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Unbinding Mother Rebekah.

How long was the moment when Isaac lay bound on the altar, his neck exposed to Father Abraham's knife, with all of the Jewish future hanging in the balance? Certainly it was less than a day, probably only minutes or even seconds, before Abraham heard the Divine messenger telling him not to harm the boy; Isaac was unbound, and the clock resumed its ticking (Gen. 22:1-19).

A great deal longer were the moments after the Akedah, when the future of Abraham's hope of Jewish peoplehood again hung in doubt. In many ways Isaac remained bound, emotionally, to Esau, a wild, uncivilized person unworthy of Abraham's dream, and tied to his bed as well by illness and old age. Almost as incapable was the simple, timid Jacob, who stayed in camp close to home and hearth (Gen. 25:27-28).

The story of Akedat Yizhak, the Binding of Isaac, is among the best known and most thoroughly explored in all of Jewish tradition.(1) Less appreciated is Rebekah's role as keeper of Abraham's dream and engineer of the future of the Jewish people. Yet, without her heroic efforts, Isaac might have remained bound to his intent to transmit the leadership of the clan to Esau, Jacob might have remained bound to an unimportant role as just another member of the camp, and the history of the Jewish people as we know it might never have come to be. This is an exploration of Rebekah's unbinding of Isaac, Esau, Jacob, and, most of all, of herself.

Where shall we look for Rebekah's story? The Torah text tells us some of it. We find a good deal more in the Talmud, midrash, and commentaries, the records of generations of Jews resonating with the bare text, and fleshing it out with additional intuitions and insights.

We know of the elderly Abraham's concern with finding a wife for his son, Isaac, and of how he sent an unnamed servant back to the land of his birth to find one (Gen. 24:1-9). We also know a fair amount about the subservient position of women in the Ancient Near East and about some of the constraints upon them in patriarchal society. As was the case with most of the women of her era, Rebekah remained bound up in the control of others. As she left her home to go and marry Isaac, she was accompanied a short way by the emissaries of her father's household, who delivered her directly into the custody of Abraham's servants, who delivered her to Isaac.(2)

As a woman, she was seen as a frail and vulnerable creature, especially in terms of her sexuality. When she first saw her future husband she was so overcome with awe that she slipped from the camel on which she was riding. The fall injured her in the groin, rupturing her hymen.(3) Of course, Isaac would never believe such a story, in spite of Rebekah's pleading and swearing. He came to believe her only when she showed him the tree stump on which she had fallen, still wet with her blood.(4) There was always a suspicion that she might have been used by a man, perhaps even the trusted servant who brought her back from Abraham's homeland. Because of this, on her arrival Isaac had to perform a digital pelvic examination to assure himself of Rebekah's virginity.(5)

That Rebekah managed to exercise power in spite of the traditional constraints on women is impressive enough. But she had even more to contend with. She was also saddled with a family background of highly questionable morality. The greed of her brother Laban comes through directly from the text and is noted by the commentators. When Laban saw the gifts that Abraham's servant gave Rebekah, he ran out immediately to be part of the action (Gen. 24:29-31).(6) Similarly, when the servant made his formal request to take Rebekah back as Isaac's wife, Laban rushed in to answer, seemingly usurping the prerogatives of his father, Bethuel.(7)

The midrash further expounds on the immorality of Rebekah's family from hints found in the text. Both Laban and Bethuel responded affirmatively to the request for Rebekah (24:50), yet the next morning, when the servant wanted to leave, it was only her mother and brother who asked him to tarry (24:55). What happencd to Bethuel? The greedy Laban put a plate of poisoned food before the servant, intending to kill him and take whatever riches the man was carrying. But the servant was guarded by the Archangel Gabriel, who switched the poisoned plate with Bethuel's. He died instantly and, so, was missing from the group the next morning.(8)

Laban's evil permeates the story. When Rebekah made ready to leave her family to go to her new husband, Laban (and Rebekah's mother) "blessed" her (24:60). Laban's blessing was delivered with such sarcasm that it turned out to be a curse instead, the result of which was that Rebekah was barren for many years.(9) Laban's evil is also an explanation for how a righteous woman such as Rebekah could have had a wicked son like Esau. In her genealogy, Rebekah is presented not only as the daughter of Bethuel, but the sister of Laban as well (25:20). Since most boys take after their mother's brothers, the character of Esau is thereby explained.(10) Echoes of Laban's evil and trickery continue throughout the story of Jacob.(11)

Lest one wonder why Bethuel received a punishment seemingly more proper for Laban, he indeed deserved to die, and his death was needed at that particular time. According to legend, Rebekah turned three years of age on that day, eligible to be deflowered by her own father. He would have been motivated to do so on two counts: as the king, who had the right to deflower all the women in his realm, and as an Aramean father, among whose people the custom was prevalent. His death at that particular moment was designed to spare Rebekah this terrible violation.(12)

