Yaakov and Rivkah’s Ethical Struggle

And Yaakov said to Rivkah his mother: But Esav is a hairy man and I am a smooth-skinned man. Perhaps, my father will feel me and I will be a deceiver in his eyes. And I will bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing.
And his mother said to him: Upon me will be the curse my son. Just listen to me and go take it for me. (Sefer Beresheit 27:10-13)

1. Formulation of the strategy to deceive Yitzchak

Parshat Toldot begins with the birth of Yitzchak and Rivkah’s two sons – Esav and Yaakov. As the firstborn, Esav was the privileged son. Also, he was his father’s favorite. However, Rivkah saw that Yaakov possessed the superior character. Early in the parasha, Esav abandons his rights as firstborn by selling these privileges to Yaakov.

Towards the end of the parasha, Yitzchak summons Esav and informs him that he plans to bestow upon him the blessings fitting for his firstborn son. Of course, Esav does not reveal to his father that he has bartered away his privileges to his younger brother. Rivkah is aware of Yitzchak’s intentions. She wishes to divert the blessings to the more deserving Yaakov. Rivkah devises a plan that takes advantage of Yitzchak’s failing vision. She directs Yaakov to substitute himself for Esav, present himself to his father, and secure the blessings Yitzchak intends for Esav. The above passages are a record of Yaakov’s response to this plan and the ensuing conversation between Yaakov and his mother.

Yaakov tells Rivkah that the plan is flawed. His father’s sight is failing but his sense of touch remains accurate. His father may feel his skin. He will immediately become suspicious. Esav is covered with hair but Yaakov’s skin is smooth. When Yitzchak realizes that his younger son is attempting to deceive him, he will curse him rather than bless him. Rivkah responds that if this occurs the curse will be upon her. Then, she again directs Yaakov to execute her plan. Ultimately, Rivkah designs a disguise for Yaakov, the deception of Yitzchak is successful, and Yaakov secures the blessings.

There are two remarkable aspects to this conversation. First, Yaakov never seems to question the justice of diverting to himself the blessings his father intended for Esav. Instead, his concerns relate to the efficacy of his mother’s strategy. He protests that the strategy my fail terribly and he will be cursed by his father. Why was Yaakov not concerned about the justice of his behavior?

Second, after Yaakov tells his mother his concerns, essentially, she tells him to not worry. She does not reveal her strategy for addressing the Yaakov’s concern. Only later – before she sends off Yaakov to his father – does she reveal her plan for disguising Yaakov. It is odd that she did not quiet Yaakov’s concern immediately by sharing with him her strategy.

And Yitzchak his father said to him, “Who are you?” And he said, “I am your first born son, Esav.” And Yitzchak was seized by an extremely great fear. And he said, “Who is this that hunted for me game, brought it to me, and I ate before you came and I blessed him? And surely he will be blessed.” (Sefer Beresheit 27:32-33)

2. Yitzchak’s discovery that he had blessed Yaakov

Yaakov and Rivkah’s deception is successful and Yaakov secures the blessings from his father. Yaakov leaves his father’s presence and Esav enters. He is prepared to be blessed by his father. Yitzchak is initially confused but soon realizes that he has been deceived. He is overcome by fear. But he tells Esav that the blessings have been bestowed upon another and will not be retracted.

Why was Yitzchak afraid? The commentators provide a number of responses. Rashi reinterprets the passage to mean that Yitzchak was astounded.[1] RaDaK suggests that Yitzcahk only feigned fear or remorse to console Esav and communicate his empathy.[2] However, Chizkuni understands Yitzchak’s reaction as a very real and intense fear. Yitzchak realized that the bestowal of the blessings upon Yaakov certainly conformed to Hashem’s will.[3] To Yitzchak, this implied that he had grossly misunderstood his children’s characters. He had been prepared to bestow the blessings upon Esav. Suddenly, Yitzchak realized that he had been prepared to act upon a fundamentally flawed assessment of his sons and of Hashem’s will and design!

