Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sara, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
The story in next week’s Torah portion (Parashat Toldot) of Rebecca instructing her son Jacob to impersonate his brother Esau and thereby acquire for himself the blessing meant for his older sibling is shocking and, for many, disturbing.
Rebecca does not try to enter into a reasoned argument with Isaac in order to prevail upon him to see the folly of his ways. Rather deception and trickery are the only means she seems to have at her disposal to accomplish her goal of having the blessing of leadership bequeathed to the son who is infinitely more worthy and more fitting in her eyes.
Why are the lines of communication so closed? Why can Rebecca not talk openly about her concerns with her husband? According to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, popularly referred to as the Netziv, the famed rosh yeshiva of Volozhin at the end of the 19th century, the answer to our question may be found in this week’s Torah portion: Chayei Sara.
Isaac, you see, was not really a man of this world. In a certain sense, after surviving the Akedah (binding of Isaac), the ordeal on the altar in which he was spared from his father’s knife only at the very last minute, he never fully came down from the altar. Part of him always remained there with God and the angels. The experience scarred him for life. He was never fully comfortable in the physical, material world, rarely taking active initiative. Most of what the Torah says about him consists of his repetition of the deeds of his father Abraham, or a recounting of what others did for him or to him. Isaac seems to have been content to live in the world of the spirit, focusing on prayer and contemplation.
At the time of the first meeting of Rebecca with Isaac, the Torah describes him as having gone out to the fields towards evening to meditate or to pray. We can imagine a rather strange, solitary figure in the distance, perhaps caught up in deep spiritual concentration and nearly oblivious to all around him, or perhaps gesticulating wildly in his dialogue with God, his hair disheveled and swept by the desert breeze at twilight.
There is as if a halo, a divine aura about the man. Far away, the camel caravan in which Rebecca rides begins to approach. She sees his strange figure, and – at least according to the Netziv’s interpretation of the text – she falls from her mount, so startled and taken aback by this other-worldly, spiritual personality. When told that this man is none other than her intended husband, “she took her veil and covered herself.”
As the Netziv reads it, Rebecca remained covered for the duration of her married life. In a figurative sense, the veil was never removed. Her respect, awe, and even adulation of this man of God prevented her from relating to her husband openly and truthfully. She looks up to him to such a degree that their eyes – and their minds – never really met. There was always a barrier. From this first meeting when all she could do is retreat behind her veil and adore Isaac from afar, through the time at which she went to a prophet to inquire about her difficult pregnancy and was told that in her womb were twins and that the younger would have ascendency over the elder – and did not tell her husband, until she had her younger son dupe his father into blessing him and not Esau, husband and wife never really engaged in meaningful dialogue.
This story is pregnant with a critical message. Again and again, the Torah reminds us that values must be nuanced; they are rarely absolute. Respect and admiration for one’s spouse are crucial, but these must be balanced by the willingness to speak and to express oneself; respect of spouse must have as its counterweight respect of self. Deference must never be allowed to become a burden that represses individuality and stifles communication. And modesty is also a central value, one often trampled in our modern society, but nevertheless there are times, certainly in the husband wife relationship, at which the veil must be removed and true emotional and intellectual intimacy allowed to flourish.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.