The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Surf A Little Torah
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav David Silverberg


            Towards the beginning of Parashat Toledot, we read of Rivka's difficulties during her pregnancy, in response to which "she went to seek out the Lord" (25:22).  Where exactly did she go, and what was she "seeking"?


            Rashi explains that Rivka went to the prophet Shem to find out "what will be with her in the end."  Rivka feared that her unusual pains would mean an unsuccessful pregnancy, and so she anxiously sought a prophetic prediction as to the outcome of her pregnancy.  As we read in the next verse, she was informed that the difficulties she experienced resulted from the two opposing nations gestating in her womb, and she will deliver two healthy children who will establish two powerful peoples.  Other commentaries, including Targum Onkelos and Chizkuni, explain similarly.  (This also appears to be the interpretation of the Rashbam; see also Derashot Ha-Ran, 2.)


            The Ramban, however, disagrees, claiming that the verb employed in this verse – always refers to prayer when used in reference to "seeking" God.  Thus, according to the Ramban, the Torah here tells that she went to pray to the Almighty for relief.  (This is the view as well of Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, 32.)  God's response, namely, the information that she will bear twins from whom two great nations will descend, was intended to offer encouragement and hope, which would help her deal emotionally with the pain she endured.


            Rav Yaakov Koppel Schwartz, in his work Yekev Efrayim, suggests a novel interpretation of this verse, claiming that Rivka perhaps did not actually experience any unusual pains during her pregnancy.  Rather, when the verse states, "The sons struggled inside her," it refers to a dream she beheld of two fetuses wrestling with one another inside her uterus.  She therefore went to a prophet to learn the meaning behind this peculiar vision, and she was informed that the skirmishes between the two fetuses symbolize the struggle that will ensue between her two children, Yaakov and Esav, and their descendants.  Thus, "she went to seek out the Lord" refers neither to prayer nor information concerning the outcome of her pregnancy, but rather to prophetic consultation for the purpose of deciphering her dream.




            Yesterday, we discussed the verse towards the beginning of Parashat Toledot which tells that Rivka responded to her unusually difficult pregnancy by going li-drosh et Hashem" – "to seek out the Lord" (25:22).  As we saw, Rashi, based on the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 63), explains this as a reference to prophetic consultation.  She went to the prophet Shem (Noach's son, who was still alive) to inquire as to what the future held for her pregnancy.


            A number of different sources raise the question of why, according to the Midrash's reading, Rivka consulted with Shem, rather than with her father-in-law, Avraham.  Although the Torah records Avraham's death in the previous section, towards the end of Parashat Chayei-Sara (25:8), his death did not occur until after the story told in the beginning of Parashat Toledot.  Avraham died at the age of 175, when Yitzchak was seventy-five years of age.  Yitzchak begot Yaakov and Esav at the age of sixty, a full fifteen years before Avraham's passing.  Why, then, did Rivka not consult with the greatest prophet of her time, Avraham, preferring instead to visit Shem?  Interestingly, Abarbanel in fact writes that it was Avraham with whom Rivka consulted.  The Midrash, however, writes explicitly that she went to Shem, and the question thus arises why she preferred Shem over Avraham.


            The Midrashic work Sekhel Tov (cited in Torah Sheleima, chapter 25, note 90) explains, "Even though Avraham was alive, she went to the elders, teaching you that whoever greets the elder of the generation is considered as greeting the Shekhina…"  According to the Sekhel Tov, Shem had a certain advantage over Avraham in that he was the eldest man of the generation, and standing in the presence of an older person is somehow akin to standing in the presence of the Shekhina.  It should be noted that the Sekhel Tov explains this verse to mean not that Rivka sought prophetic information, but rather that she asked somebody to pray on her behalf.  Apparently, the Sekhel Tov believed that prayers by "the elder of the generation" are more beneficial than the prayers of a prophet of even Avraham's stature.


            Others, including the Panei'ach Raza and Peirush Ha-Tur, explain that Rivka did not want to disturb her father-in-law.  It is unclear why Rivka felt that Avraham would be "disturbed" by her inquiry, but in any event, this approach conveys an important lesson in derekh eretz, that before consulting a rabbi on even pressing matters, one should first ensure that he is not imposing any undue pressure.


            The Netziv, in his Ha'amek Davar, suggests a much different explanation, claiming (somewhat boldly, perhaps) that Avraham was simply not as qualified for this job as Shem.  Prophets, the Netziv write, came in two different forms.  There were those with whom God spoke on occasion to convey certain information, and others who had access to otherwise concealed information through ru'ach ha-kodesh.  Avraham belonged to the first class of prophets, whereas Shem was of the second type.  Rivka naturally decided to consult with Shem, rather than Avraham, because she needed somebody with prophetic knowledge of future events, something with which Shem was endowed but that Avraham lacked.