It was good, though, that Rebekah was young and Isaac was, according to the text, forty years old when he married her (25:20). The disparity in their ages, combined with the wisdom of his years, enabled Isaac to train Rebekah properly in order to overcome the natural tendencies towards evil that she had inherited from her parents.(13) Her father, the Arami (Aramean), was also considered (based on an inversion of the Hebrew letters) a ram'ai (rogue), as were the rest of her kinfolk.(14)

Even the inability to have children was attributable to Rebekah's questionable background. When she and Isaac prayed for an end to their childlessness, it was his prayers, not Rebekah's, that had the desired effect. His merit was greater than hers, since he was a righteous offspring of righteous parents while she was the righteous offspring of wicked parents.(15) And even when she became pregnant, Rebekah's questionable background continued to cause trouble. According to one modern commentator, it was the non-kosher food that she had been used to eating in her parents' home that was responsible for the wicked Esau. Only the switch to a proper diet in Isaac's household allowed her to conceive Jacob.(16)

These, then, were the ties from which tradition suggests that Rebekah had to unbind herself: her second-class position as a woman, and the immorality of her family background. She is presented in our sources as a person uniquely capable of doing just that. The whole purpose of the genealogy given in Gen. 22:20-24 is only to introduce Rebekah.(17) She was of royal lineage, the daughter of a king.(18) So great was her merit that when her father, Bethuel, opposed her marriage, God had an angel kill him.(19) God was also personally involved in drawing her away from her problematic background and allowing her to become better than the evil-doers among whom she was raised.(20) Rebekah is referred to as "daughter of Bethuel" (Gen. 25:20), when the reader has already been informed of this earlier (Gen. 22:23), in order to stress that though she came from a wicked family she did not follow their teachings.(21)

Rebekah is seen as a saintly person deserving of miracles. When she came out to the well in her first encounter with Abraham's servant, one of the signs that she was the one destined for Isaac was that the waters of the well rose up on their own.(22) It was difficult for her to conceive because she lacked an ovary, so God made her one, just as had been the case with Abraham's wife, Sarah.(24) From the outset, it was Rebekah, not Rachel and Leah, who was destined to be the mother of the twelve tribes of Israel,(25) but she was prevented from doing so because of the cruelty of the wicked Esau. As he emerged from within her, he purposely tore Rebekah's womb so severely that she never conceived again.(26) Her special qualities included that of prophecy, which is how she knew to favor Jacob and beware of Esau.(27)

All of these wonderful propensities would have been for naught had not Rebekah also had the courage to use them. Time after time she was willing to take the initiative, unwilling to allow herself to remain bound by constraints of gender or background. She is, in fact, portrayed in many of the same terms used to describe Abraham's pioneering initiative towards Jewish peoplehood. Even the blessing that God bestowed upon Abraham in Gen. 22:17, "Your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes," is repeated almost verbatim to Rebekah as she leaves her family to go and marry Isaac.(28) In some ways she even surpassed Abraham, compensating for his failings. When the three "messengers" came to Abraham, he did not bring them water himself, but had a servant fetch it (Gen. 18:4). Rebekah made good on Abraham's "failing" by herself bringing Abraham's servant water to drink.(29)

Her actions at the well were clear and decisive. In just four verses there are eleven verbs of action and one of speech. This is a pattern which we will see again at another crucial moment in Rebekah's story, as she prepares Jacob to manipulate Isaac into giving him the blessing.(30) It is fitting that she exhibited such initiative, for "Rebekah is to become the shrewdest and most potent of the matriarchs.(31)

She is very much in charge of the area in which women were most vulnerable in the ancient world: her sexuality. The text is careful to specify that she was "a virgin, no man had known her" (Gen. 24:16). The midrash explains the seeming redundancy of the two terms as referring to the licentiousness of the Canaanite women. They refrained from vaginal intercourse in order to preserve their hymens and, hence, their bride-price, but allowed themselves almost every other variety of sexual activity. Rebekah, the midrash contends, allowed no sexual advances of any kind until her marriage to Isaac.(32)

Her strength and willingness to take the initiative is evident from her response to Abraham's servant. She was apparently so pleased at the thought of leaving her family that she jumped at the chance of going off to marry Isaac, even before knowing exactly who the servant was.(33) He gave her some presents, and it seems that, in accepting them, Rebekah initiated her own betrothal, certainly an unusually forthright act for that time and place.(34) When she then told her family (Gen. 24:28) what happened, she told them her version, structuring things as she wanted them to be perceived, and playing down her audacity in betrothing herself.(35) When, as custom apparently required, her family asked for her approval for the marriage, Rebekah clearly indicated that not only did she consent, but she was going to marry Isaac even if her family did not approve.(36) Although it was the custom that the bride be veiled and brought to the groom's tent,(37) it was Rebekah who performed this act herself upon first seeing Isaac (Gen. 24:65-7),(38) yet another example of her taking the initiative rather than being acted upon by others.

