Monday, November 28, 2005

parshat Toledot: I Am | Esav (is) Your Son

Yaakov misleads his father in parshat Toledot. In Bereishit 27:18-19:
יח וַיָּבֹא אֶל-אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי; וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי, מִי אַתָּה בְּנִי. 18 And he came unto his father, and said: 'My father'; and he said: 'Here am I; who art thou, my son?'
יט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ--עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי--בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ. 19 And Jacob said unto his father: 'I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou badest me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.'

There is a midrash made famous by Rashi that explains that when Yaakov tells his father "I am Esav your firstborn," he was really saying "It is I. Esav is your firstborn."

Ibn Ezra, (before rejecting this approach, gives two formulations. Either:
  1. Anochi = I am who I am. Esav Bechorecha = Esav is your firstborn.
  2. Anochi = It is I. (This is said silently.) Esav Bechorecha = Esav, your firstborn. (But meaning Esav is your firstborn.) This is said loudly, so that Yitzchak can hear.

Thus, Yaakov was not really lying.

People tend to look at this midrash as Artscrolling the biography of the Avot, and thus some have a negative reaction to it. They would ask (correctly), "am I allowed to lie in such a manner and it would not be considered wrong?" Of course not.

Yet there are other midrashim which take Yaakov to task for his words in this event (specifically "Arise"), so I do not think one can just dismiss this as an attempt to make the Avot perfect, or at least only such an attempt. We should consider the various elements that contributed to the formation of this midrash.

A. Religious Motivation
Of course, we should not discount the religious motivation to make the Avot paragons of virtue, and thus use midrash to rewrite Biblical history. Such seems to be how Siftei Chachamim takes it. In his commentary on Rashi, he uses the term chas veshalom - that Yaakov could lie. He then goes on to grapple with how Yaakov could say "Esav is your bechor {firstborn}" when without lying when Yaakov already purchased the bechora!

B. Philosophical Motivation
This seems to be how Ibn Ezra takes the problem motivating the midrash. That is, Yaakov is a prophet, as he has visions and messages from God. A prophet is the recipient, or conduit, of God's Absolute Truth, and so he himself must be perfect in this regard. Lying, even in a situation that absolutely requires it, would cause a fault to one's character that would seemingly preclude one's being a prophet.

Ibn Ezra eliminates this philosophical problem by distinguishing between two types of prophet: the one who is an agent to deliver God's commandment, and the one who merely in told (or tells) about future events. It is only the agent delivering God's commandment who must not be tainted by lying.

Ibn Ezra concludes by giving several examples from Tanach of prophets who lied when it was required.

C. Syntactic Motivation
The ambiguity of Hebrew syntax lends itself to allowing such an interpretation. While English has the copular "is," Hebrew omits it. Thus, Esav Bechorecha can mean either "Esav your firstborn" (which would be placed with Anochi to mean "I am Esav your firstborn"), or "Esav is your firstborn."

D. Accentual Motivation
The rereading of the pasuk actually works well with the trup. The trup is:
יט וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־אָבִ֗יו אָֽנֹכִי֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ עָשִׂ֕יתִי כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֵלָ֑י קֽוּם־נָ֣א שְׁבָ֗ה וְאָכְלָה֙ מִצֵּידִ֔י בַּֽעֲב֖וּר תְּבָֽרְכַ֥נִּי נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
There is a pashta on אָֽנֹכִי֙ and a zakef on בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ. Both are disjunctive accents, which divide, as opposed to the munach on עֵשָׂ֣ו, which is a conjunctive accents, which joins. The pashta is a disjunctive accent which splits in two a clause ending in a zakef (see Wickes on this point). The result is that the trup tells us to divide Yaakov's statement into:

אָֽנֹכִי֙
עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ

Try laining the phrase, and see how the trup supports the midrashic reading.

It is not clear when the specific orthography of trup, or even the specific signs, came into being, but I have evidence that some method of accent dividing the verse was in existence as far back as Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel.

Still, the trup is no proof that the midrashic reading is correct, for two reasons. First, if this trup were irregular and not what was to be expected, one could simply say that that reading came about because of the midrash, rather than vice versa. Secondly, the trup is exactly what we would expect, with the division of pashta on this first noun. We can see this by comparing it to the other examples of "Anochi X Y," which have identical trup. And so, the trup would be the same, on syntactic grounds, even if we are not to logically divide Yaakov's statement as per the midrash.

Still, it is nice that the trup partially reinforces the midrashic reading.

E. Thematic Motivation
There are elements in the narrative that would make us think that Yaakov does not wish to mislead his father. Partially, this is character - Bereishit 25:27 describes him as אִישׁ תָּם, but even more, Yaakov is reluctant to mislead his father, even as the reason is fear of getting caught.

