Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at www.yutorah.org. Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from http://www.vbm-torah.org/ester.html.

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun, http://www.ybn.co.il/mamrim/PDF/Pesach_Lot.pdf

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on www.yutorah.org.

Parashat Yitro 5775 – When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in Relation to the Law

When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in relation to the Law

Leading up to the Revelation at Har Sinai, the people are commanded not to approach the mountain (Shemot 19:12-13). Bizarrely, right before the ten commandments, perhaps the most pivotal moment of  Sefer Shemot, Moshe is commanded to once again tell the people to stay away from the mountain (19:21-24). While superficially redundant, this second command differs from the first in that it refers not only to “the people” but also to “the priests that approach God” (19:22). This immediately presents a problem as the priests (כהנים) that the Torah normally speaks of, Aharon and his sons, have not been appointed yet, nor has the Mishkan, their place of work, been built yet, nor have the relevant laws even been given yet. Though there are multiple approaches within the traditional commentators when it comes to understanding this phrase, we will focus on the rather unique approach of R’ Hezekiah ben Manoah (more commonly known as the Hizkuni). In order to fully understanding why he chose the approach that he did, we will first look at some of the more common understandings, enabling us to appreciate the unique and powerful message of the Hizkuni’s approach.

The most common understanding of the “priests that approach God” is that they are the firstborns of the Israelite nation. This approach originates in the gemara (Bavli, Zevahim, 115b), and is taken by R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, and Rabbeinu Behaye, as well as being mentioned as a possibility in the Ohr HaHayyim and the more modern Daat Mikra commentary. This interpretation is based on a few factors. First is the dedication of the firstborns to ‘א in Shemot 13, as a consequence of ‘א saving them from the death of the firstborns in Egypt. Perhaps more crucial though is the replacement of the firstborns with the Leviim in Bamidbar 3 (mentioned again in Bamidbar 8). The Leviim are dedicated to the work of ‘א’s Sanctuary, the Mishkan (Bamidbar 18:6). This implies that, before they were replaced by the Leviim, the firstborns were in charge of the work of the mishkan. However, this approach suffers from several problems. First is the understanding of the phrase “that approach God.” Ibn Ezra mentions two understandings of this phrase. The first is that this “approach” is their position during the Revelation at Sinai, that the firstborns will be standing closer to the mountain than the rest of the Israelites, though still beyond the border mentioned in Shemot 19:12-13. The problem with this is that the context of the phrase “that approach God” is the command for the priests to stay beyond the fence, implying that for some reason the firstborn would think they do not need to stay beyond the border. Thus the command has to be in response to something that happened in the past that would give the priests this impression. This is presumably what motivates Ibn Ezra’s second understanding, that the “approach to God” described in this verse is a reference to the priests bringing sacrifices on the altar that Moshe built after the war with Amalek. While this is certainly possible, and the altar was built just two chapters previous to our verse making it somewhat contextual, it suffers from not being explicit in the text. Without any explicit textual mention of sacrifices being brought on the altar, it is more likely that the altar was built as a memorial and as an act of gratitude to ‘א, in the manner of the Avot (cf. Bereishit 12:7-8, 13:18, 33:20, 35:7). However the larger issue with understanding the “priests” as the firstborn is that when the sanctified firstborn are replaced, it is not by the priests, but by the Leviim, so to say that they are priests here in Shemot 19 would be a little strange.

Though mentioned by fewer commentators, there is an approach that avoids this issue. Both Rabbeinu Behaye and the Ohr HaHayyim mention the possibility that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19 are the sons of Aharon, who will in the future be appointed as priests. This however suffers from the same lack of precedent as the previous interpretation. Simply put, before Aharon’s sons are explicitly appointed as priests in Sefer Vayikra, they have no reason to think they should stand closer to the mountain than anyone else, and so it is unlikely that they would have to be told not to do so.

