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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, and How They Met.
in·ter·course: 1: connection or dealings between persons or groups. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
The first was Adam and Eve. Adam was the first man, created in G-d’s image, the knower of all creatures, whose stature blocked the sun. Yet it was Eve who insisted that Adam eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge as she had eaten, and Adam followed her guidance. Adam was roundly criticized for deferring to Eve in this, as his divine curse begins with the words: “Because you listened to your wife…” Genesis, 3:17. Indeed, apparently seeking to rectify this undesirable situation, Eve is cursed with the command “he will dominate you.” Genesis, 3:16. Eve’s decision had profound and far-reaching effect, beginning with the knowledge offered by the fruit, continuing with the banishment from the Garden of Eden, and setting the stage for all that followed.
Yet, with our second couple – Abraham and Sarah – we don’t see much attention being given to the fulfillment of that early curse. Again, Abraham is the dynamic philosopher and philanthropist, making great monotheistic and moral ripples in a world sunk in idol-worship and immorality. Yet it is Sarah who is responsible for all of Abraham’s wealth, as time after time, kings bestow great riches upon Abraham in her merit. It is Sarah’s child – not merely Abraham’s – that G-d chooses to carry on Abraham’s sacred mission and destiny. And, in each of the two rare dialogues between Abraham and Sarah that Torah chooses to share with us, Abraham defers to Sarah’s wishes. The first is when Sarah asks Abraham to lie with her handmaid, Hagar, and later criticizes him for Hagar’s smugness at having conceived so easily. Abraham acknowledges Sarah’s grievance, and gives her the green light to deal with Hagar in whatever she sees fit. See Genesis, 16:1-6. The second dialogue is a much more weighty one. There, Sarah asks Abraham to banish Hagar as well as his own son, Ishmael. The Torah reports that Abraham was, understandably, pained over this request. Nevertheless, G-d speaks to Abraham, and in a reversal of his earlier criticism of Adam, instructs him: “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice.” Abraham does as he is told, removing Ishmael as an influence over Isaac and as a potential contender for Abraham’s succession. See Genesis, 21:9-14. Thus, with Abraham and Sarah too, it was Sarah and her decisions that had the most profound and lasting impact on the family.
Then we have Isaac and Rebecca. In this week’s Torah portion, we are told that, after a lengthy period of childlessness, Isaac and Rebecca are blessed with twins. During her pregnancy, concerned by the struggling taking place within her womb, Rebecca is informed of a prophecy regarding her two future children. “Two nations are in your womb; two powers will diverge from within you. The upper hand will pass from power to the other, yet the elder with serve the younger.” Genesis, 25:23. Esau is born first; Jacob, his twin, follows.
Years later, Isaac calls Esau to him and advises him that he intends to bless him. He asks him, before the blessing, to prepare Isaac’s favorite meat dish, and to bring it with him to be blessed. Even Esau, who already had the reputation as an immoral and wicked scoundrel, understood that a blessing from his father, Isaac, to whom the power of blessings had been given, was not something to be trifled with. So off he goes to prepare his father’s meal. In the meantime, Rebecca hears Isaac’s conversation with Esau. She immediately takes Jacob aside, and convinces a reluctant Jacob to disguise himself as his older brother, to bring Isaac the meal that Rebecca then prepares, and to obtain the blessings for himself. Sure enough, the blessings that Isaac intended to give were game-changers; they promised the one brother everything, with little left for the other. When Esau discovered that Jacob had been blessed in his stead, it created an everlasting enmity between the brothers; a violent hostility that Rebecca then sought to avoid by sending Jacob away. See Genesis, 27:1-46. It would be 22 years before Jacob would return home – and Rebecca would die before he returned. Her goodbye would be the last time she would see her favored son.
What was Rebecca doing? For that matter, what were Sarah and Eve doing? In this patriarchal society that we are so frequently assured existed in those times, why didn’t any of these matriarchs respect their husbands? Why would Eve tell her husband to eat a fruit she knew he was forbidden to eat? Why did he listen? Why did Sarah tell her husband to banish his own son? Why did he listen (aside from G-d telling him to)? Why did Rebecca seek to circumvent her husband’s clear wishes to bless Esau?
The answer to all of these questions lies within the complementary intercourse between man and wife. Men think in certain ways. Women think in others. And this is a wonderful thing. Because if men and women thought alike, they would also share the same flaws and drawbacks in their way of thinking; flaws that would never be corrected. Adam, Abraham, Isaac – they, like most men, were dreamers, with great and lofty ideas, and important destinies. Eve, Sarah, and Rebecca – they, like most women, were nurturers, implementers, with a deep understanding and intuition of how their husband’s ideas and destinies will best come to fruition. Indeed, they understood better than their husbands themselves what steps would have to be taken for their husband’s dreams to be realized.
Eve understood that G-d did not create the world for humans to live in an unending utopia. She knew that, by specifically indicating the Tree of Knowledge, G-d was secretly pointing to the next stage in their existence. Adam flexed his divine gifts, ready to father humanity, but Eve understood the environment in which that humanity needed to be raised. And so she ate.
Sarah understood that Isaac was “the One.” He was the child that G-d intended to carry the torch, to father the generations that would result in the Jewish nation – G-d’s long term goal. She understood that there had to be clear and early separation between Isaac and Ishmael, one that would permit Isaac to develop unhindered into the next patriarch, with his own unique personality and contribution. She understood that, hard is it may be for Abraham, sending Ishmael away was a thing that required doing.
Rebecca understood what Isaac wanted to accomplish. Isaac saw Esau’s raw animal passion and power, and he wanted to harness that power by blessing it with G-d’s eternal gifts and qualities.
Rebecca understood that harnessing Esau’s power was in fact crucial to the fulfillment of the divine mission, to transforming the raw nature of the world around us and elevating it to goodness.
However, Rebecca also understood that refining Esau’s power was a lengthy process that would take millennia to achieve. And it would be achieved through the Jewish nation‘s interaction with the world around them. It would be Jacob‘s children who would wield the power of the blessings, and bring the might of their impact to Esau’s. Blessing Esau in the here and now would be ineffective; it would simply add arrogance and entitlement to a power that was not yet ready to be refined. Blessing Jacob, on the other hand, would ultimately lead to Esau’s transformation, and fulfill the purpose that Isaac intended.
(Next week we find Rachel circumventing Jacob’s wishes to marry her, and conspiring with her sister Leah, arranges to have Jacob marry Leah first. This ultimately results in the birth of the twelve tribes, and in their particular order, such that Joseph is born next to last, is hated by his older brothers, setting off a chain of events leading our forefathers to Egypt. The rest is, of course, our history.)
It has always been our matriarchs who, in complementing our patriarchs, have at key moments made the critical adjustments to the tapestry of our destiny to ensure that we remain faithfully on course.