Specifically, this was all Rivka's idea, not Yaakov's, and he objects to her:

יא וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ: הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר, וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק. 11 And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother: 'Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man.
יב אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי, וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ; וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה, וְלֹא בְרָכָה. 12 My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.'
יג וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ, עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי; אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי. 13 And his mother said unto him: 'Upon me be thy curse, my son; only hearken to my voice, and go fetch me them.'

Further, it is his mother who took the garments of Esav and the goat skins to disguise Yaakov - he comes up with none of this. We could then read reluctance into misleading his father. This interpretation of אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ would allow him to hold back a bit in his misleading, thus showing his reluctance, even as he does succeed in misleading.

F. Motivation of Textual Parallels
This holding-back that Yaakov does can actually be found in the text without resorting to rereading. Later in the narrative, his father suspects that he may in fact be Yaakov, and asks again to confirm.

ד וַיֹּאמֶר, אַתָּה זֶה בְּנִי עֵשָׂו; וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנִי. 24 And he said: 'Art thou my very son Esau?' And he said: 'I am.'
Speiser (in Anchor Bible) translates this as "Is it really you, my son Esav?" and Yaakov's reply as "Certainly," but this translation loses some of the delicious ambiguity of the text. All Yaakov says is אָנִי, "It is I." This can certainly be read as deliberate obfuscation, pretending to answer in one way, a falsehood which misleads, while actually stating a truth.

The midrash might easily extrapolate from Yaakov's second reply to his father - אָנִי - and apply it to his first answer - אָנֹכִי. The rest of the statement needs reinterpretation, but then both of Yaakov's statements are of the same form.

G. Literary Motivation
This literary device that I just mentioned, in which character A is in the know and character B is not, and A tells B a truth in a way that misleads, is a device one sees elsewhere in literature. For example, in "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allen Poe, one character knows that he plans on killing the other, but the other does not know this:

"Enough," he said ; "the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough."

"True - true," I replied ; "and, indeed, I had no intention of alarming you unnecessarily - but you should use all proper caution. A draught of this Medoc will defend us from the damps."

The short story is full of such exchanges. Another example, within Torah, is Avraham and Yitzchak on the way up the mountain, in which Yitzchak does not know that he is to be slaughtered. In Bereishit 22:7-8:
ז וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים, וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה, לְעֹלָה. 7 And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: 'My father.' And he said: 'Here am I, my son.' And he said: 'Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?'
ח וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹקִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו. 8 And Abraham said: 'God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.' So they went both of them together.
One midrash interprets Avraham's statement as: "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering," and if not "my son." And they "both go together," one armed with the knowledge of what is to come, and the other unaware.

Or we could say that Yitzchak is aware at this point, which takes the narrative in a different direction.

The point is that both midrashim seem motivated by the same literary motivation - the delicious device of words which seem to say one thing but really mean another. This is more obvious in Yaakov's answer אָנִי, but as I said, seems to be carried to his other answers as well.

H. Motivation of the Tension Between the Moment and Destiny
The best way to understand a midrash is to read it in its original source. In this case it is attributed to midrash Tanchuma. I did not (yet) look it up there, but I found the following in Bereishit Rabba. The midrash there does not merely divide, but states: "I am the one who my descendants will in the future accept the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai. However, Esav is your firstborn."

This first part of the midrash is not mentioned by Rashi, but perhaps it can help explain the motivation. The narrative calls up conflicting emotions in the reader. On the one hand, in the moment, it seems that Yaakov is stealing the blessing and misleading his father. On the other hand, he is one of the Avot, and this blessing is essential for the future of the Jewish nation, who are the good guys (=us) and will accept the Torah on Mount Sinai. This conflict and tension might not be only on the part of the reader, but also on the part of Yaakov. Thus, he has his reasons for claiming it - Anochi (=Destiny), yet viewed only in the moment, perhaps Esav is in the right and is entitled to it - after all, Esav is the firstborn.

I hope that I have shown that there is more to the midrash than a superficial treatment would yield. Of course, this does not mean that on a peshat level, Yaakov did not say "I am Esav your firstborn."

Update: For the sake of completeness, and to bolster my thesis that every element in a midrash must come from text and not come in to being ex nihilo, I should explain the reference to the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai. The word אָנֹכִי, besides being compared with אָנִי, which stands in the same position, is also taken as a reference to the 10 commandments, which start with the word אָנֹכִי.

1 comment:

Tam said...

G. is really interesting. Great post.

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