Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Toledot I: Oracles

(כג) ורב יעבוד צעיר - ולכך אהבה את יעקב שאהבו הקב"ה וכדכת' ואהב את יעקב: (כח) אוהבת את יעקב - שהיתה מכרת בתומתו וגם ממה שאמר הק' ורב יעבוד צעיר. והוצרך להקדים כאן אהבת יצחק לעשו ורבקה את יעקב להודיע מה שכתב לפנינו יצחק רצה לברך עשו ורבקה הערימה לברך את יעקב. (יג) עלי קללתך - עלי ועל צוארי, כלומר [אל תירא] כי היתה בוטחת במה שאמר לה הק' ורב יעבד צעיר:

At this critical moment in the prehistory of Yitzhak and Esav, Rivkah is privileged to receive a communication from God about the fate of the children in her womb. Seeking the reason for her pain, she is told in Bereishit 25:23 that a transnational struggle is unfolding within her, with the younger child destined to triumph over the older. Rashbam sees the entire subsequent narrative as emanating from this verse, which anchors Rivkah’s attachment to Ya’akov and justifies her machinations to make sure that he emerges as Yitzhak’s true heir. Yitzhak, Rashbam seems to imply, was unaware of this oracle, and, as a result, preferred Esav based on more earthly considerations. Rivkah, aware of the deeper historical implications, favored Ya’akov. This disparity helps fill in the gap in Bereishit 25:28, where we are told, without explanation that Rivkah loved Ya’akov more than ( to the exclusion of?) Esav. Her favoritism was rooted in this divine prediction and her sense that she was to help realize it. It also explains her confidence in Bereishit 26:13 when assuring Ya’akov that she would accept the brunt of any curse that might result from tricking his father—she knew that the plan had to succeed, as it was divinely ordained. Yitzhak, on the other hand, deaf to this oracle (and later blind), follows a different path. We thus have here another classic example of Rashbam’s use of הקדמה, an approach that sees the narrative of the Torah as setting us up for plotlines that will later emerge.

[For other examples of this dynamic in this parashah, see Rashbam on Bereishit 25:34 and 26:15.]

One other note: the ancient oracle of Delphi was famous for both predicting the future as well as doing so in a way that was marvelously ambiguous such that the acts and follies of human beings often ended up shaping its true meaning. Another approach to the above oracle is that Yitzhak did indeed hear it, but interpreted it differently. Part of the richness of Hebrew is the fact that word order in a sentence does not on its own determine what is the subject and what is the object. [Indeed, removing this ambiguity is often the entire function of the direct object designator את.] Take, for example, the first phrase of Yeshayahu 40:19: הפסל נסך חרש. This clearly means that the smith (subject) makes a molten statue (object), despite the fact that “statue” is the first word in the phrase. Similarly, here, Yitzhak may well have heard the same words, ורב יעבד צעיר, but would have understood צעיר to be the subject of the sentence, which would then be predicting that, after a long struggle, the younger brother would indeed serve the older, and thus he reserved his greatest affection for Esav. Rivkah, on the other hand, heard differently, and thus the tragic arc of this narrative unfolds based on dueling interpretations of the divine will. And perhaps like the Delphic oracle, the meaning of God’s words here were ultimately meant to be shaped by human will and initiative, with Rivkah gaining the upper hand.


At November 15, 2007 at 9:07 PM , Blogger Kehuna Rabba said...

The approach of having Yitzhak interpret the oracle differently than Rivkah is interesting, and highlighting the ambiguity in Bereishit 25:23 yields a nice reading that is effectively peshat even as it contradicts what we think of as peshat. It's worth noting that the Netsiv also picks up on this feature of the text; in his last comment on this verse, he indicates that it can be read with either the younger or the older as the subject, and that which meaning of the prophecy is true is "dependent on the time" (presumably meaning that it can change with the circumstances, perhaps taking in various historical periods when Jews were subjugated as well as those when they had sovereignty over their own land).

At November 15, 2007 at 9:13 PM , Blogger EMT said...

I forgot about that Netziv--though I did learn it once, several years ago. He has a whole interesting take there that Ya'akov was entitled to one portion of the berakhah but that he stole another portion related to gemilut hasadim that was intended for Esav. I need to go back and check it now. Thanks!


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