A unique and prestigious residential project in now being built in Mekor Haim Street in Jerusalem.
Rebecca, hitherto infertile, became pregnant. Suffering acute pain, she went to inquire of the Lord – “vateilech lidrosh et Hashem” (Bereishit 25:22). The explanation she received was that she was carrying twins who were contending in her womb. They were destined to do so long into the future:
Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger – “v’rav ya’avod tzair” (Bereishit 25:23).
Eventually the twins are born – first Esau, then (his hand grasping his brother’s heel) Jacob. Mindful of the prophecy she has received, Rebecca favors the younger son, Jacob. Years later, she persuades him to dress in Esau’s clothes and take the blessing Isaac intended to give his elder son. One verse of that blessing was “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you” (Bereishit 26:29). The prediction has been fulfilled. Isaac’s blessing can surely mean nothing less than what was disclosed to Rebecca before either child was born, namely that, “the older will serve the younger.” The story has apparently reached closure – or so, at this stage, it seems.
But biblical narrative is not what it seems. Two events follow that subvert all that we had been led to expect. The first happens when Esau arrives and discovers that Jacob has cheated him out of his blessing. Moved by his anguish, Isaac gives him a benediction, one of whose clauses is: “You will live by your sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck” (Bereishit 27:40).
This is not what we had anticipated. The older will not serve the younger in perpetuity.
The second scene, many years later, occurs when the brothers meet after a long estrangement. Jacob is terrified of the encounter. He had fled from home years earlier because Esau had vowed to kill him. Only after a long series of preparations and a lonely wrestling match at night is he able to face Esau with some composure. He bows down to him seven times. Seven times he calls him “my lord.” Five times he refers to himself as “your servant.” The roles have been reversed. Esau does not become the servant of Jacob; instead, Jacob speaks of himself as the servant of Esau. But this cannot be. The words heard by Rebecca when “she went to inquire of the Lord” suggested precisely the opposite, that “the older will serve the younger.” We are faced with cognitive dissonance.
More precisely, we have here an example of one of the most remarkable of all of Torah’s narrative devices: the power of the future to transform our understanding of the past. This is the essence of midrash. New situations retrospectively disclose new meanings in the text (see the essay “The Midrashic Imagination” by Michael Fishbane). The present is never fully determined by the present. Sometimes it is only later that we understand the now.
This is the significance of the great revelation of G-d to Moses in Shemot 33:33, where G-d says that only His back may be seen – meaning, His presence can be seen only when we look back at the past; it can never be known or predicted in advance. The indeterminacy of meaning at any given moment is what gives the biblical text its openness to ongoing interpretation.
We now see that this was not an idea invented by the Sages. It already exists in the Torah itself. The words Rebecca heard – as will now become clear – seemed to mean one thing at the time. It later transpires that they meant something else.
The words, “v’rav ya’avod tzair,” seem simple: “the older will serve the younger.” Returning to them in the light of subsequent events, though, we discover that they are anything but clear. They contain multiple ambiguities.
The first (noted by Radak and Rabbi Yosef ibn Kaspi) is that the word “et,” signaling the object of the verb, is missing. Normally – but not always – in biblical Hebrew the subject precedes, and the object follows, the verb. In Job 14:19, for example, the words “avanim shachaku mayim” mean “water wears away stones,” not “stones wear away water.” Thus the phrase might mean “the older shall serve the younger.” But it might also mean “the younger shall serve the older.” To be sure, the latter would be poetic Hebrew rather than conventional prose style, but that is what this utterance is: a poem.
The second is that rav and tzair are not opposites, a fact disguised by the English translation of rav as “older.” The opposite of tzair (“younger”) is bechir (“older” or “firstborn”). Rav does not mean “older”; it means “great,” or possibly “chief.” This linking together of two terms as if they were polar opposites, which they are not – the opposites would have been bechir/tzair or rav/me’at – further destabilizes the meaning. Who was the rav? The elder? The leader? The chief? Was it the more numerous? The word might mean any of these things.
The third – not part of the text but of later tradition – is the musical notation. The normal way of notating these three words would be mercha-tipcha-sof pasuk. This would support the reading, “the older shall serve the younger.” In fact, however, they are notated tipcha-mercha-sof pasuk – suggesting, “the older shall the younger serve”; in other words, “the younger shall serve the older.”
