By Robert Stone
When Isaac realized that Jacob had tricked him into blessing him instead of Esau, he trembled with a very great trembling. He said to Esau, “I blessed him; now he must remain blessed (gam baruch yiheyeh)” (Genesis 27:33). The midrash Bereshit Rabbah comments, “A divorce bill is ratified only when it is signed and sealed. So that you should not say, ‘if Jacob had not deceived his father he would not have acquired the blessing.’” Exactly the same formulation about divorce is used twice more in the midrash: once when Isaac gives Jacob the blessing of Abraham (28:4); and once when the twins meet after twenty years, Jacob seeks to mollify Esau and Esau says, “I have plenty, my brother. Let what is yours remain yours” (33:9). Why does Bereshit Rabbah say this three times? What is the connection between Isaac’s blessing and divorce?
Parashat Toledot is full of tricks and deceptions, secrets and lies. Esau gives Jacob his birth right in exchange for bread and lentils. When he goes to Gerar, Isaac pretends Rebecca is his sister and not his wife, out of fear that Rebecca’s beauty might lead the people to kill him. Rebecca and Jacob plot to deceive Isaac to give Jacob the blessing that belongs to Esau as the eldest son. When Rebecca hears that Esau plans to kill Jacob she tells Jacob that he must flee to her brother Laban until Esau’s anger subsides; but she pretends to Isaac that her reason for wanting Jacob to go to Laban is that she hates the idea of his marrying a Hittite woman.
Not all these deceptions are entirely successful. For example, King Abimelech sees Isaac dallying with Rebecca and concludes, rightly, that she is not his sister. Even more significantly, in his Torah commentary Gunther Plaut suggests that Isaac may not really have been fooled by Jacob’s impersonation of Esau. He may have been old, but he was not senile. When he calls Esau, one word from Esau (hineni, here I am) is enough to establish his identity; but when Jacob says one word (avi, father), Isaac is doubtful.
Having lied to his father, Jacob comes to experience what it is like to be lied to: he works for seven years to marry Rachel but is given Leah; his sons tell him that his favourite son, Joseph, has been killed when they sell him into slavery.
These lies are sometimes unsuccessful and sometimes backfire, but Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, despite Jacob’s deception, cannot be undone: “now he must remain blessed.” That is because there are two kinds of utterances: utterances that are only statements, like “She is my sister” or “I am Esau”; and utterances that are a form of action, which in themselves have the effect of changing the nature of reality, utterances such as “I promise”, “I bless you” or “I marry you”. Like Isaac’s blessing, such action utterances cannot be undone with another utterance. The utterance of the marriage formula cannot be undone except with a legal, written document, signed and sealed. We need to be careful what we say when we make promises. It’s not for nothing that we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei.
Robert Stone is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue and Finchley Reform Synagogue.