One modern commentator sees "resoluteness" as Rebekah's outstanding quality. He notes that even at the most crucial and even dangerous moments of her life, such as during her difficult pregnancy, she herself went to inquire about what was happening to her (Gen. 25:22-3); she did not send her husband, and did not even tell him the important message that she had been given about the "two nations" in her womb, "and the elder shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). She drew her own conclusions and kept her own counsel.(39) So foreign to much of our tradition was a female's exercise of self-determination, that Ramban, for instance, suggests that Rebekah never told Isaac about God's prediction - first, out of wifely modesty, and second, because Isaac was a far greater prophet and would therefore be aware of this anyway!(40)

For all of her wonderful qualities, for all of her courage in freeing herself from the bonds of family and gender-dictated role, for all of her exercise of initiative, Rebekah had a very complex situation to deal with: her husband, Isaac.

Isaac and Rebekah are studies in opposites, opposites of each other, and both the opposite of their own parents. Abraham "was the embodiment of supernal grace," though Isaac represented severity.(41) Rebekah originated from severity, but broke away and became gracious and kind. "If not for her gentleness the world would not have been able to endure the severity inherent in Isaac. In this manner, God constantly mates couples of opposing natures ... "(42)

Although Rebekah was dazzled by her first sight of Isaac, clad in his tallit (prayer shawl) and looking like an angel,(43) the truth is that he was a deeply flawed human being, though largely through no fault of his own.

The most important story in the Bible about Isaac is one in which

he plays a passive role ... [B]orn when his parents were of advanced

age ... a reward for his [Abraham's] virtues, Isaac thus belonged to Abraham

in a special sense ... Isaac never really had a life of his own. He

stood forever in the shadow of those two great fathers, Abraham and

God ... He remained a nonentity ... So little was there to tell about

him that the ... Bible, as if in an effort to cover up this painful deficiency,

[relates] a few events regarding him that are repetitions of what happened

to Abraham, and give him a few of the virtues that clung so abundantly

to his father's name.(44)

Isaac's lifetime was a series of tragedies and traumas, beginning even before the Akedah. It is possible that he was sodomized by his older brother, Ishmael, when he was still only two or three years old.(45) The traumatic aspects of the Akedah are fully attested to in any number of places. Isaac's blindness may have come about because the angels' tears fell upon him as he lay bound on the altar.(46) Or, it may have been due to his looking up and seeing the Divine Presence.(47) However, it may have been due to his blind devotion to the wicked Esau.(48)

The trauma of the Akedah involved not just Isaac's father, Abraham, but his mother, Sarah, as well. Because he was helplessly bound on an altar, his mother died. One version says that Sarah died when Satan told her that Abraham had, indeed, killed Isaac on the altar. another source has Sarah dying even though it is Isaac, very much alive, who tells his mother of his brush with death.(50) The trauma of the near-sacrifice is thus deeply compounded by pain and guilt over Sarah's death.

One of Rebekah's primary virtues as a wife was that she appeard to Isaac exactly like Sarah.(51) Rebekah was to compensate for the loss of his mother, and help heal his pain. It was a marriage long in coming. As the text tells us (Gen. 25:20), Isaac was forty years old before he married. He waited, says the midrash, because he wanted to be able to spend his time studying in the academy without the burdens of family responsibility.(52) He was not allowed to leave and go seek a wife on his own because, ever since the Akedah, he was considered an olah, an offering consecrated to God.(53)

Yet, once married, Isaac and Rebekah were unable to have children for the first twenty years of their marriage. "Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren ... " (Gen. 25:21) (emphasis added), so sure was he that Rebekah was the one who was sterile.(54) Why, then, did not Isaac take another wife, or a concubine, like his father before him and his son Jacob after him? His consecrated status may have made him ineligible for concubines, but there was nothing to prevent him from taking another wife. The Zohar tries to compensate by giving Isaac a number of "mystical" wives, so that he becomes equal to Abraham and Jacob.(55)

But of course he was not equal. Something was wrong. Isaac was the one who was barren, and he knew it. That is why he waited so long to marry, and took only one wife.(56) If his barrenness consisted of a low sperm count or defective sperm, Isaac could not have known. But if he was unable to get an erection, or got one only rarely, this is something of which he would have been aware.

Evidence for Isaac's impotence is found, strangely enough, in an incident in which he and Rebekah are said to have had sexual intercourse, apparently wantonly and in public (Gen. 26:6-11). This vignette is the third time that the so-called "Wife-Sister Motif" appears in Genesis. The first two times, Abraham presented Sarah as his sister rather than his wife, hoping, for reasons not entirely clear, to protect both of them.

The third presentation, although of the same genre as the earlier two, has a separate purpose: to depict Isaac's inadequacies.(57) In the first two stories (Gen. 12:10-20 and 20:1-18), Abraham receives gifts of great value. Here, Isaac receives nothing.(58) In spite of God's promise of protection, Isaac still manages to endanger himself and his family.(59) But strangest of all is the text's report that "... Abimelech, king of the Philistines, looking out of the window, saw Isaac "sporting" or "playing" (me-zahek) with his wife Rebekah" (Gen. 26:8). What were they doing? Whatever they were doing, why were they doing it where they could be so easily seen?