A later episode adds yet another retrospective element of doubt. There is a second instance in Bereishit of the birth of twins, to Tamar (Bereishit 38:27-30). The passage is clearly reminiscent of the story of Esau and Jacob:
There were twins in her womb, and while she was in labor one of them put out a hand. The midwife took a scarlet thread and fastened it around the wrist, saying, “This one appeared first.” No sooner had he drawn back his hand than his brother came out, and the midwife said, “What! You have broken out first!” So he was named Peretz. Soon afterwards his brother was born with the scarlet thread on his wrist, and he was named Zerach.
Who then was the elder? And what does this imply in the case of Esau and Jacob? (See Rashi to 25:26, suggesting that Jacob was in fact the elder.) These multiple ambiguities are not accidental but integral to the text. The subtlety is such that we do not notice them at first. Only later, when the narrative does not turn out as expected, are we forced to go back and notice what at first we missed: that the words Rebecca heard may mean “the older will serve the younger” or “the younger will serve the older.”
A number of things now become clear. The first is that this is a rare example in the Torah of an oracle as opposed to a prophecy (this is the probable meaning of the word chidot in Bamidbar 12:8, speaking about Moses: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, openly and not in chidot” – usually translated as “dark speeches” or “riddles”). Oracles – a familiar form of supernatural communication in the ancient world – were normally obscure and cryptic, unlike the normal form of Israelite prophecy. This may well be the technical meaning of the phrase, “she went to inquire of the Lord,” that puzzled the medieval commentators.
The second – and this is fundamental to an understanding of Bereishit – is that the future is never as straightforward as we are led to believe. Abraham is promised many children but has to wait years before Isaac is born. The patriarchs are promised a land but do not acquire it in their lifetimes. The Jewish journey, though it has a destination, is long and has many digressions and setbacks. Will Jacob serve or be served? We do not know. Only after a long, enigmatic struggle alone at night does Jacob receive the name Israel – meaning: “he who struggles with G-d and with men and prevails.”
The most important message of this text is both literary and theological. The future affects our understanding of the past. We are part of a story whose last chapter has not yet been written. That rests with us, as it rested with Jacob.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Comments are closed.
Amazingly, each and every blade was green and moist as if it was just freshly cut.
All the commentaries ask why Hashem focuses on the Exodus as opposed to saying, “I am Hashem who created the entire world.”
Someone who focuses only on the bones of the Torah makes his bones dry and passionless.
The following is President Obama’s statement on Passover (April 14, 2014). As he has in the past, the President held an official Passover Seder at the White House. Michelle and I send our warmest greetings to all those celebrating Passover in the United States, in Israel, and around the world. On Tuesday, just as we […]
The tendency to rely on human beings rather than G-d has been our curse throughout the centuries.
“Who is wise? One who learns from each person” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.
“I’ll try to help as we can,” said Mr. Goodman, “but we already made a special appeal this year. Let me see what other funds we have. I’ll be in touch with you in a day or two.”
Rashi is bothered by the expression Hashem used: “the Jews need only travel.”
‘Three Festivals, Even Out Of Order’
Two husbands were there to instruct us in Texas hold ‘em – and we needed them.
Question: Why do we start counting sefirat ha’omer in chutz la’aretz on the second night of Pesach when the omer in the times of the Beit Hamikdash was cut on Chol HaMoed?
A few background principles regarding the prohibitions of chametz mixtures on Pesach may provide some shopping guidance.
According to the Rambam, the k’nas applies to any chametz on Pesach with which one could, in theory, transgress the aveirah – even if no transgression actually occurred.
In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.
There is much in this episode that is hard to understand, much that has to do with the concept of holiness and the powerful energies it released that, like nuclear power today, could be deadly dangerous if not properly used. But there is also a more human story about two approaches to leadership that still resonates with us today.
Nasi is the generic word for a leader: a ruler, king, judge, elder, or prince. Usually it refers to the holder of political power.
The account of the construction of the Tabernacle in Vayakhel-Pekudei is built around the number seven.
Vayakhel is Moses’ response to the wild abandon of the crowd that gathered around Aaron and made the golden calf.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you fail. Such is life.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/the-rare-torah-oracle/2012/11/14/
Scan this QR code to visit this page online: