The story of Abraham’s family in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is a story of impostors. Four family members (Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah) deceive others by assuming false identities. And four family members (Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, and Lavan) ask one family member to impersonate another in order to deceive someone.
In this collection of tricksters, only Rebecca both acts as an imposter herself and tells someone else to become an imposter. Both episodes occur in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Lineages”).
The second episode is the most famous. When Isaac has grown old and blind, he summons his favorite son, Esau, and asks him hunt game and cook it for him.
Then I will eat, so that my nefesh will bless you before I die. (Genesis 27:4)
nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = appetite, animating soul.
Isaac does not mention God; he may want only to give Esau his personal blessing. But his wife, Rebecca, is listening on the other side of the wall, and she hears something different.
And Rebecca spoke to Jacob, her son, saying: Hey! Shamati to your father speaking to Esau your brother, saying: Bring me hunted-game and make tasty dishes for me, and I will eat and I will bless you in front of God before I die. (Genesis 27:6-7)
Shamati (שָׁמַעְתִּי) = I listened to, I heard, I heeded. (Here the word means “listened in on”.)
Rebecca assumes Isaac is going to pass on the grand blessing that God gave to Abraham, and repeated in abbreviated form to Isaac. And she is determined that this blessing go to her favorite son, Jacob, instead of to his twin brother Esau.
If she trusted her husband, Rebecca might wait until Esau goes hunting, and then try to persuade Isaac that he give God’s blessing to Jacob, and give Esau an ordinary garden-variety blessing instead. But she does not. She does not believe Isaac would listen to her.
On the other hand, she believes Jacob will listen to and obey her.
And now, my son, shema my voice, to what I am commanding you. Go, please, to the flock, and take for me from there two good goat kids, and I will make them into tasty dishes for your father, like those he loves. Then you will bring [them] to your father and he will eat, so that he will bless you before he dies. (Genesis 27:8-10)
shema (שְׁמַע) = Listen to! Hear! Heed! (The imperative form of the same verb as shamati.)
Although Rebecca does not explicitly command Jacob to impersonate his brother, Jacob takes it that way. He has no moral qualms about deceiving his father, but he is afraid the impersonation will not work, because he has smooth skin, and Esau is exceptionally hairy.
Rebecca responds by helping Jacob do a more effective impersonation.
Then Rebecca took Esau’s best garment, which was with her in her house, and she put it on Jacob, her younger son. And the skins of the goat kids she put on his hands and over the smooth part of his neck. (Genesis 27:15-16)
When her blind husband touches Jacob, he feels skin that is as hairy as a goat—like Esau’s skin. He even says: The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau. (Genesis 27:22)
The blessing Isaac gives the impostor includes most of the blessing of Abraham.
Of course, as soon as Esau returns with his own meat to cook, the impersonation is discovered. Esau vows to kill his brother, and Jacob has to flee. But at least he got the blessing Rebecca wanted for him, a blessing that is irrevocable.
Why does Rebecca have Jacob impersonate his brother, instead of simply speaking to Isaac? Why doesn’t she trust her husband to listen to her?
I think the answer lies in an earlier episode where Rebecca is the impostor. When Isaac and Rebecca moved to Gerar in the land of the Philistines, Isaac told everyone Rebecca was his unmarried sister.
And it happened that when their days there grew long, Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, looked down from the window and he saw—hey! Isaac was fooling around with Rebecca—his wife! Avimelekh summoned Isaac and said: Hey, surely she is your wife! Why did you say she was your sister?
And Isaac said to him: Because I thought “In case I would be killed over her…” (Genesis/Bereishit 26:8-9)
Isaac’s father, Abraham, had given the same reason when he asked his Sarah to pretend to be his unmarried sister:
Hey, please—I know that you are a beautiful-looking woman. And it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, then they will say: This is his wife. And they will kill me, but you they will keep alive. Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well with me for your sake, and I will stay alive on account of you. (Genesis 12:11-13)
As long as Sarah appeared to be single and available, Abraham’s reasoning went, any man hoping to make her his concubine would court the favor of her “brother”.
Isaac must have heard this family story, because assumed that any foreign king would kill the husband of a beautiful woman. And Isaac pulled the same trick as his father when he brought his own beautiful wife to Gerar.
The Torah does not report Isaac asking Rebecca to pretend to be single. But Rebecca obviously went along with her husband’s lie anyway, since her true marital status was discovered only after they had lived in Gerar for a while.
Rebecca is not by nature submissive. As an adolescent, in the Torah portion Chayyei Sarah, she independently invited a stranger to stay at her parents’ house, and boldly decided to leave home and marry the stranger’s master, Isaac.
But at this point in the story, Rebecca still trusts Isaac to keep her best interests in mind. After all, Isaac fell in love with her when they first met, and prayed for her when she failed to get pregnant.
I think Rebecca stopped trusting Isaac when she heard him explain that he passed her off as his sister because he was afraid of being killed. At that point, Rebecca would realize that her husband was slavishly imitating his father’s example, even in a town with a friendly and ethical king. She could no longer count on him either to make rational decisions, or to consult with her first.
Years later, when she thinks Isaac is about to give the wrong son the blessing of Abraham, Rebecca does not even try to talk him out of it. Instead, she falls back on a different family tradition: when you need a favor from a man you do not trust, try deceiving him with an imposture.
Resorting to impersonation is an especially flamboyant family tradition. But all of us, in times of doubt, tend to fall back on strategies we learned from our families. For example, I often used to follow my father’s strategy of making myself absent when interpersonal frictions arose.
What family strategies did you learn? How do they get repeated?