to deceive her husband by dressing her younger son Jacob in the garb and in the skins of her older son Esau? Why could she not merely have explained to her husband that Esau, although he was the elder brother, was simply not worthy of the birthright?
From a textual perspective, this doesn’t seem to have been a difficult task at all. Right before Isaac summons Esau requesting venison, the Bible specifically records that Esau had committed the one great sin of the patriarchal period: He married two Hittite women, which was “a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and to Rebecca” (Gen. 26:35). Moreover, Rebecca could certainly have argued that the son who had been willing to sell his birthright to Jacob for a mere bowl of lentil soup could not possibly be worthy of the mantle of Abrahamic leadership.
Malbim suggests that indeed such a conversation between husband and wife did take place. And after Rebecca marshaled her arguments, Isaac then explained that he was aware of Esau’s shortcomings. In fact, he understood that the spiritual blessing of family leadership, the blessing of Abraham which we know as the birthright, must certainly go to Jacob. But, argued Isaac, he had to make a split between the birthright of spiritual leadership which rightfully belonged to Jacob and the physical blessing of material prosperity and political domination which he had decided to give to Esau.
According to Isaac, the bookish, naive and spiritual Jacob would not begin to know how to maneuver in an economically driven, militaristic society.
Rebecca strongly disagreed. She understood that the world at large and the human nature of individuals dare not be so simplistically divided between the spiritual and the material, God and Caesar. If religious leadership is to emerge supreme, it requires the infrastructure of economic stability; in an imperfect world of aggression and duplicity, even leading spiritual personalities must sometimes reluctantly wage war against evil in order for the good to triumph. PJC
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.