In the Torah, Rebecca and Jacob use deception to get Jacob the birthright due to his brother Esau. It is natural and healthy to question the behavior of Jacob and Rebecca. Our ancestors don’t have to be perfect to gain our interest. In fact, they may be more interesting because they are flawed. By studying these characters and trying to figure them out, we learn more about ourselves.
Rashi describes Jacob as a man who doesn’t know how to deceive. This is proof that Rashi too is wondering about Jacob’s character. Though Rashi seems focused on making Jacob look good, the fact that he is writing this shows us that he has some concerns about his character. It is comforting and even inspiring to know that previous commentators noticed and struggled with the same problems in the text.
The following are four different responses (the first from the Torah itself, the last three from Midrash) that make an attempt to explain Rebecca and Jacob’s questionable behavior:
1. Rebecca Fulfilling Destiny
And the children struggled together within her; and she said, “Why is it happening to me like this?” and she went to ask God. God said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two nations shall come out of you. One nation will be stronger than the other. The elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)
2. Jacob a Reluctant Manipulator
And Jacob went and fetched [the animals for her to cook], and brought them to his mother (Gen. 27:14). He did so reluctantly, bowed down with distress, and weeping (Genesis Rabba 65:15, quoted more fully in The Book of Legends by Bialik, teaching number 64 on page 44).
3. Jacob Not a Deceiver
Jacob was a plain (tam) man, one who lived in tents (Genesis 25:27). [Jacob] was not expert in all these things for his heart was his mouth. One who is not ingenious at deceiving people is called tam, plain, simple (Rashi on Genesis 25:27).
4. Jacob’s Deceit Comes Back to Haunt Him
And it came to pass that in the morning, behold, it was Leah. Said he (Jacob) to her (Leah): “You are a deceiver and the daughter of a deceiver!” “Is there a teacher without pupils?” she retorted. “Did not your father call you Esau, and you answered him! So did you too call me and I answered you!” (Genesis Rabba 70:19).
- In text 1, which is straight from the Torah, we read that God reveals to Rebecca that her younger child shall serve the older. Does this justify her role in tricking Isaac? Do the ends justify the means? If so, under what circumstances?
- In text 2, the midrash shows Jacob expressing sadness at participating in the lie. Does Jacob become a more likable guy if we know that he cried at the thought of deceiving his father?
- Discuss the expression in text 3 above, “His heart was in his mouth.” What do you think that means? Does this description seem accurate?
- Text fo4ur shows that Jacob actually paid a price for his deceptive ways. Is it possible that Jacob and Rebecca are both carrying out God’s will and doing something that is inappropriate which Jacob then suffers for?
- In summary, how has your feeling about the story or your understanding of the story been changed by reading texts that acknowledge that Jacob’s and Rebecca’s behavior was questionable?