This brings us to the comment of the Hizkuni. The Hizkuni actually presents two possibilities. His first suggestion makes use of the initial understanding, that the priests are the firstborns, but changes it in a way that avoids the problematic lack of precedent. Hizkuni says that it was the 70 Elders that were firstborns.[1] This has the advantage of the firstborns approach in that they are sanctified to ‘א, but it also has an explicit textual precedent. In Shemot 18, the chapter immediately prior to the one we’re dealing with, the Elders eat a meal with Yitro and Moshe “before ‘א” (18:12). While the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, it would seem to indicate a degree of closeness or familiarity with ‘א that would require them to be specifically told that they need to stay back. However, this approach can be understood in one of two ways. The first is that the “Elders” is essentially a subcategory of the “Firstborns.” While this is possible it is also somewhat strange, and not only because it is unlikely that every single one of the Elders was also a firstborn. More importantly, in this understanding the seventy Elders are firstborns, but there were plenty of other firstborns who aren’t in this category. Thus the fact that the Elders are firstborns would be merely coincidental, and it is strange that the Hizkuni would mention it. More likely is the second reading, that the Elders and the Firstborns are two separate but identical categories, both of which contributed to them being called “priests.” Thus both the sanctification to ‘א and the eating before Him are significant. This too however suffers from a strangeness, namely that not only would all of the Elders be firstborns, but that there would only be 70 firstborns in a group with 600,000 men. This is likely what prompted Hizkuni to offer his second, more original, understanding.

Hizkuni’s second suggestion is that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19:22 are the Judges and Officers appointed in Shemot 18. While his assigning of the term “priests” to the judges is quite original, this understanding has a certain logic to it, as Hizkuni explains. As support for this approach, Hizkuni quotes Devarim 1:17, “for the judgment is God’s.” Thus their very nature as judges has a certain logic to it. Meanwhile, Sefer Devarim also conflates the priests with the teachers of the Law (31:11, 33:10), a job specifically referenced in context of the appointment of the Judges in Shemot 18 (vss.16, 20). So while the priest would be the teachers once they get into the land, Hizkuni sees the teachers as the priests before the giving of the Torah. Their special positions as teachers and Judges makes them automatically closer to ‘א , not to mention it separates them from the rest of the people who they would have seen as students. This alone might have been reason enough for them to think that they should stand closer to the Revelation at Sinai, but, as Hizkuni points out, there is another reason for them to think that. The Revelation at Sinai is the revelation of the Law, and as those responsible for teaching and adjudicating that law, it is quite natural that they would have thought they should be closer. This would not have been a privilege, but a responsibility, to be as intimately involved in the giving of the law as possible. In this, however, they are rebuffed, as Moshe is specifically sent down to tell them that they are not separate, that the entire people is equal before the law. The only exception is Moshe (Aharon is included only in his capacity as Moshe’s spokesperson), who throughout Bnei Yisrael’s journey in the Wilderness receives the law via prophecy, while the judges in the desert and after Moshe’s death do not (I have written about this here). Thus, while the judges and teachers of the Law are close to ‘א, there is an important distance between them and the revelation of the Law.

The Hizkuni’s comment has an important lesson to teach us about the relationship between the people of Israel, rabbinic authority, and the Torah. We know from Devarim that, “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (33:4). The law was not given to its teachers, to the judges, but to the entirety of the people of Israel. Rabbinic authority is not inherent in the rabbis, but comes from their familiarity with the law; not from creating the law but from understanding it. Thus it is incumbent upon all of Israel, each and every one of us, to approach the Torah personally, not to depend upon rabbinic intermediaries. The Torah belongs to all of us, and we each have our own portion in it. It’s not enough to trust that someone knows the law, we have to understand and appreciate it ourselves.

[1] In this he combines Zevahim 115b with מכילתא בחדש פ״ד.

Parashat Yitro 5774 – What Happened At Sinai

אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם

Shemot 19 and 20 frame the picture of the Revelation at Sinai. ‘א descends on the mountain. Moshe goes up. The nation stands and shakes from afar. The scene in set and the air is full of tension. The Ten Commandments form the crescendo to the narrative. The people then express that they would rather have Moshe speak to them than ‘א, at which point ‘א gives Moshe a message for the nation. These chapters are convoluted and confusing in their entirety, causing the commentators to jump through serious hoops to find compelling explanations. The strangest part, however might be the blatant contradiction between ‘א’s actions in chapter 19 and his words in chapter 20. The Torah goes out of its way to describe ‘א descending on the mountain, presumably an important piece of the narrative, and yet in 20:19 He says, “You have seen that I spoke to you from Heaven.” So from where did ‘א speak to them? From the Mountain or from Heaven? This question, and its attending philosophical difficulties, is interesting enough on its own. However, the midrashic explanations of these events, including some very creative attempts to resolve this and other problems of the text, have some very powerful messages to teach us not just about the Revelation at Sinai but about our relationship with ‘א on the whole.