It seems obvious that they were having intercourse, though the Zohar goes to great lengths to deny any such understanding, stating that Abimelech looked out of the window and saw the stars, not Isaac and Rebekah. By means of astrology he divined that they were husband and wife.(60) The Zohar doth protest too much, for the Hebrew me-zahek is a technical term that does, indeed, mean sexual intercourse.(61)

Like its Ugaritic cognate, zahek has the connotation of exultation, sexual exaltation. Isaac, it seems, was exulting in his sexual potency with his wife.(62) This is even more mysterious. How are we to understand Isaac's seeming lack of self control, coupling wildly with his wife where they could be seen without preserving the proper modesty? But if Isaac was usually impotent, full arousal would call for immediate action. Perhaps it was their overwhelming desire for children, rather than wild sexual abandon, that caused Isaac and Rebekah to give so little attention to privacy. Commentators suggest that this incident actually took place before Jacob and Esau were born, or how could Isaac have passed Rebekah off as his sister? The text seems to be out of order in that we read of the twins' birth before this incident.(63) Indeed, it may have been this one act of exultant potency through which they were conceived.

What of Isaac's impotence? Our sources give us hints as to its cause, and modern medicine helps us understand it even more fully. Both Isaac's impotence and his blindness seem to have been the result of the same condition: diabetes. The Talmud points to an hereditary quality to Isaac's blindness, suggesting that it was the result of a curse that Abimelech had placed on Isaac's mother, Sarah, for causing him so much trouble.(64) Ibn Ezra suggests the "secret" interpretation that Isaac's eyesight was weak because he was a child of Abraham's old age, i.e., that he was genetically defective.(65) Others understand that Isaac had a disease, the symptoms of which were a ravenous appetite and a loss of visual acuity.(66)

The desire for game, as amply noted,(67) may have been an echo of the hunger and thirst that often accompany diabetes. Sforno suggests that Jacob may have been able to fool Isaac about his identity, through the ruse of putting goat-skins on his arms, because Isaac's sense of touch had deteriorated. Neuropathy, like retinopathy, is a result of diabetes. So is impotence.(68)

What was Rebekah's response to her husband's illness? What was her response to Isaac's preference for Esau, the virile Esau with six wives and many children (Gen. 36:2-5, 10-14) who brought food to try and satisfy his sick father's cravings?

Just as Isaac is known forever as the one who was bound, Rebekah may be seen as the one whose task it was to unbind. As we have seen, she was the opposite of Isaac(69) and, in her identification with Sarah, the mother who gave birth to much of what Isaac was.(70) She was also intimately connected with Isaac's binding, the Akedah, from the moment of her birth. The early genealogy in which Rebekah and her father, Bethuel, are mentioned (Gen. 22:20-24), serves to construct a link between Rebekah's birth and the Akedah.(71) Tradition affirms that Rebekah was born just at the time that Isaac returned from his harrowing experience on Mt. Moriah. Just by being born, she "freed" him from the possibility of marrying one of the local Canaanite women.(72)

As already seen,(73) when Rebekah left her home to go to marry Isaac, she was blessed in the same terms used to bless Abraham at the conclusion of the Akedah (Gen. 22:17). Though Isaac was to be blessed with increased offspring for the sake of his father, Abraham (Gen. 26:24), Rebekah also had to receive the same blessing because she was the unbinder, the one who could free Isaac, as far as was possible, from the ties that bound him. Isaac's potency was so questionable that she had to be the guarantor of Abraham's dream of Jewish peoplehood.

When Rebekah entered Isaac's world she entered also the saga of Mt. Moriah. For Abraham, it was the place to which God directed him in order to sacrifice Isaac. For Jacob, it was Beth El, a place of vision and of God's presence. For Isaac, it was a place to which he remained bound, going back again and again, probably in an attempt to free himself from the trauma of the Akedah. This was the "field" from which he was returning (Gen. 24:63) when Rebekah first saw him.(74) In order to give birth and understand birth, Mt. Moriah, site of the Akedah, became the center of Rebekah's concern. When Isaac and Rebekah prayed for children, it was there that they went. When Rebekah was pregnant and did not understand the unusual turmoil within her, she went yet again to Mt. Moriah to inquire.(75)

Her role as one who unbinds others may even be referred to in her name. One possible etymology for Rivkah (the Hebrew form of Rebekah) derives from a root that means "to loop a cord over the head of a lamb or a kid."(76) This was, indeed, what happened to her. Her life's work was to remove the ties that bound from around her own neck and from the necks of those related to her, so that one of them at least, Jacob, might become free enough to found a people.

