Dancing in Chains: Deception and Destiny in Parshat Toldot

At the heart of this week’s Torah portion lies a kind of riddle “wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” the significance of which echoes throughout the remainder of the book of Genesis, and perhaps even further than that. The riddle in question relates to Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac in order to take his older brother Esau’s blessing. Isaac at this moment is aged and blind, and he plans to give his favored son Esau an important blessing after Esau brings him a meal he has hunted for him. Yet, as we learned earlier in the parashah, destiny is on the side of Jacob rather than Esau. When Rebecca is pregnant, God tells her in a poetic refrain: 

Two nations are in your womb.
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.

Despite Isaac’s preference for his oldest son, Rebecca knows very well that Jacob rather than Esau must be groomed for greatness, and she thus encourages Jacob to pretend to be his brother and take the blessing for himself.  When Isaac learns that Jacob deceived him, he is described as being “seized with a violent trembling” and when Esau discovers his brother’s dissimulation he weeps and responds to his father with the agonizing   “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” We know from various events throughout the parashah about Esau’s unsuitability for continuing the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. Before this episode, he sells his birthright to his brother Jacob in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup, later on he displeases his parents by taking two Canaanite wives rather than marrying women from his own tribe. Yet it is difficult not to empathize with Esau’s cries here, and we naturally wonder, why couldn’t Isaac have blessed both Esau and Jacob in equal measure? Was Jacob’s guile the only way to address this imperfect scenario, or could an alternative solution have been found?

Isaac Blessing Jacob (Gustave Dore, from the 1865 La Sainte Bible)
Isaac Blessing Jacob  (Gustave Dore, from the 1865 La Sainte Bible)

Generations of Jewish Bible commentators, as well as Rabbinic midrash, have addressed this riddle either explicitly or implicitly. On a purely literary level, Jacob’s act of deceit will certainly haunt him for the better part of his life. Nechama Leibowitz and others* have noted the ways in which Jacob’s treachery is reflected back upon him by Laban when he gives Leah to Jacob as a wife instead of his beloved Rachel. Jacob howls, in a way that evokes both Isaac and Esau simultaneously, “why have you deceived me?” Laban answers in a manner that can be interpreted as carrying a strong note of irony, “it is not the practice in our place to give the younger before the older” (29:26). In another curious episode, Jacob’s wife Rachel “sells” a night with Jacob to Leah in exchange for some mandrakes she desires. This too recalls another unreasonable bargain, when Jacob buys the birthright from Esau for a bowl of pottage. Most poignantly, the suffering Jacob endures after the loss of his precious son Joseph at the hands of his envious brothers again recalls Jacob’s own actions in knocking his older brother Esau off of his perch as Isaac’s favorite son. In both cases, the skin of a dead animal is used to cement  this deception. All of the narratives surrounding Jacob seem to illustrate the principle of “measure for measure” or “midah k’neged midah.” Jacob’s original deception reverberates through the trials and tribulations he endures throughout the book of Genesis.

The Bible’s keen sense of poetic justice notwithstanding, the main thrust of traditional Jewish interpretation, including the commentaries of Rashi and Nachmanides, defends Jacob’s actions in claiming the birthright and blessing as his own. For both Rashi and Nachmanides, the burden of error is placed upon Isaac who mistakenly believed the legacy of the Jewish people would pass through Esau. Jacob and Rebecca have no choice other than to correct this grave mistake. This is not simply a case of Rabbinic apologizing for a clear-cut misdemeanor. From the beginning of the story when we learn that two nations are “striving” within  Rebecca, we understand that this story is not only a family drama, it is also about national destiny. As Rabbi Elchanan Samet notes in regard to this story:

“The moral judgment of an individual concerned with the destiny of the coming generations, motivated by a feeling of responsibility toward them, and characterized by a willingness to pay a heavy price in the present, is very different from the judgment of someone acting for his or her own personal benefit. So one must relate to the actions of Rebecca and Jacob: they are prepared to disregard their current lives due to a feeling of obligation toward the distant future. Accepting Esau’s receiving of the blessings would be a particularly reckless form of apathy, which might allow their lives to continue pleasantly by going along with the current, but would manifest moral torpor toward future generations.”

(Source: Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash. Translation by Yosef Bloch)

As Rabbi Samet explains, while Jacob will experience the negative repercussions of this act of betrayal for the rest of his adult life, this does not mean that he should not have gone through with it.