3. Yaakov and Rivkah’s basic ethical rationale

Based upon Chizkuni’s comments it is possible to understand the first aspect of the conversation between Yaakov and Rivkah. According to Chizkuni, Yitzchak came to understand that his role in the bestowal of the blessings was limited. His sole responsibility was to ascertain upon which son the blessings should be bestowed and to execute Hashem’s will. He was to act as Hashem’s instrument. It is apparent that Yaakov and Rivkah understood Yitzchak’s role. They also realized that the blessings properly belonged to Yaakov. They shared the belief that their understanding of Hashem’s will – in this instance – was superior to Yitzchak’s. Therefore, their responsibility was to prevent Yitzchak from attempting to undermine Hashem’s will. They were sure of the justice of their cause.

4. Alternative interpretations of Rivkah’s response to Yaakov

The second aspect of the conversation between Yaakov and his mother still requires an explanation. Why did Rivkah not reassure Yaakov by immediately revealing her plan to disguise Yaakov as Esav? Apparently, Rivkah believed that Yaakov was not only questioning the practicality of her scheme. She sensed some deeper issue underlying Yaakov’s concern. What was this issue?

The passages above that relate the conversation between Yaakov and Rivkah are translated in accordance with RaDaK’s interpretation.[4] However, there are other important alternative translations. According to Unkelus, Rivkah responded to Yaakov that she knew through prophecy that Yaakov would not be cursed. Chizkuni attributes Rivkah’s confidence in the outcome of her plan to a prophecy described in the opening passages of the parasha. The Torah explains that Rivkah experienced terrible pain during her pregnancy. She sought the insight of an unnamed prophet. He explained to her that she was carrying twins. Both would be progenitors of great nations and kingdoms. The older son would serve the younger. Because of this prophecy of Yaakov’s ascent over Esav, Rivkah was confident that her strategy would succeed and Yaakov would be blessed by Yitzchak and not cursed.

Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel suggests another translation. According to this translation, Rivkah responded to Yaakov that if Yitzchak bestowed a blessing, it would be take effect. However, should Yitzchak utter a curse, it would be transferred to her and not fall upon Yaakov. RaDaK explains that Rivkah told Yaakov that she accepted full responsibility for the deception that she was proposing. If the strategy resulted in a curse, then she would be the guilty person, responsible for the deception and she would accept upon herself the curse directed toward the innocent Yaakov.

5. Yaakov’s criticism of Rivkah’s plan

In her response, Rivkah was reacting to Yaakov’s objection to her plan. Therefore, the response provides important insight into her understanding of Yaakov’s objection. Although each offers his own specific interpretation of Rivkah’s response to Yaakov, both interpretations share a common message. Rivkah’s response was an assurance to Yaakov that he would be acting properly in following her direction. According to Unkelus, Rivkah told Yaakov that she knew through prophecy that he was destined to receive the blessings. According to Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel, Rivkah did not claim prophetic knowledge. However, she told Yaakov that she accepted upon herself full moral responsibility for their plan. Rivkah’s response implies that she detected in Yaakov’s concerns some question regarding the ethics of her plan. What was the concern that she detected?

6. Yaakov’s underlying concern

According to RaDaK’s interpretation, Yaakov was not concerned with the ethics of diverting the blessings away from his brother and towards himself. However, he was very concerned with the prospect of facing his father’s anger upon his discovery of the deception. In other words, Yaakov believed in the justice of the cause. However, he did have scruples regarding the means his mother suggested. He expresses his concern as a practical issue but Rivkah sensed a more fundamental ethical scruple. Yaakov questioned the ethics of deceiving his father.[5] If he engaged in an unethical strategy, he could he be assured of success and not failure!

Rivkah knew she could not respond to this objection simply by explaining the precautions they would take against premature discovery. Yaakov also required reassurance regarding the ethics of the plan. Therefore, her initial response was to provide reassurance that Yaakov would be acting properly in following her direction. Only after Yaakov agreed to accept his mother’s assessment, did she explain the details of her plan to avoid detection.

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1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 27:33.
2. Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 27:33.
3. Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 27:33.
4. Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 27:10-13.
5. The nature of Yaakov’s scruple is even more apparent from Unkelus’ and Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel’s interpretation of Yaakov’s objection. Both suggest that Yaakov feared that Yitzchak would interpret the deception as an attempt at mockery. Yitzchak would conclude that Yaakov was engaged in an elaborate prank to mock Yitzchak’s failing vision. It is apparent from this interpretation that Yaakov was not merely concerned with the failure of the strategy. He envisioned a detailed scenario in which his father would discover his identity and react at the perceived mockery with justifiable indignation.