Jacob, too, was a thorny knot for Rebekah to untie, a source of great triumph for her as well as searing anguish. The midrash views him as having been born circumcised,(77) a favored child, doted upon and spared even the pain of the loss of his foreskin. He was not a person who took the initiative easily, being, instead, an ish tam, a mild man, who stayed in camp (Gen. 25:27). He was an innocent fellow who did not seem to be able to deal with the moral ambiguities of the real world.(78)

Yet, he did begin to show some initiative in cooking up a red lentil stew(79) (Gen. 25:29-34). One source says that he made the stew as part of the meal of consolation for his father, Isaac, who was returning from Abraham's funeral. When Esau insisted on having that very bowl, rather than waiting for his brother to cook up another batch as he offered to do, Jacob became willing to risk disappointing their father for his own profit.(80) Perhaps he made that particular red stew because his wild, favored elder brother, Esau, was red and ruddy, as was noted from the moment of his birth (Gen. 25:25). The stew may have been Jacob's main prop in a bit of sympathetic magic designed to enhance his position by weakening Esau.(81) It is more probable, though, that Jacob made that red stew to become strong like Esau, whose power seemd to have come via his ruddiness. Evidence is lent to this possibility by the understanding that the lentils which were easily available to Jacob were yellowish red or light brown. For the deep red color that the story specifies, he would either have had to procure Egyptian lentils, which are red, or add something to the stew to make it red.(82) In either case, Jacob's actions give evidence that he was purposely concocting a "red, red" stew, not just a simple meal.

Rebekah's dilemma was how to see to it that her innocent, naive son fulfilled the destiny that she believed was his since before his birth (Gen. 25:23). This was even more difficult, of course, because there was an older brother, and Isaac made it very clear which one he preferred. Perhaps the incident with the stew gave Rebekah a clue: could she get Jacob to be the hero that he needed to be? Could Jacob decisively best Esau, replacing him as the important one in Isaac's eyes as well? The entire future of the Jewish people depended on a positive answer to both of these questions. There was nothing automatic about the prophecy of Jacob's place in history. He was liable to fail. His hegemony was entirely conditional, and he was to lead only if he proved worthy.(83)

Rebekah's solution was brilliant. Isaac, old and bedridden, probably in the throes of an especially severe bout of his illness, wished to bless Esau before he died, so he sent him out to hunt game with which to prepare a meal to be eaten upon the bestowal of the blessing. Rebekah overheard, and, instead, sent Jacob in, with a dish of savory goat meat in hand and goat skins on his arms and neck. He was supposed to fool Isaac, usurp his brother's prerogative, and thereby receive the blessing for himself (Gen. 27:1-28:9).

Jacob worried that if Isaac was not fooled, he would curse rather than bless him, but Rebekah replied that she would be the one cursed instead, if only Jacob would do what she asked (27:11-13). She was willing to choose

... against herself ... in order to guide her son into the guilty act

that will take him into life and the fulfillment of his destiny ... She is

like Eve tempting Adam to the necessary act.(84)

It was not easy. Jacob's reticence was so great that it seemed as if Rebekah had to put right into his hand the food which he was to bring to Isaac.(85) He was so frightened that he wept as his mother tried to give him instructions as to how to handle his father.(86) Jacob does seem to have taken some initiative, though its meaning may remain ambiguous; Rebekah gave him bread and meat, but Jacob also gave Isaac wine (27:25). Was he trying to make sure that his father would be more easily fooled by getting him drunk? The midrash would like to reject Jacob's knowing participation, and so suggests that not only did the wine appear miraculously, but it was also of a special kind that produced blessing rather than inebriation.(84)

Rebekah had a number of other problems beyond Jacob's reticence and minimal participation in her plan. Not only did she have to trick Jacob into trying out the role of the hero that was destined for him, but she also had to enlist Isaac's help so as not to rob him of the little dignity which he had left. This she did by means of the goat skins that she placed on Jacob's arms and neck.

Supposedly this was so that he would seem hairy like Esau, should Isaac, in his blindness, touch him to see which son it was. But the goat skins were not to fool Isaac. Quite the contrary. They were for the purpose of letting Isaac know what was going on, a clue and silent plea from Rebekah to the ailing Patriarch to play along and help fool Jacob. As Reuben Bulka points out, blindness is often accompanied by an increase in the acuity of the other senses. Isaac ought to have been better able to distinguish Jacob's voice from that of Esau.(88) Even if we assume that his diabetic neuropathy made him incapable of distinguishing hairy arms from goat skin-covered ones,(89) there was always the stench of the fresh skins themselves. When Isaac exclaims, "Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that the Lord has blessed" (Gen.27:27), he is being entirely sardonic. This is a textual aside to the reader, indicating that Isaac knows full well what 's going on. Tradition is so aware of the problem of Isaac's seeming unawareness that it was skins that he was touching, that the smell of the goat skins must be "solved" by a miracle: the stench is turned into the same aroma of Paradise that Isaac sensed on Mr. Moriah. Having been given a sign, he bestowed the blessing without hesitation.(90)

It has long been suggested that Isaac was not fooled, even guessing that the whole thing was Rebekah's doing and hinting at this in his questions to Jacob.(91) The commentators focused on the differences between Jacob and Esau to show that Isaac could not possibly have been fooled. Jacob mentioned God (27:20) whereas Esau would not have; Jacob spoke in a pleasant voice, while Esau spoke harshly, etc.(92)

No, it was not Isaac who was fooled. Who was? Bulka suggests that the focus of the entire incident was Esau: "If the father had come to Esau and told him directly that he is not to be given the primary blessing, this would have been a crushing blow to Esau."(93) But this position is untenable for two reasons. First, the text nowhere demonstrates Bulka's sensitivity to Esau's feelings. Secondly, if the concern is over how Esau might feel, it hardly seems to matter, in terms of his anger and anguish, whether his brother stole the blessing or Isaac made a conscious choice to give it to Jacob. In fact, Esau's wrath would have been better inhibited if it had been Isaac's conscious choice. How could he have acted against his old, sick father? Yet, if Jacob were the culprit, his murderous fury could rage unchecked.

