Overcoming Destiny

Jacob and Rebekah teach us that we can alter our destinies and achieve greatness.

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The Torah states this fateful view of history most clearly in the first confrontation between Jacob and Esau. Esau, the man of the wild, arrives home to find the domesticated Jacob cooking a lentil stew whose color is red. The Torah relates Esau’s demand as follows: "And he said 'Give me some of this red red, because I am tired;' therefore they called his name Red."

The Meaning of a Name

The appellation for "Red" in this sentence, Edom, becomes the name of a nation at war with Israel throughout the Bible and later Rabbinic literature. Again we see that the stress is on ironclad destiny; Esau’s name is red, therefore he must act wildly and violently.

Does the Torah abandon us to this rigid view of history in which we are condemned to follow character traits impressed on us at birth? That there is an alternative approach is the major point of the second great story of Toldot, that of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob.

Isaac at first wants to confer the fateful blessing that will decide the future of Jewish history on Esau, his first born. Doing so would have reinforced the notion that fate is determined at birth. Since Esau is the first-born, he by nature receives the primary blessing.

But the Torah narrative overrides natural history and shifts the blessing to the younger son, Jacob. Thus, the seemingly ironclad rule of destiny as represented in primogeniture is shattered when Jacob and his mother Rebekah, acting on their sense of moral right, demonstrate that human action can defeat rigid fate. The story of Jacob's blessing is an affirmation of the freedom of humans to act in the world according to their sense of right and justice and not be bound by seemingly natural laws like the privilege of the first born.

Women Altering Fate

This principle of the superiority of human freedom over blind fate is critical to the Torah, and it is repeated throughout Genesis. The younger son is favored over the elder in both the first set of brothers we meet in the text, Cain and Abel, and the last set, Ephraim and Menashe. This point is emphasized in Toldot though the juxtaposition of the theory of free history and the theory of unyielding destiny.

It is no accident that the chief orchestrator of the story of the blessing is a woman, the Matriarch Rebekah. Frequently, when the Bible wants to shatter a pattern, it is a woman who will step forward to discard the old and champion innovative thinking. Thus, Sarah overrides Abraham's clinging to primogeniture and insists that Ishmael leave the house so that Isaac can assume the mantle of Jewish leadership.

Later in the Bible, Hannah dismisses the advice of her husband, Elkanah, to be satisfied with her childless lot and prays for a son. The result is the birth of Samuel, the great prophet and reluctant innovator of kingship in Israel. Ruth punctures the Biblical prohibition against members of the nation of Moab entering into marriage with Jews; her descendents include Israel’s greatest king, David.

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Gary Rubin was the former Managing Director of UJA-Federation's Commission on the Jewish People. He died suddenly in April 2003.