Perhaps the simplest resolution in provided by a midrash in the first few pages of Mesekhet Sukkah (TB Sukkah 5a). Based on the verse, “The Heavens are the Heavens of the LORD; but the Earth hath He given to the children of men” (Tehillim 115:16)[1], the gemara explains that ‘א’s presence never comes all the way down to Earth and Man can never go up to Heaven. Instead, when it says that ‘א descended on the mountain, His presence stopped a short distance above the mountain, close enough to be considered as having “descended on the mountain,” but still far enough away that ‘א could be considered to have spoken to the people “from Heaven.” This, however, stands in direct opposition to a large number of midrashim.

The Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael[2] resolves this problem by expanding the idea of ‘א descending on the mountain. Not only does ‘א descend, he brings Heaven with him. Thus ‘א descends on the mountain and is able to speak from Heaven simultaneously. This is very problematic in  regards to the midrash in Mesekhet Sukkah. If Moshe goes up on the mountain, and Heaven comes down to it, then has he gone up to Heaven? Perhaps, but regardless of that, ‘א and Heaven coming down to Earth would certainly clashes with the previous midrash.

This issue is further complicated Shemot 19:3 which reads, “And Moses went up to ‘א.” If Moshe went up to ‘א then presumably he left what is typically thought of as Earth and ascended to the divine realm. This can be explained as Moshe simply going to the location on the mountain from which ‘א had called to him, but many midrashim take it more literally. Not only do they describe Moshe ascending to Heaven, they give detailed accounts of what ensued there. Famously, the gemara depicts Moshe arguing with the Angels over who ought to receive the Torah (Shabbat 88b). Midrashic exegeses of the verses,“Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O mighty one, thy glory and thy majesty. And in thy majesty prosper, ride on.”(Tehillim 45:4-5)[3] and, “A wise man scaleth the city of the mighty, and bringeth down the stronghold wherein it trusteth.” (Mishlei 21:22)[4] depict Moshe not just as receiving the Torah, but as actively going up into the depths of Heaven and taking it himself.

A subtle prerequisite for the midrashim describing moshe going to heaven and taking the torah is the idea that the torah was already existing in heaven for moshe to go and take. One midrash not only says that the torah existed in heaven for 974 generations before the creation of the world,[5] but also that when moshe broke the Luchot the angels rejoiced, saying that the torah was now returned to them.[6] It’s also the basic assumption of the famous midrash stating that ‘א “looked into the torah and created the world,” much the way an architect has tablets and notebooks.[7] The Sifre says that ‘א agree to the suggestion of the daughters of Zelophechad because that’s how it was written before him in Heaven.[8] A Gaonic responsa uses the idea of ‘א having the torah written before him in heaven to explain why a person should not recite verses from the Torah without the text in front of him.[9]

These midrashim are not simply cute stories attempting to fill in the details of perhaps the most important moment in the history of Bnei Yisrael. These midrashim discuss the very natures of ‘א, Man, and Prophecy, the connection between us. The gemara in Sukkah takes a view that is highly transcendent. Man and ‘א are very separate, and but for the fact that there is revelation one would assume they were totally unconnected in any way. A contrast is found in the doctrine of Heaven’s Descent, wherein ‘א is manifest within this world. The lines are blurred. Similarly blurring is the conception of Moshe’s ascent to Heaven. In  a world where the Finite and Infinite can manifest in each other’s realms, it becomes difficulties to absolutely distinguish between them. This of course, is the upshot of the view of total separation.

Is prophecy something that happens to Man or something that happens to ‘א? Who is the active partner and who is the passive? When Moshe goes to Heaven and takes the Torah, then ‘א is not an active partner. This is mirrored in the later view of the Rambam where Moshe, via perfecting his intellect, unites with ‘א and learns the torah. Moshe is the active one. This is even clearer if the Torah is already a whole item in Heaven, just waiting for Moshe to come take it. The idea of Heaven’s descent makes ‘א the active one. He descends on the mountain to bring the Torah. Moshe need not even ascend, and in fact, may not have been up on the mountain at the time of the revelation. This view doesn’t see revelation as a function of man’s perfection, but rather as a matter of ‘א’s purpose. When ‘א wants revelation to happen then it does not matter whether or not man is worthy.[10]

