Masters and Servants - The "Chaff" of the Avot
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
"I AM ESAV YOUR ELDEST"
One of the seminal stories in B'resheet occupies the latter half of our
Parashah: Ya'akov's successful "masquerade" by which he gains Yitzhak's
primary blessing, the one which he (apparently) intended to grant to Esav.
There are many profound and significant issues raised in this narrative,
including (but not limited to):
a) Why did Yitzhak only "have" one B'rakhah to give, such that when the real
Esav showed up, he seemed to be "out of B'rakhot";
b) Why does a B'rakhah given to the "wrong person" have any validity;
c) Was Yitzhak really unaware of who the recipient was,
d) Why did Yitzhak request venison, prepared according to his taste, in
advance of the B'rakhah?
e) What are we to make of the exclamation: "The voice is the voice of
Ya'akov but the hands are the hands of Esav"
f) What is the relationship between the pair of B'rakhot relating to the
"fat of the land" (27:28-29 and 27:39-40) and the Avrahamic blessing clearly
intended for Ya'akov (28:3-4).
We will not investigate any of these (except, perhaps, tangentially);
instead, we will focus on both the roots and the results of Ya'akov's
masquerade (including Rivkah's role in this deception). When Ya'akov dressed
up in hairy clothes, brought goat-meat seasoned (by Rivkah) to taste like
venison and declared "I am Esav, your eldest", he successfully received the
blessing which was evidently intended for Esav. This act of cunning
(*Mirmah*) had both early roots in the Avrahamic family - and significant
and powerful ramifications within the Ya'akovian clan.
In this analysis, we will endeavor to discover the origins of this type of
behavior (and various analogues), along with identifying the difference
between appropriate (and morally justified) utilization of these traits and
the unacceptable excesses which are found in some of the less savory
characters in Sefer B'resheet.
By way of introduction, I'd like to pose a question on a well-known - but
not well-understood - Midrash.
At the beginning of the Bikkurim recitation, the worshipper avows: "My
father was a wandering Aramean" (D'varim 26:56). All "p'shat-driven"
commentaries identify this "father" as either Avraham or Ya'akov; both of
whom were wanderers and both came from Aram (although Ya'akov was not born
there, that was the terminus of his wandering). The well-known Midrash
which introduces one of the two core sections of the Haggadah, identifies
this "Aramean" as Lavan, Rivkah's brother and Ya'akov's father-in-law. (In
order to do this, the Midrash must change the grammatical sense of *Oved*,
but we'll save that for another essay).
What is the connection between our wandering father (Avraham or Ya'akov) and
Lavan? Why would we possibly want to substitute Lavan for one of the Avot?
In order to answer this, we'll have to investigate the chain of events
leading up to - and resulting from - Ya'akov's successful deception of Yitzhak.
*MIRMAH* IN AVRAHAM'S FAMILY
What is the earliest example of deception in Avraham's family? Although the
Midrash suggests such behavior on the part of Haran in Avraham's pre-Aliyah
days (see B'resheet Rabbah 38:13) , the T'nakh itself presents the first
episode near the beginning of the Avraham narrative:
[as Avraham and Sarah are about to enter Egypt:] "Say, I beg you, that you
are my sister; that it may be well with me for your sake; and my soul shall
live because of you." (12:13)
This scene is, of course, repeated in Avraham's later sojourn to Philistine
And Avraham said of Sarah his wife, "She is my sister"; and Avimelekh king
of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. (20:2)
Unlike his interaction with Pharaoh, Avraham provides a defense for his
"And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not
the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when
God caused me to wander from my father's house, that I said to her, 'This is
your kindness which you shall show to me; at every place where we shall
come, say of me, "He is my brother".' " (20:12-13)
Avraham held that deception in such a case was not only ethically defensible
- it was a moral obligation (in order to preserve life - his own). This
position was validated by God Himself in the interaction with Sarah
regarding her reaction to the tidings of the miracle birth of Yitzhak:
Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, "After I am grown old shall
I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" (18:12)
[yet, when God raises this with Avraham, He only says:]
And Hashem said to Avraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I indeed
bear a child, now that I am old ' ? " (v. 13)
The Gemara is sensitive to this shift and notes:
One may modify a statement in the interests of peace...at the School of R.
Yishma'el it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its
sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it
is written, "My lord being old", while afterwards it is written, "And I am
old". (BT Yevamot 65b)
In other words, God Himself misled Avraham, omitting Sarah's concerns about
his age, in order to maintain peace in the household (*Shalom Bayit*). If
so, it was certainly appropriate for Avraham to mislead Pharaoh and
Avimelekh - in order to protect himself - about the nature of his
relationship with Sarah. [I refer to this as "misleading" or "deceptive" as
opposed to "lying" since, as we see from Avraham's defense, his story was
not untrue - it was just (significantly) incomplete].
