Parashat Hashavua for Toldot
Cantor George Mordecai
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
The relationship between Jacob and Esau is probably one of the most intense and problematic stories in the Bible. Jacob is very important for us. It is through Jacob’s children that we trace our lineage as Israelites.
Yet that lineage was passed on to Jacob from his father, Isaac, by an act of deceit. It was not rightfully his. Jacob, on the urging of his mother, Rebecca, pretended to be his brother Esau in order to steal the birthright bestowed by his father, Isaac.
What is the Torah’s attitude to Jacob’s deceitful behaviour? Nehamah Leibowitz, a preeminent modern Biblical commentator, noted that from the moment he steals Esau’s birthright till his death a kind of "karmic retribution" is visited upon Jacob at every stage of his journey.
Just as Jacob deceived his brother, so his sons deceived him when they told him that their brother Joseph had been killed.
When Jacob is deceived by Laban into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, Laban says, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older [the bechirah—the firstborn]” (Genesis 29: 26).
Nehamah Leibowitz,expounds on the recurring bechirah—firstborn motif: Why did Laban choose to use the word bechirah—firstborn instead of the word gedolah—older? The Torah reminds us of Jacob’s preemption: Laban’s statement refers us (and Jacob) back to the stealing of the firstborn’s birthright and so it subtly highlights for us the consequences of unethical and deceitful behaviour.
A few insightful Rabbinic sources see this treatment of Jacob by Laban as an example of midah k’neged midah—measure for measure. Essentially midah k’neged midah is a Rabbinic construct to instill in us the understanding that our actions have consequences.
An example of this is found in Pirkei Avot—The Ethics of Our Fathers. Rav Hillel saw a skull that was floating on the water. He said to it: “Because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned” (Pirkei Avot 2:6).
A midrashic teaching perhaps more clearly demonstrates the way in which midah k’neged midah is meant to be understood: “They [the Egyptians] made the Israelite slaves drawers of water—and so their rivers were turned to blood."
“The Egyptians made the Israelite women prepare their baths—and then they developed boils which made it impossible for them to wash."
“The Egyptians sought to keep the Israelites as slaves—and were themselves shackled by the darkness that befell the land of Egypt” (Midrash Tanhumah)."
The Rabbinic category of midah k’neged midah is an admirable attempt by our Rabbis to instill in us a sense of justice. Justice and the pursuit of it are not just a matter of moral responsibility but a sacred obligation. While we know too well that the world does not always work this way, we are commanded to strive to act justly and compassionately at all times and in all places. In this particular Rabbinic interpretation of Jacob’s trials and tribulations we see the real transformative power of our tradition at work. Here the Rabbis are not engaging in apologetics for Jacob’s behaviour but are critiquing his actions and teaching us that our tradition stipulates that there are consequences for deceit, trickery and immoral behaviour.
Sometimes we learn what not to do and how not to behave from our Biblical heroes and forefathers. That is the power of our Torah and its teaching lo bashamayim hi—It is not in the Heavens (Deuteronomy 30: 12).
Every day, in each and every interaction, how we respond, behave and act is up to us; we are given the choice. May we learn from Jacob and eventually, like him, be worthy of the name Israel.