So which is it? Does ‘א reveal himself or does man discover the divine truth? Is the Torah a document from beyond time, born of Heaven, or is it a crystallization of ‘א’s relationship with His people at the moment[11] of Revelation? The answer, as usual, is more complicated than the either/or. ‘א descends on the mountain, but Moshe also goes up. The people aren’t allowed to touch the mountain, but they do need to spend three days purifying themselves. ‘א and Man are searching for each other. The truth of revelation is that it happens between man and ‘א, sometimes one side is more active, sometimes the other, but the consistent factor is that of the relationship between them. Revelation requires relation. And this is the greatest message of the Revelation at Sinai, the clearest truth from amidst an otherwise obfuscated pericope: that ‘א and His people desire to be involved each with the other.

[1] Biblical translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Bahodesh 4

[3] Midrash on Tehillim, ad loc.

[4] Pesikta Rabbati 20:4. Strikingly, some of these descriptions are actually quite violent.

[5] This is an idea found throughout midrashic literature, based on the idea that the Torah existed for 2000 generations before the Revelation at Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai occurs in the 26th generation recorded in the Torah, which mean the remaining 974 generations have to have been before Creation. Explanations of this idea have ranged from the midrash about ‘א creating and destroying worlds before creating this one (the Arizal) to this universe actually being nearly 15 billion years old (R’ Isaac of Acre and R’ Aryeh Kaplan). It may be more likely that the Revelation at Sinai happens in the 26th generation because that’s the numerical value of YHVH, the Ineffable Name of God, also revealed in the 26th generation.

[6] Midrash on Tehillim 28:6

[7] Bereishit Rabbah 1:4

[8] Sifre Pinhas 134

[9] Teshuvot HaGeonim, Shaarei Teshuva 352

[10] The Kabbalistic idea that Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the whole Torah, rather just what was fitting for them, is an interesting combination of these views, and opens the door to discussion of the fullness of the Torah being revealed at a later date, a titillating and dangerous concept.

[11] This might be rephrased as the question, “is the Torah Timeless or Timely?” and it has serious ramifications for the way we interpret the Torah, including the relevance of using Critical Literary  techniques and parallels to other Ancient Near Eastern texts.

Parashat Toledot – Rivkah’s Oracle and Interpretive Responsibility

וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

Parashat Toledot opens with the story of the childless Rivkah and Yitzhak praying for a child, and then conceiving. Rivkah experiences a tumultuous feeling within her body, and so she goes to inquire of ‘א (Bereishit 25:22). She receives a detailed prophetic response depicting the future of her progeny. “There are two nations in your belly; Two peoples will depart separate from your womb. One people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger” (25:23). This seems like a clear and straightforward statement. Rivkah has twins in her womb, each of which will grow to be a great nation, and the older one will serve the younger. However, if Rivkah is presented with this clear message, then understanding the rest of Rivkah’s story (25:19-34; 26:34-28:9) presents us with numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the question of why Rivkah did not simply tell Yitzhak that Esav was destined to be in charge. However, if the oracle is understood as somewhat more ambiguous, then we can learn not only the story, but also about the way we relate to the Word of ‘א.

The first textual difficulty we are presented with is found in 25:24, “And the days of her term were full; and behold, there were twins in her belly.” The second half of this verse repeats information that we have already received not once, but twice before. Not only did it appear in the oracle in the previous verse, but the verse before that specifically references that she has more than one son within her. Thus this verse presents a redundancy that must be explained. Rav Dovid Kimchi (רד״ק) explains that this verse ought to be understood as “And behold, the twins were born.” This understanding is problematic however, as the verse explicitly mentions that the twins were in her womb, something that Radak’s understanding leaves out. Rav Shemuel Ben Meir (רשב״ם) and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understand the verse to be speaking from purely Sarah’s perspective, indicating that she was surprised by this fact. This explanation runs into the problem that Sarah already heard in the prophecy of verse 23 that there are two nations in her womb, and therefore there would be no reason for her to be surprised. However, the answer of R’ Hirsch and Rashbam makes a lot more sense if we simply assume that the prophecy is unclear. When Rivkah goes to inquire of ‘א, this is following the Torah mentioning that she is pregnant with multiple children in verse 22. However, the narrative voice of the Torah speaks from an omniscient, divine perspective, wherein it is already known that Rivkah gives birth to twins in just a few verses[1]. We, as readers, are therefore privileged to also know this, but Rivkah is not. Thus when we read the prophecy in verse 23 that says, “There are two nations in your womb,” we think, “Oh, so each of the children mentioned in verse 22 becomes a nation.” Rivkah, however, has no prior knowledge that she is pregnant with more than one child, and thus she might simply understand the prophecy as, “my child, and his descendants after him, will develop into two nations.” She also might consider both possibilities. But only when the children are born in verse 25, does she discover that the oracle really had been referring to twins currently within her womb.