We find one more instance of "modifying words" in the Avraham narrative -
although it isn't Avraham himself who does so.
WHAT HAPPENED...AND ELIEZER'S VERSION
Chapter 24, the longest chapter in B'resheet (and the core of last week's
Parashah), is the story of Eliezer's mission to find a wife for Yitzhak.
[Although the text does not refer to him by name, instead calling him "the
slave of Avraham" - which is relevant to our analysis, Rabbinic tradition
identifies him with the Eliezer mentioned in 15:2. For the sake of brevity,
we will utilize this identification here.]
This story is presented in a loquacious manner; first we are told about
Avraham's oath, administered to Eliezer (vv. 2-9); then we hear about
Eliezer's trip to Aram and his prayer at the well (10-14); immediately,
Rivkah comes out and proves to be the realization of that prayer (15-25).
Subsequently, the slave is brought to her house (26-33) and he retells the
entire story, beginning with some background about himself, Avraham, Sarah
and Yitzhak (34-36), repeating the terms of the oath (37-41), retelling the
story of his prayer (42-44), and retelling Rivkah's kindness to him and his
Why is this story repeated? Rashi (v. 42), quoting the Midrash (B'resheet
Rabbah 60:8), notes that "the idle chatter of the slaves of the Patriarchal
homes is dearer than the Torah of their children", but does not explain why
this is the case.
Nearly all classical commentators (Acharonim as well as Rishonim - including
Rashi himself), note the repetition of Avraham's oath and of the interaction
between Eliezer and Rivkah at the well, pointing to one or more of the
variations between the versions. For example, Rashi notes that even though
Eliezer gave her the jewelry before finding out her name or family:
And it came to pass, as the camels finished drinking, that the man took a
golden ear ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of
ten shekels weight of gold; And said, "Whose daughter are you?" (vv. 22-23;
note, however, Ramban at v. 22);
Eliezer's report was a bit different:
"And she hurried, and let down her water jar from her shoulder, and said,
'Drink, and I will give your camels drink also'; so I drank, and she made
the camels drink also. And I asked her, and said, 'Whose daughter are you?'
And she said, 'The daughter of Betu'el, Nahor's son, whom Milcah bore to
him'; and I put the ear ring on her face, and the bracelets on her hands."
Rashi explains that Eliezer modified his words so that the wouldn't "catch
him in his words, saying 'Why did you give these to her before you knew who
she was?' ".
[Interested readers are directed to the Netziv and Malbim for fascinating
analyses of the variations between the Torah narrative and Eliezer's version.]
In sum, we find that Avraham (and members of his household), utilized their
words judiciously when there was a life-threatening situation or when there
was an overriding interest at stake - which was not self-directed.
According to the Midrash, Eliezer was interested in the failure of his
mission, as he wanted to have his own daughter marry Yitzhak; in any case,
it wasn't his own interests which were being promoted via his altered
Perhaps this is why Eliezer is referred to, throughout Chapter 24 (where he
is one of the two central figures) as *Eved Avraham*, rather than by name;
it is truly his ability to utilize this skill learned in Avraham's household
which assists in the success of his mission.
BACK TO YA'AKOV
In addressing the focal story of our Parashah - the "masquerade", we have to
take two things into account:
1) Rivkah, who was the force behind the deception, was privy to information
about her sons which, evidently, she did not share with Yitzhak:
And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so,
why am I thus? And she went to inquire of YHVH. And Hashem said to her, "Two
nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your
bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the
elder shall serve the younger." (25:22-23) Ya'akov was destined to rule over
Esav - to which end she wanted to ensure that he received the preferred
blessing. (Again, it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the role
of these blessings in family position and power).
2) Rivkah was the sister of Lavan, the master deceiver. Note how the
Midrash comments on her identification, at the beginning of our Parashah, as
"the daughter of Betu'el the Aramean of Padan-Aram, the sister to Lavan the
This teaches that her father was a deceiver (a play on the close
relationship between the word *Rama'i* meaning "deceiver" and *Arami* -
"Aramean"), her brother was a deceiver and the people in her locale were
like that, and this righteous woman came out from there. (B'resheet Rabbah 63:4)
It is not surprising that Rivkah utilized this talent to ensure that the
Divine Mandate - Ya'akov receiving the favored blessing - took place. This
was certainly not a case of self-interest, as the result of this deception
was Ya'akov's forced exile for twenty years; according to the Midrash,
Ya'akov never saw his beloved mother again (see Rashi at 35:8).
It is prudent to point out that Yitzhak also engaged in this type of
behavior - once:
And Yitzhak lived in Gerar; And the men of the place asked him about his
wife; and he said, "She is my sister"; for he feared to say, She is my wife;
lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rivkah; because she
was pretty to look upon. (26:6-7)
Although Yitzhak was prepared to act deceitfully in a situation similarly
dangerous to those of his father, Rivkah was still able to mislead him
(twice - look carefully at 27:42-46). Why wasn't Yitzhak more attuned to guile?