No, Esau was not the focus. It was Jacob, as it had been all along. Rebekah's task was exceedingly complex: how to get Jacob to act the hero, how to get Isaac to confirm Jacob's status in his capacity of male, father, and patriarch of the clan, how to deal with the inevitable anger on the part of Esau, and how to protect Jacob as the carrier of Abraham's vision?

Rebekah may, indeed, have agitated earlier for her younger son's elevation to superior status, using the lentil stew incident as evidence both of Jacob's character and Esau's unworthiness.(94) But, apparently, neither Isaac nor Jacob was as yet convinced, or there would have been no need for tbe "death-bed blessing" incident. At a particularly vulnerable moment, when Isaac thought he was about to die, Rebekah dressed Jacob in Esau's clothes and sent him to his father. The clothes, which Isaac could identify by touch (27:21), said to him: "See, this one can assume the role of the other, and even has the courage to do so." They also said: "See, this younger son wants to lead so badly that he even has the courage to stand up to you, to try and fool you, his father."

The goat skins carry a different message. They constitute the signature on the letter which Rebekah sent. The midrash connects goats with Rebekah. One of the provisions of Isaac's dowry to her was a daily allotment of two kids.(95) As noted earlier, one possible etymology of her name refers to looping a cord over the head of a lamb or a kid.(96) The goat skins tell Isaac that this is Rebekah's doing. It is her desire that he affirm Jacob, not Esau, as leader. They also convey to him, at this especially vulnerable moment, an even more powerful message. "Turn Jacob loose," they say. "Free him from his innocence. Do not bind him, Isaac, as you were bound on Mt. Moriah. Do not let him remain a member of the flock, to be led around by a rope, tied for the slaughter as you were. Esau is already free, and wild, and off on the hunt. Now free your other son, untie him, and let him found a people," the goat skins say.

Rebekah's genius is effective. Isaac finally gives in and allows Jacob to think that he has fooled his father and, so, is indeed, worthy of the leadership status that receiving the blessing of the first-born confers. That is what we infer from Isaac's actions upon Esau's return. True, Isaac does tremble violently (27:33), but it may have been a purposeful ruse, or related to his illness and part of the effort of sitting up, or evidence of the difficulty of what Isaac had just done - a post-effort shudder, as it were. But trembling or not, he nonetheless, against all reason, insisted that the original blessing must stand (Ibid.), managing to eke out only a token blessing for Esau.(97)

But all was not yet well. True, Jacob emerged triumphant from his encounter with Isaac, "... crowned like a bridegroom, and like a bride in her adornment ... and ... became a mighty hero .... "(98) But the transformation was by no means complete or permanent. After Esau returned, Rebekah had to call for Jacob because he was off hiding somewhere, presumably in fright.(99) There is no magic here, just the slow and painful struggle of fallible human beings to grow and mature. Jacob's struggles will continue to unfold for many, many more years.(100)

Now Rebekah was faced with another task: helping Jacob grow into the role which he had just acquired. To do so, she of course had to keep him safe from his brother's wrath. Esau was so angry that he threatened to kill the usurper (27:41). In her concern for Jacob's safety, she sent him from the frying pan into the fire, back to her family in Haran, where they would give him the education in the world's harsh realities that he would need in order to realize the dream of Jewish peoplehood.

Yet, running in fear might not have been the best way to reinforce Jacob's new-found, and tenuous, heroism. So, allowing him to consign her suggestion to the realm of motherly concern, she approached Isaac, telling him that Esau's Hittite wives had made her life miserable, and that she could not bear to have the same thing happen with Jacob (27:46). Isaac sent for Jacob, blessed him again, and instructed him to go to Laban's household, not in order to flee, but in order to find a wife. Though the initiator, Rebekah once again managed to allow her frail husband and son to feel that they were in control of their own destinies. Though manipulative, she had, indeed, acted brilliantly "for their own good." Even if, as some scholars think, there are two separate stories here of Jacob's departure,(101) the force of the final composite is clear: Jacob heard Rebekah, but he left in response to the instructions from his father (28:5).