The second, and perhaps more critical, textual difficulty this approach solves is the question of why Rivkah did not tell Yitzhak about the prophecy. Even if one wanted to argue that this would not have changed his mind about loving Esav, doesn’t he deserve to know that one of his sons has received the divine imprimatur, that ‘א has decreed one to be superior. Moreover, while verse 28 makes it clear exactly why it is Yitzhak loves Esav, a reason is never given for why Rivkah loves Yaakov. It is certainly possible, as Rashbam suggests[2], that the reason she loved him was because he was favored by ‘א (this would imply a certain moral superiority that Rivkah may have favored)[3]. Certainly her actions in chapter 27, where she instructs, encourages, and enables her son Yaakov to deceive his father and steal his older brother’s blessing, would seem to be an attempt to bring to fruition the final line of the oracle, “And the elder shall serve the younger.” However, this all once again assumes a privileged reading of the text, where we know that in the end Yaakov received the blessing of the firstborn, and thus we assume that the phrase “וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר” really must be understood as “and the elder will serve the younger.”[4] However, the syntax here is ambiguous. It could just as easily mean “and the elder will enslave the younger.”[5] Depending on how you interpret the word “וְרַב,” it could even mean that the younger will do an incredible amount of labor[6]. Thus Rivkah did not necessarily receive a clear message about which child was favored by ‘א, and she really had nothing concrete with which to approach Yitzhak. For all the text tells us she may have told Yitzhak, and the Torah simply didn’t feel it necessary to say so because no concrete course of action could be based off of the oracle.

This immediately raises the issue of why Rivkah preferred Yaakov to Esav (in contrast to Yitzhak), going so far as to plan and execute his stealing the blessing of the firstborn. As mentioned above, it is often assumed that this is due to the final verse of the prophecy indicating that Yaakov was favored by ‘א and was meant to receive the blessing, but as we have shown the prophecy says no such thing, and thus a new explanation must be found. Lacking any special prophetic insight, Rivkah remains the mother of Yaakov and Esav, and thus can be assumed to have a good understanding of their character[7]. The Torah itself does not tell us much about their character, but the Torah is generally very minimal in its exposition, using a minimum of text or a maximum of characterization. What it does tell us then, however minimal, will likely indicate what it was that Rivkah saw that caused her to favor Yaakov.

Towards the end of the story, Esav swears to kill Yaacov, and Rivkah knows this. However there is no indication of any murderous tendencies in the earlier parts of the story. Going back to the beginning, we are told two things each about Yaakov and Esav, besides for their physical state upon birth (25:25-26). We are told that, as they grew up, Esav knew how to hunt and was a farmer[8], while Yaakov was a wholesome man and a shepherd[9] (25:27). While seemingly minimal, this description actually tells us quite a bit. Firstly, the depiction of one brother as a farmer and one as a shepherd is very important. The dichotomy of the farmer and the shepherd is very common in Tanakh and, while the exact reason for this can be debated, it is very clear in the eyes of the Tanakh that being a farmer is something of a moral failure. Some good examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, where Kayin’s only apparent transgression before murdering his brother is being a farmer (4:2-5), or when Yaakov’s family descends to Egypt and must hide that they are shepherds in this new agricultural country (46:31-47:4). Thus the depiction of Esav is a clear indication of moral inferiority on his part. Since the second part of each brother’s description (“farmer” and “shepherd”) are a pair, it’s worth looking at the first part of each description with an eye to whether or not they are a pair as well. At first glance, this approach would not seem to bear fruit. While Esav is “a person who knows how to hunt,” Yaakov is “wholesome.” We don’t usually think of hunting and wholesomeness as necessarily opposed. However, as Ibn Ezra points out (ad loc.), there is something innately deceitful about hunting, as it involves tricking or forcing an animal into a position of weakness in order for you to kill it. Thus Esav’s knowing how to hunt should more likely be seen as a symbol for his deceitful nature, something that is absolutely opposed to being “wholesome.” As the first part of each description is then paired, this can help us understand why Rivkah loved Yaakov, as opposed to Esav. Verse 25:28 records that Yitzhak loved Esav because he gave Yitzhak meat that he had hunted[10], and that Rivkah loved Yaakov. This last phrase is conspicuously missing a reason like the one provided in the first half of the verse. However, as Yitzhak loved Esav because of the first half of his description, that he hunted, so too Rivkah loved Yaakov because of the first half of his description, because he was wholesome[11]. Thus Rivkah did not cause Yaakov to steal the birthright because the Word of ‘א told her that was proper, but because she understood that one of her sons was worthy and the other was not.

