If All Is Well, Why Am I Like This?

Parashat Vayetze, Genesis 28:10 – 32:3, this text is the Torah reading for this Shabbat. The reading from the prophets is from the prophet Hosea 12:13 – 14:10. The reading from the New Testament is from John 1:41-51.

The readings this Shabbat are some of the more exciting texts in the book of Genesis and maybe in the whole five Books of Moses. You have here in these texts the makings of a major Hollywood movie that has intrigue, deception, love, exploitation, a journey of destiny, and the presence of the hand of God, acting behind the scenes, as Deus Ex Machina.

In order to understand the story we have to go back to last week’s portion of the Torah reading. Rebecca the mother of Esau and Jacob, right from the birth of these two men, has to deal with the most existential and modern question. At the very birth of these two men, Rebecca asks the following question: In the New King James Version the text is like this:

“But the children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If all is well, why am I like this?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.” – Genesis 25:22 [NKJV]

In the JPS, the Jewish Publication Society translation of Genesis, the text reads like this:

“And the children struggled together within her; and she said: ‘If it be so, wherefore do I live?’ And she went to inquire of the Lord.” – Genesis 25:22 [JPS]

The question was understood by the Jewish Publication Society translators, but it was not understood in the early 17th century by the Christian translators of the King James Version. This question of Rebecca reveals to us two things.

First, her life with Isaac received meaning only at the birth of her two sons, Esau and Jacob.

Her very existence was deeply affected by the birth of these two sons, knowing that even before they saw light outside of Rebecca’s womb, they were already struggling with each other.

And second, The struggle between these two babies in their mother’s womb and Jacob’s holding on to the foot, to his brother Esau’s heel, during the birth process, was an indication that something was happening between these two babies that was of deep existential consequence. For this reason Rebecca, in my opinion was seeking the divinely ordained destiny of her only two children.

Her question is:

“If it be so, wherefore do I live?”

Which ought to be spelled out in the following way:

“If these, my only children, have started to fight with each other, already in my womb, what will be their future, and my future, living with these two?”

Will my whole life be spent trying to referee between these two and in the end one will kill the other and our family’s future and the promises that God gave to Abraham and to Isaac, will not they be totally ruined?

This existential question of Rebecca is, in my opinion, the reason that she acted the way she did until, according to my opinion, she saw that the pre-birth ordained destiny of Jacob would be played out to the end.

When Rebecca received a divine revelation following Jacob’s receiving his father’s blessing that Esau was planning to murder Jacob after Isaac’s death, she took the right and righteous steps to save her son from the murderous intents of his brother Esau.

So, she helped Jacob to deceive Isaac and to receive Isaac’s blessing, and helped convince Isaac that their son Jacob needed to leave the country and to go to the north, to Haran, to her brother Laban.

Isaac would have understood this because his father Abraham had also sent Eliezer his servant up north to Haran, to find a bride for him. So, it would have made sense to him to send Jacob up north.

How did Rebecca know that Esau had decided in his heart to kill his brother Jacob? The answer that Jewish tradition gives is simple, Rebecca was a prophetess. She received revelation.

Esau didn’t share the decision that he decided in his heart. He didn’t share with Rebecca and say to his mother, “As soon as my father dies I will kill the little weasel Jacob.”

He decided in his heart, and the texts says:

“So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, ‘The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob.’” – Genesis 21:41 [NKJV]

How did Rebecca know what Esau’s plan was? The next verse gives us the answer:

“And the words of Esau her older sons were told to Rebekah. So she sent and called Jacob her younger son, and said to him, ‘Surely your brother Esau comforts himself concerning you by intending to kill you.’” – Genesis 27:42 [NKJV]

Who could report to Rebecca what Esau had said to himself in his heart? Only the Holy Spirit that knows what we have in our hearts could have heard the sound of Esau’s decision in his heart and reported to Rebecca that Esau was planning to kill Jacob after his father Isaac’s death. So, it is clear to me, like it is recorded in the Rabbinical tradition, that Rebecca was a prophetess.

Now we can see that Rebecca was not an unfair and manipulative woman that was partial to her son Jacob. She had good reasons for her behavior with Isaac, and with Jacob. She knew from the birth of these two boys, Esau and Jacob, that there was unfairness and an unfair competition between them from her womb.

Esau’s physical strength dominated in the birth and then there is his lack of appreciation for his position as the first born son of Isaac, and for his own inheritance. He showed a lack of interest for and dedication to, the family tradition and for his position in the family, and even for Isaac their father, and disdain for the promises of God to Abraham and to Isaac their father. So Rebecca decided to help God’s plan come together, and I love it when God’s plans are fulfilled!

There is another major biblical principle that comes into play in this narrative. The principle of “mida k’neged mida” – by the measure that you measure you will be measured.

Jacob took advantage of Esau’s weakness and eventually Laban takes advantage of Jacob’s weakness. By the end of the story Jacob will have paid in full for usurping Esau’s inheritance. He pays in cash. This we will learn from next Shabbat’s Torah reading.

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.