Rebekah could not have known the magnitude of her sacrifice, could not have known that she would never see Jacob again. Yet, she must have had a sense of loss over cutting him loose and sending her beloved son out into the world, independent of her. The negative side of Jacob's leaving home is presented as a prophetic vision which Rebekah had that both of her sons would die on the same day: Jacob by Esau's hand, Esau as punishment for murdering his brother. To prevent this disaster, she sent Jacob away.(102) Though concerned for both of her sons, she sent Jacob to Haran to minimize the threat to both of them.(103)

Intimations of the magnitude of Rebekah's loss are also found in the midrash's close reading of the text. She told Jacob that he should stay with Laban only "a few days" (Gen. 27:44), until Esau's anger subsided. Yet, later, the seven years which Jacob labored for Rachel seemed to him like the same "few days" (29:20). The identical phrase is used in both places. Rebekah is going to be parted from Jacob for a few days that will really be years and years.(104) Actually, she never saw Jacob again.(105) He may have stayed away for as long as thirty-six years, until after she died.(106)

The way in which our sources depict Rebekah's death give us an indication of how tragically the end of her life was viewed. Her demise is only hinted at, a veiled reference inferred from the report of the death of Rebekah's nurse (Gen. 35:8), and God's appearance to Jacob - presumably to offer him the mourner's prayer of consolation. The secrecy with which Rebekah's death is treated was because Isaac was too sick, Jacob was away, and therefore, only the wicked Esau was available to see to her burial.(107) Rather than allow this to happen, the body was removed in the dark of night(108) and buried by the Hittites, since no one else was available.(109)

This, then, was the price that was paid by this remarkable woman. By cutting loose her son, by untying him from his proximity to her, she unbound him to seek his destiny and to become the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel. In doing so, she remained home alone with a sick husband who outlived her, and died alone and forlorn, her death unremarked.

"Rebekah the Unbinder" would be a good epitaph for her grave. She unbound herself from constraints of gender and family background, unbound Esau from his stranglehold on a Jewish future that she found anathema, unbound Isaac, at least in part, from his thrall to his own binding, his Akedah, and unbound Jacob from home and hearth in order to carry on Abraham's work. She paid a terrible price for her labors: loss, loneliness, and the sacrifice of her beloved son. A full appreciation of her courage and power is long overdue. It is time for us to help unbind Rebekah from being eclipsed by the men around her, so that we might stand in awe before her story. She is truly a worthy model for all men and women who labor on behalf of a dream.