Rivkah was confronted with ‘א’s Word in the form of a prophecy regarding the destiny of her children. It comes to us in the form of the Torah. In terms of understanding the text itself, the Torah is not entirely clear. There are often many possible interpretations for a word, or a verse, or a passage. When we try and understand the relevance that the Torah possesses for us today, these difficulties are multiplied a hundredfold. Interpreting the prophecy she received was a dangerous game for Rivkah; it is perhaps more so for us. As both followers and interpreters of the Torah, how we interpret it bears great meaning for our lives and our practice. Moreover, we often share our interpretations, and to do so with a mistaken interpretation can be catastrophic. Possessing ‘א’s Word is an incredible gift; Interpreting it demands of us incredible responsibility. Rivkah did not simply interpret the prophecy as she saw fit, and we cannot bend the Torah to our needs. If Rivkah had thought the prophecy meant that Esav was meant to dominate Yaakov, she still could not have just acted upon that, as it would have been an immoral interpretation. So too, we cannot interpret the Torah in an immoral manner. We have a responsibility to read it with an eye towards the values of ‘א, Life, and Holiness.

[1] Ibn Ezra, ad loc.

[2] In his comment on verse 23.

[3] However, see Rashbam’s comment on verse 28.

[4] This reading also makes certain assumptions about the meaning of the phrase “will serve.” If we take it as referring to who will receive the blessing of their father, certainly not the literal meaning of the phrase, then it would obviously refer to Esav. If it refers to being submissive, then it might very well refer to Yaakov, who spends his last encounter with Esav referring to Esav as his master and to himself as Esav’s servant (Bereishit 33). If it refers to rulership and dominance, then one has to look beyond the scope of the Torah itself, out into the rest of Tanakh and beyond, and it could be referring to either brother (For more see the end of Radak’s comment on Bereishit 25:23).

[5] Radak 25:23.

[6] Hizkuni 25:23. This interpretation is perhaps odd in light of both the way that the word has been interpreted historically and the fact that the immediate context is speaking about both sons, not just one.However, it is worth pointing out that this explanation might actually make the most sense of all, in light of the lack of the hebrew vowel indicating the demonstrative adjective “the” (as in “the elder”) is suspiciously lacking in the phrase in question.

[7] One could argue against this by pointing out that Yitzhak, as their father, ought to be assumed to have the same amount of insight into their character as Rivkah, and yet he loved Esav. However, the Torah itself indicates that Yitzhak did not understand the morality, or lack thereof, his sons were exhibiting, in saying that Yitzhak had become blind (Bereishit 27:1). A similar expression is found in Sefer Shemuel 3:2, wherein the Kohen HaGadol, Eli, was unaware of the immoral actions that his sons had forced upon the populace. Blindness as a metaphor for a lack of understanding in terms of another action is also found in Shemot 23:8, where it is said that taking a bribe “blinds those who can see.” The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:5-7 specifically points to the food that Yitzhak took from Esav as if it were a bribe that he took, that blinded him to Esav’s shortcomings.

[8] For this understanding of the phrase “איש שדה,” see Ibn Ezra and Seforno’s comments ad loc.

[9] For this explanation of the phrase “ישב אהלים,” see Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Hizkuni, and Rashbam ad loc. Also see Bereishit 4:20.

[10] Latching on to the essentially deceitful nature of this characteristic, the midrash understands “כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו” not as “because that which Esav hunted was in Yitzhak’s mouth,” but as “for Esav hunted Yitzhak with his mouth,” meaning that Esav would speak before Yitzhak with respect, and thus deceived Yitzhak about his character (Tanhuma Toledot, 8).

[11] Rashbam 25:28.