Toledot: Rebecca resurfaces

It has always interested me that Isaac went to supplicate God after twenty years of childless marriage. (We are told in v20 that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebecca and in v26 that he was 60 at the birth of the twins).  What was he doing in the intervening years? And why did he go ‘lenochach ishto” a phrase that is almost always translated as “on behalf of his wife”, yet which only here is translated in this way – for le’nochach actually means to be “in front of/ straight/ before”.

Rashi picks up the point, but with a sharp twist. He understands the phrase to mean not that Isaac supplicated on behalf of Rebecca, but together with her, saying that “this is to be interpreted as ‘opposite’, i.e. he stood in this corner and prayed and she stood in the other corner and prayed”, but then adds an acid comment to the rest of the verse “God let Himself be entreated of him” : “but not of her”

What are we to make of this? It seems that the text is telling us that Isaac is pleading with God in the presence of his wife, but our usual reading of the text does not place her in the action but rather she is the passive object of her husband’s beseeching prayer. When we do see Rebecca it is some months later, clearly in pain, and she does not hesitate to go to God,  and her stance is not to implore but “lidrosh” to ask, to find an answer.

                It seems that not only at the end of his life is Isaac a weaker and less assertive person than his wife. When Rebecca cooks a kid for Jacob in the style of Esau’s venison, so that her favoured child will be the beneficiary of the special blessing for the firstborn, she is true to her character.  She is an equal with her husband and decision making for the family belongs also to her. When Rebecca goes to God and says “im ken, lamah zeh anochi” – if it is to be like this, why am I?” she is asking for a reason for her suffering. And God takes her seriously and tells her of the two nations in her womb, and most critically, that the older shall be subservient to the younger. In view of this knowledge it is no surprise that she manipulates who shall be the recipient of the blessing – it was decided all those years earlier before the boys were born.

I always used to be a little irritated that it looked like Isaac was the one who begged God for a child without consultation with Rebecca, but studying more closely I can see that not only was Rebecca there, she was powerfully present, and integral to the process of the transmission of the blessing. And if Rashi wants to score a little point that it wasn’t her prayer for a child that was answered, well, that is ok by me, it even makes me smile. And it makes me wonder if that great biblical scholar who lived in a house with his wife and three daughters maybe needed to assert himself a little to show that his prayer counted too.

 

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