The Book of Genesis is full of unethical behavior or, at the least, highly questionable actions by our matriarchs and patriarchs. Abraham let Sarah be physically available to Pharaoh, indicating that she was his sister. He then proceeded to come within a knife's breath of sacrificing his son Isaac at Mount Moriah. Sarah dispatched Hagar and Ishmael from the security of her tent into the unforgiving wilderness. Isaac dissembled before Abimelech, obfuscating his relationship to Rebekah. Jacob and his father Isaac engage in a biblical game of "Can you guess who I am?" as the blessing for the first born goes to the younger brother.
And then there is Rebekah. Let's review her role in the unfolding drama of the Hebrew family. Isaac grows old and hungers for a tasty dish of game from the hand of Esau, the hunter. Overhearing this request, Rebekah quickly cooks up a scrumptious meal and instructs Jacob to deliver the goods in order to receive the blessing intended for Esau. When Esau learns that his brother has usurped his position, he threatens to kill him. Rebekah, never one to remain passive, dispatches Jacob to stay with her brother Laban in order to protect her son's life.
Rebekah is the most remarkable manager in biblical literature. From the moment Abraham's servant Eliezer meets her at the well seeking a wife for Isaac to this episode where she schemes and tricks her family to ensure that Jacob, rather than Esau, becomes patriarch, she manipulates the characters like an all-knowing director on the stage of life. This is some family - weak characters and strong ones, tricky folks, shadowy plots, and plenty of dysfunction!
But before we pass them off as ideal candidates for long-term family therapy, (which they certainly need), let's try to understand some of the lessons the biblical story conveys.
In his work, Certain People of the Book, Maurice Samuel describes Rebekah as the manager who was "chosen to guard Isaac in the fulfillment of his destiny."1 It was thanks to Rebekah, Samuel argues, that the future of the Jewish people rested in the hands of Jacob who by temperament was best prepared for the role. She saw the uniqueness of each of her sons. What had to get done, got done, albeit in a messy way. But we are human and we function in an imperfect world.
As for Isaac, a close reading of the text when he gives the birthright to Jacob, not to Esau, reveals that the elderly father knew all along what he was doing. He understood what needed to be done to move the Jewish people forward: that Jacob, not Esau, must be the next link in Israel's covenant with God. And he did it. Yes, Isaac was passive and blinded. But behind the shenanigans, we discover a man of fortitude and vision. Or as Rabbi Morris Adler put it, "in all of his actions a tradition was preserved."2
On the surface, Isaac appears foolish. But like most biblical characters, he reminds us of an important life lesson: Do not judge another too quickly. As Hillel taught, "Don't judge your fellow human being until you have reached that person's place" (Pirkei Avot 2:4.3 Looking below the surface you may discover considerable wisdom. How many people have you misjudged on first meeting and had to revisit your judgment as you got to know her better? Isaac took action to ensure the future of the Jewish people. Not bad for a fellow who made few biblical headlines! God seems to select imperfect instruments to fulfill God's purposes.
In today's jargon, we might describe Rebekah and Isaac as "helicopter parents," always hovering around their children, ready to jump in on a moment's notice to "straighten things out." Yes, there are huge risks in over directing our children, not allowing them to make their own mistakes, and insisting that they do what they are not equipped to do. Indeed, enlightened parents need to let their progeny find their own way in life.
On the other hand, Rebekah and Isaac, while admittedly using strategies that are suspect today, remind us that it is the responsibility of parents to shape their children's future. The mother who strongly guides her son to the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel might be pejoratively labeled a "manager" by some, but in my book she is fulfilling a Jewish parent's responsibility to build her child's commitment to Israel, Hebrew, and the Jewish future.
A father who insists that his daughter continue her Jewish studies past bat mitzvah may be criticized for over directing, when he is simply doing what it takes to insure that she grows up with an adult's conception of Judaism. If we parents are too timid to lay out the pathway for a rich Jewish life, aren't we abdicating our responsibility? Has the behavior pendulum for teenagers swung so far in the direction of independence that perhaps Rebekah and Isaac can help us to see the other side (with reservations!).
A concluding note: it's not all dysfunction. The brothers do not end up killing each other! Esau does receive a blessing from Isaac; Rebekah maintains a relationship with both sons who move on with their lives and eventually achieve a form of reconciliation (Genesis 33:1-17). Like the parents, the sons are far from perfect. But they eventually discovered who they are.
1. Certain People of the Book (New York: Knopf, 1955), p. 184
2. The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Rev. Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), pp. 186, 188
3. Pirke Avot 2:4, ed. and trans., Leonard Kravitz Kerry M. Olitzky, (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 20
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).