*VAYAGOR* AND *VAYESHEV*
In Avraham's defense of his misleading Avimelekh, there is a phrase which
may clarify something about the Avot and those rare circumstances when they
were prepared to act deceptively:
And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father's house,
that I said to her, 'This is your kindness which you shall show to me; at
every place where we shall come, say of me, "He is my brother".' ";
In other words, Avraham was only willing to act this way when he was in a
state of wandering. The natural vulnerability experienced by the stranger
necessitates the occasional use of deception to survive (witness the
thousands of Jews who were saved by forged papers, sham marriages, made-up
adoptions etc. while escaping the horrors of the Sho'ah).
Note that roughly half of Avraham's post-Lekh-L'kha life was lived "on the
run" (see this year's shiur on Parashat Vayera); nevertheless, the only two
incidents of deception were in specific "traveling" situations - in Egypt
and G'rar. Similarly, Eliezer was a stranger in Aram when he spoke so
"carefully" - and this was the case with Yitzhak, who only deceived once:
When he was in G'rar and afraid for his life.
Once Yitzhak - who was the only one of the Avot who was "settled" during
most of his life - was back home, there was no need to operate in this fashion.
It took Rivkah, who, like Avraham, (see last year's shiur on Hayyei Sarah)
was a transplant in K'na'an and who had the inside information on Ya'akov
and Esav, to set up the necessary circumstances to successfully deceive
Yitzhak into giving Ya'akov the blessing.
Let's take a quick look at several later incidents of *Mirmah* in the family
1) Ya'akov's entire relationship with his uncle and father-in-law was one of
deceit - Lavan cheated Ya'akov out of his promised wife (Rachel) and then,
changed his salary ten times:
"Thus have I been twenty years in your house; I served you fourteen years
for your two daughters, and six years for your cattle; and you have changed
my wages ten times." (41:31)
Yet, our Rabbis note that there is an affinity between Lavan and Ya'akov:
And Ya'akov told Rachel that he was her father's brother, and that he was
Rivkah's son; (29:12) - In deception, "he was her father's brother"; In
righteousness, "he was Rivkah's son". (B'resheet Rabbah 70:13)
The Rabbis take this affinity even further and note that Lavan's behavior
was something of a "payback" to Ya'akov for his deception:
...all night Ya'akov called "Rachel" and Leah responded; in the morning:
"Behold she was Leah". He said to her: "O deceptive one daughter of a
deceptive one: All night didn't I call Rachel and you responded?" Leah
answered: "Is there a barber without students? (i.e. even the best barber
needs a student who will cut his hair; likewise:) Didn't your father cry
out 'Esav' and you responded?" (ibid. 70:19) (more on this a bit later)
2) When Ya'akov returns to Eretz K'na'an, following Avraham's footsteps, his
first stop is Sh'khem. The terrible events which occurred there can be
found in Chapter 34 - but note how Ya'akov's sons (all born in Aram!) respond:
And the sons of Ya'akov answered Sh'khem and Hamor his father deceitfully
(*b'Mirmah*, and said, [because he had defiled Dinah their sister]; And they
said to them, "We can not do this thing, to give our sister to one who is
uncircumcised; for that would be a reproach to us; But in this will we
consent to you; If you will be as we are, that every male of you be
circumcised; Then will we give our daughters to you, and we will take your
daughters for us, and we will live with you, and we will become one people."
The problems inherent in this Parashah are many; note, however, Ya'akov's
protest against his sons' behavior:
And Ya'akov said to Shim'on and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me to
make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the K'na'ani and the
P'rizi; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me,
and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house." (34:30)
In other words, acting deceitfully as a tactic - when justified - is only
acceptable when in a temporary place (e.g. Egypt, G'rar, Eliezer in Aram or
Ya'akov at Yitzhak's knee); but you must maintain a reputation for
forthrightness among the inhabitants of the land (*Yoshev ha'Aretz*).
Although space limitations mitigate against continuing here, I'd like to use
the information presented up to this point to suggest an answer to our
question about the Midrash on *Arami Oved Avi* -
When Avraham and Ya'akov were wandering (exactly the meaning of the verse),
they had to utilize a survival tactic which was morally correct and
ethically justified - but only for those circumstances. That behavior -
deceit - was personified in one Biblical character - Lavan. Whereas Avraham
and Ya'akov (and, in one case, Yitzhak) used deceit, Lavan WAS deceit.
Hence, Lavan is the truest example of *Arami Oved Avi* - even in the comfort
of home, even when faced with nothing more than the possible gain of a few
dollars, he behaved in a way only acceptable for survival - and, then, only
To be continued...
(Part II in next week's edition)
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.