Parshat Toldot and the ensuing chapters present a particularly complicated moral quandary for us as readers and within the Jewish tradition. Most contemporary readings that I have come across seem to weigh down on one side or the other of the debate: Jacob has either committed an ethical breach or he has not. However, I am more interested in the way in which the Bible, as a meticulously crafted work of literature, manages to suspend both alternative interpretations of Jacob’s actions almost simultaneously. Perhaps it takes a literary perspective to unlock this particular aspect of the Bible’s artistry, and in pursuit of this perspective I’d like to take a look at at the contemporary novel All Other Nights by Dara Horn.

All Other Nights is a work of historical fiction that depicts the experience of Jews during the Civil War on both sides of the Union/Confederate divide. The hero of the novel is Jacob Rappaport, a fictional soldier from New York who is asked to draw on his extensive Jewish family and business network in the South in order to carry out a set of morally questionable initiatives on behalf of the Union.  Throughout the book, Rappaport struggles with the tension between his fealty to the Union, which emerges from strong moral convictions but is not solely based on these convictions, and his commitment to both the Jewish community and to individuals he feels close to and loves. The book is not pitched as Bible commentary. Horn’s more recent novel, The Guide for the Perplexed, engages with the book of Genesis in a much more explicit manner. Yet, by invoking the Biblical Jacob in order to shed light on Jacob Rappaport’s own conflicts, Horn also reflects back on the Biblical text and reminds us what a work of literature can do that unambiguous moral pronouncements cannot. Rappaport engages in acts of treachery on behalf of a just cause, and Horn explores the various ramifications of these acts in a lucid and nuanced manner.

Jewish Civil War Soldiers (Source: National Council of Jewish Film)
Jewish Civil War Soldiers (Source: National Council of Jewish Film)

Like many readers of Parshat Toldot, Horn does question whether it was wholly necessary for Jacob Rappaport to betray his kin in the manner that he does. For example, when Rappaport is asked to assassinate his uncle, who seems to be engaging in a blustery plot against Abraham Lincoln that is unlikely to achieve fruition, Rappaport considers whether a conflict of destinies is always as straightforward as it seems, particularly when it manifests itself internally among Jews. Horn’s acute moral sensitivity, however, prevents the novel from devolving into a flat anti-war tract.  While it’s likely that Rappaport could have eschewed certain ethically problematic behaviors and still achieved his goals, the larger conflict between the North and South was one that needed to be waged for the purpose of abolishing slavery and for the future of the American nation. The medium of the novel allows us to recognize both of these truths at once.

Intentional ambiguity as it manifests itself in the Bible is an area of interest for Meir Sternberg, the Israeli literary critic. In The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, he outlines the various artistic techniques that the Bible uses to suspend or defer meaning, or convey competing or contradictory claims. He draws on the work of authors such as Henry James, Nikolai Gogol and S.Y. Agnon to make the case for the way in which the Bible self-consciously allows for mutually exclusive interpretations via artfully placed gaps or ambiguities. Sternberg also claims that the Bible is different than the literary output of these modern secular authors in that it is an ideological work interested in conveying specific moral truths. The metaphor he uses to describe the particular way in which the Bible balances mystery and ultimate meaning is “dancing in chains,” as he explains:

“…. as a matter of artistic principle, the biblical narrator does not make things easy for himself by minimizing in advance the rhetorical problems to be overcome. Just as in the story of the rape of Dinah he does not present the Hivites as monsters, just as his historico-ideological commitment to Jacob does not preclude giving Esau a sympathetic hearing, just as none of his righteous men is perfect and few of the unrighteous wholly evil- so in our tale he avoids the line of least resistance…It is precisely here that he rejects the ideological simplifications of didacticism and melodrama: his is the art of self-constraint, of meeting challenges, of dancing in chains. Even in ideological commitment and strait, he takes risks where lesser or more single-minded persuaders would take shortcuts.”

For Sternberg, the artistic virtuosity of the Bible lies precisely in its ability to honestly entertain contradictions and ambiguity, without fundamentally compromising its ideological vision. The fact that Sternberg likens the ideological worldview of the Bible to shackles is somewhat problematic, as one could also see Biblical ideology as enabling, rather than merely failing to inhibit, its dancing. Regardless, Sternberg offers us a useful framework for considering contradictions in the Bible. Rather than choose between compelling alternatives, we can view the “dance” or play between these messages, in the service of a larger ideology, to be an intentional part of the work of the Bible. Jacob’s flaws may be manifold, but they don’t prevent him from standing on the side of destiny.

*In my own understanding of these chapters I am indebted to Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, with whom I studied the Jacob narratives at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem thirteen years ago. He has since written an excellent book on this topic entitled Wrestling Jacob, which is required reading for anyone seriously interested in this subject.

5 thoughts on “Dancing in Chains: Deception and Destiny in Parshat Toldot

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s