(1.) See, for example, among the myriad references to the Akedah, Shalom Spiegel's masterful volume, The Last Trial (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1967). (2.) Malbim ad Gen. 24:59,61. (3.) Yaakov Culi, The Torah Anthology: MeAm Lo'ez, tr. by Aryeh Kaplan (New York: Maznaim Publishing Corporation, 1977), 2:433-4, hereafter, TA. (4.) Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York: Greenwich House, 1963), p. 185. (5.) Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer (hereafter PRE), chap. 16. (6.) Rashi ad Gen. 24:29; Malbim ad Gen. 24:30-31. (7.) Rashi ad Gen. 24:50. An alternative explanation of Laban's prominence in the story comes via evidence in the Nuzi archives regarding the institution of "fratriarchy," in which it was the brother who ruled the clan in the father's place. See Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, 1966), p. 174. (8.) PRE chapter 16. (9.) Gen. Rab. 60:13. (10.) Eli Munk, Kol Hatorah (Jerusalem; N.Y.: Feldheim, 1980) ad Gen. 25:20; Sforno, ad Gen. 25:20. (11.) See especially Gen. 29:1-30, 30:25-36. (12.) See B. Ned. 44b; Munk ad Gen. 24:16; B. Soferim 43b; Graves and Patai, Op. cit., p. 184. (13.) Munk ad Gen. 25:20. (14.) Gen. Rab. 63:4; Lev. Rab. 23:lp; Song of Songs Rab. #2, 2:1, ad Gen. 25:20. (15.) B. Yev. 64a; Rashi ad Gen. 25:21; Munk, ad Gen. 25:21. (16.) Isaac Unterman, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1973), Genesis, p. 194. (17.) Rashi ad Gen. 22:23; Ramban, ad Gen. 22:23. (18.) PRE, chap. 16. (19.) Gen. Rab. 60:12; Rashi ad Gen. 24:55. (20.) Zohar Hayei Sarah 132a. (21.) Gen. Rab. 63:4; Rashi ad Gen. 25:20; Malbim ad Gen. 25:20; Zohar Toldot 136b. (22.) Rashi ad Gen. 24:17. (23.) Gen. Rab. 63:5. (24.) Gen. Rab. 53:5. (25.) Gen. Rab. 63:6 Pesikta d'Rav Kahana (hereafter PRK), 3:1. (26.) Pesikta Rabbati (hereafter PR) 12:4; PRK, 3:1. (27.) Gen. Rab. 67:9; Rashi ad Gen. 27:42; Midrash Tehillim (hereafter MT) 9:7; 105:4. (28.) Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commenta: Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 161. (29.) Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, eds., ArtScroll Tanach Series (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mesorah Publications,1978), ad Genesis 24:18. (30.) Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981), pp. 53-4. (31.) Ibid., p. 54. (32.) Gen. Rab. 60:5. (33.) PRE, chap. 16. (34.) This is Ginzberg's reading of Gen. Rab. 60:5-6. See Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1968), vol. V, p. 261, n. 291. (35.) TA, vol. 2, ad Gen. 24:28. (36.) Rashi ad Gen. 24:58; Malbim ad. Gen. 24:58. (37.) W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), pp. 160, 166. (38.) Sarna, JPS Torah, Genesis, p. 170. (39.) Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images, Men and Women of the Book, trans. by Yehuda Hanegbi and Yehudit Keshet (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1984), pp. 41, 43. (40.) Ramban ad Gen. 27:4. (41.) Zohar Toldot 137a. (42.) Ibid. (43.) MT, 90:18. (44.) Dorothy F. Zeligs, Psychoanalysis and the Bible (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1974), pp. 36-7 (1988 edition). (45.) I intend to explore this hypothesis more fully in a forthcoming article on the incident of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21:8-21). (46.) Gen. Rab. 65:7. (47.) PRE, chap. 32; Gen. Rab. 65:10. (48.) PR, 47:3. (49.) PRE. chap. 32. (50.) Lev. Rab. 20:2. (51.) Zohar Hayei Sarah 133a; Rashi ad Gen. 24:67. (52.) TA, ad Gen. 25:20. (53.) Gen. Rab. 64:3. (54.) Zohar Toldot 137b. (55.) Zohar Havei Sarah 133a-b. (56.) B. Yev. 64a. (57.) Daniel H. Gordis, "Lies, Wives and Sisters: The Wife-Sister Motif Revisited," JUDAISM, no. 135, vol. 34 #3 (Summer, 1985): 351. (58.) Ibid., p. 358. (59.) Ibid., p. 352. (60.) Zohar Toldot 140b. (61.) Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (KTAV Publishing House, 1967), p. 308, n. 63. (62.) Aaron Lichtenstein, "Isaac and Laughter," The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Dor LeDor XVIII:1, (Fall 1989): 13-18. (63.) Sarna, Op. cit., p. 184. (64.) B. Bab. Kam 93a; B. Meg. 15a, 28a. (65.) Charles B. Chavel, tr., Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Genesis (New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1971), p. 132, n. 75. (66.) TA ad Gen. 27:3-4. (67.) Ramban ad Gen. 25:28. (68.) The suggestion that Isaac's blindness, impotence, and other problems are the result of diabetes mellitus is found in a short, brilliant article: S. Levin, "Isaac's Blindness: A Medical Diagnosis," JUDAISM, no. 145, vol. 37, #1 (Winter, 1988): 81-3. (69.) See notes 41 and 42. (70.) See notes 24, 25, and 51. (71.) Sarna, Op. cit., p. 154. (72.) Rashi ad Gen. 25:20. (73.) See note 28. (74.) B. Pes. 88a. (75.) PRE, chap. 32. (76.) Sarna, Op. cit., p. 155. (77.) Gen. Rab. 63:7; MT 9:7. (78.) On the use of tam as "innocent," see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1981), p. 43. (79.) Zlotowitz and Scherman), ad Gen. 25:29. (80.) TA, ad Gen. 25:31. (81.) Zohar Toldot 139a-b. (82.) Sarna, Op. cit., p. 182. (83.) MT 9:7. (84.) H. Westman, The Springs of Creativity (New York: Atheneum, 1961), pp. 144-5. (85.) Scherman and Zlotowitz, ad Gen. 27:17. (86.) TA, ad Gen. 27:13. (87.) See Munk ad Gen. 27:25. (88.) Reuben P. Bulka, "Isaac's Blessing - Who Was Deceived?" Dor LeDor, vol. XVII:3 (Spring, 1989): 185-189. (89.) This is at least a possibility, since the text makes us aware that, since he was bedridden, his legs were affected (27:31). If so, why not his other extremities, also? (90.) Gen. Rab. 65:22; Munk ad Gen. 27:28. See also n. 40 (Isaac prophetically knew that Jacob was destined to prevail over Esau). (91.) Gen. Rab. 67:2. (92.) Rashi ad Gen. 27:21-27; Ramban ad Gen. 27:12. (93.) Bulka, Op. cit., p. 187. (94.) Ibid. (95.) Gen. Rab. 65:14. (96.) See n. 76. (97.) Bulka, Op. cit., p. 185. (98.) PRE, chap. 32. (99.) Ramban ad Gen. 27:42. (100.) See David E. Fass, "Jacob's Limp?", JUDAISM, no. 150, vol. 38:2 (Spring, 1989): 143-150, for an analysis of Jacob's ongoing maturational struggles. (101.) See, e.g., Plaut, Op. cit., p. 188. (102.) B. Sota, 13a; Rashi ad Gen. 27:45. (103.) TA, ad Gen. 28:5. (104.) Gen. Rab. 67: 10. (105.) Ramban ad Gen. 35:8. (106.) Munk ad Gen. 27:45. (107.) Tanhuma, Ki Teizei, #4; Gen. Rab, 81:5; PRK 3:1; Rashi ad Gen. 35:8-9. (108.) PR, 12:4. (109.) Ramban ad Gen. 35:8.
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Title Annotation:Jewish biblical character, Isaac's wife
Author:Fass, David E.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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