Searching for Signs

Toledot By :  Eliezer B. Diamond Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Oct 5, 2010 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

This week’s Torah portion contains an ambiguity that is rarely noted, and yet it is crucial to how we understand the contest between Rebecca and Isaac. When Rebecca experiences the as yet unborn children struggling, indeed almost crushing each other, she goes “to seek God”—whatever that may mean. She is told that two nations will emerge from her womb, two nations that will contend with each other and, the divine response concludes, “ve-rav ya’avod za’ir.

This last phrase is normally translated as, “The elder son shall serve the younger.” Indeed, Nahum Sarna suggests that this episode is crucial to legitimating Jacob’s claim to the birthright. Although deception was employed to win the prize, Jacob’s entitlement to the patrimony had already been foreordained by God.

However, another reading is possible. As Sarna notes, the answer to Rebecca is oracular in form and content. The Bible scholar Yair Zakovich has pointed out that there are a number of oracles in Tanakh. Think, for example, of Balaam’s prophecies concerning the “end of days.” Oracles are frequently ambiguous; again, the opacity of Balaam’s final speech supplies us with a perfect example. Scholars have generally concluded that many of the Delphic oracles were equivocal, although that view has been challenged recently by Hugh Bowden.

It is against this background that I suggest we read Rebecca’s oracle as inherently ambiguous. Let’s return to the phrase “ve-rav ya’avod za’ir.” Were the word et to precede za’ir, it would indicate that za’ir is the object of the phrase. Et is in fact absent, opening up the possibility of identifying subject and object conversely. As a result, the verse would read “ve-rav (and the elder) ya’avod za’ir (the younger shall serve).” Which, then, was the true meaning of the oracle? Perhaps it had no definite connotation; the “true” meaning was to be determined by human initiative.

If this reading is correct, we must ask what the point of the oracle was if it was not a straightforward proclamation of things to come. Perhaps the ambiguity of the oracle is exactly what was necessary because it was intended precisely to apprise Rebecca of the importance of her actions. The oracle indicated that there was no fated outcome to the struggle between Jacob and Esau. God may have intended the eventual outcome, but it could come about only through the volitional acts of human beings.

Isaac, on the other hand, is an Oedipus-like figure. Just as Oedipus himself, through his ignorance, brings about the realization of the oracular prediction, Isaac is the unwitting agent of the oracle being fulfilled according to Rebecca’s interpretation rather than in consonance with one he favored. It is interesting that while Oedipus blinds himself when he realizes the enormity of what he has done, Isaac is already blind before becoming an unwitting tool of Rebecca’s plan, and it is that very blindness that leads him to bless Jacob rather than Esau. Of course, there may be a hint here that not only was Isaac’s eyesight faulty but his insight as well. He did not see what Rebecca saw, that it was Jacob and not Esau who was fit to perpetuate Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God.

I often think of this story when I hear people speak of some occurrence, usually a happy one, being bashert, fated by God. I will be the first to admit that I do not understand God’s ways and I know that often enough my life has been altered in a manner that suggests to me a power and plan that is beyond my ability both to fathom and to alter. Yet in my daily life I try to live in accordance with a wise observation made long ago by Maimonides.

Our Sages tell us, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.” This statement is conventionally understood to mean that God determines who I will marry, what my profession will be, the length of my days. Only my beliefs and my fulfillment of the commandments or my failure to do so are under my own control.

Maimonides rejects this interpretation, suggesting a radically different one. The weather, says Maimonides, is in God’s hands. Disease is often more powerful than our efforts to vanquish it (even more so in his time than today). But all other choices are in our own hands, because they all are related to our relationship with God and God’s commandments. If we choose to live in a city where there is no Jewish life and our children grow up with little or no Jewish identity, we have to acknowledge that our choice had at least some role in the outcome. If we knowingly choose a profession where there is a culture of deceit, and we succumb to the pressure to conform to that culture, we need to take some responsibility for that result. In short, almost every choice we make has consequences for who we are as Jews and human beings. Therefore, if we are deeply concerned about the kinds of people we are and will be, part of every choice should include the question, “Will I be closer or more distant from being righteous and holy by taking this path?”

My embrace of Maimonides’ view also affects how I pray. When I ask God for wisdom I am not asking for God to miraculously transform me into a genius or a sage. I ask for the wisdom to see the ways in which God has already placed before me opportunities to become wiser, whether they lie within or around me. When I pray for healing, I ask that my eyes be opened to the ways in which I can live a healthier life, and that when illness comes I will do what I must to seek the necessary help and healing. And if one day my illness proves to be incurable, I pray that I will summon up the strength to find healing in my faith and my actions and in the love of those around me.

God has many messengers, our Sages tell us. Seeking them out is the great responsibility that we have been given. And with that responsibility comes the power and opportunity to take fate into our own hands and shape the narrative of our lives and the lives of others.