            The Netziv's approach is perhaps significant in that it reflects the concept of "specialization" with regard to spiritual greatness and leadership.  That tradition generally holds Avraham in higher esteem than Shem, and that Avraham undoubtedly had a far greater impact upon the spiritual progress of mankind, does not necessarily mean that Avraham outshined Shem in every respect.  And this is true as well of great rabbinic figures throughout Jewish history.  Am Yisrael has always been graced with great halakhic scholars, profound philosophical thinkers, creative exegetes, gifted orators, calculated policy-makers, and inspiring educators and figureheads.  Only on rare occasions are all these qualities combined within a single persona.  More often than not, spiritual greatness manifests itself more prominently in one area, or in a small number of areas, than in others.  Rivka's decision to consult with Shem, rather than her father-in-law, by no means reflected greater respect toward Shem.  Rather, she understood that her particular need on this particular occasion required the services of Shem, and not of Avraham, despite Avraham's generally superior stature.




            The Torah tells towards the beginning of Parashat Toledot that Yitzchak loved his older son, Esav, "ki tzayid be-fiv" (literally, "for there was game in his mouth" – 25:28).  According to most commentators, the phrase "his mouth" refers to the mouth of Yitzchak.  Thus, for example, Targum Onkelos, Ibn Ezra and others explain that Yitzchak developed a particular affinity for Esav because Esav would bring him meat from the hunt.  According to Rashi, the term tzayid refers not to actual hunting, but rather to deception.  In his view, Yitzchak preferred Esav only because Esav deceptively presented himself as a righteous man, disguising his iniquity under a mask of piety and meticulous halakhic observance.


            Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, in his commentary, translates this phrase as, "for he was also a hunter with his mouth."  According to Rav Hirsch, "his mouth" refers to Esav's mouth, rather than Yitzchak's, and the Torah tells that Yitzchak admired Esav for his hunting skills.  Rav Hirsch explains this admiration based on the notion of "the attraction of opposites."  He writes:


We see Isaac, risen up again from death on the altar, preferring to withdraw from the bustle of the world and to live quietly in the proximity of the desert…away from the busy traffic of men.  That Esau's lusty active nature appealed to him, and that he perhaps saw in him a force which he has lost and could be a support to the home, would be quite possible.


According to Rav Hirsch, Yitzchak preferred Esav because he saw within him what he himself lacked – an "active nature," street-smarts, worldly skills.  These talents would serve as a "support to the home" and compensate for the absence of these qualities within Yitzchak's nature.


            More recently, Rav Yehuda Henkin, in his work New Interpretations on the Parsha, advanced a similar interpretation, though from a different angle.  He, too, explained the term tzayid be-fiv as a reference to Esav's hunting skills, his ability to put "game in his mouth."  According to Rav Henkin, Yitzchak admired Esav's self-reliance, his ability to fend for himself and take independent initiative.  Yaakov was perceived by his father as lacking this quality of practical know-how and proactive initiative.  In choosing the son that would perpetuate the legacy of Avraham, Yitzchak had to decide – so he thought – between Esav, the skilled hunter, and Yaakov, a man of spiritual greatness but who lacked his brother's worldly talents.  Rav Henkin describes Yitzchak's choice as follows:


He chose Esau because Esau would be able to father a great people, as Avraham had been promised.  The spirituality Esau lacked, he or his children could acquire later.  But what good were Yaakov's spiritual qualities, if he was incapable of meeting the challenges of life?


            Later, however, when Yaakov deceptively seized the blessings intended from Esav, he demonstrated that he, too, was capable of the same kind of bold initiative as his brother.  Therefore, upon discovering that he had blessed Yaakov, rather than Esav, Yitzchak confirmed the blessing ("gam barukh yiheyeh" – 27:33), as he now realized that Yaakov in truth possessed both qualities required of God's special nation: spiritual greatness, and practical know-how; both the "voice of Yaakov," as well as the so-called "hands of Esav."




            We read in Parashat Toledot of Yitzchak's tribulations in the Philistine region in Gerar, where his extraordinary farming success during a year of drought aroused the envy and then enmity of the local population.  The Philistine king Avimelekh ultimately drove Yitzchak out of the region, due to the tension and hostility that had begun brewing in the kingdom.  Later, however, Avimelekh and his general visited Yitzchak and asked for a truce, and explained their sudden change of heart: "We have indeed seen that the Lord was with you…" (26:28).


            Rashi notes the seemingly redundant expression used by Avimelekh and his general in this verse – "ra'o ra'inu" ("we have indeed seen") – which suggests that they "saw" something in addition to the fact that "the Lord was with you."  The subtle reference, Rashi explains, was to the success of Yitzchak's father.  Avimelekh explains his shift in attitude on the basis of the fact that God's providence over both Avraham and Yitzchak was clearly evident, prompting him to seek peaceful relations with Yitzchak and his descendants.


            The obvious question arises, how did the success and blessing enjoyed by Avraham decades earlier contribute to Avimelekh's change in policy towards Yitzchak?  If Avraham's success was significant enough to impact upon Avimelekh's treatment of Yitzchak, he should never have driven Yitzchak away in the first place.  How did God's evident protection over Avraham and Yitzchak impact upon Avimelekh's attitude towards Yitzchak?


            Rav Dov Weinberger, in his Shemen Ha-tov (vol. 4), suggested that Avimelekh initially perceived Yitzchak as failing to perpetuate his father's legacy.  Yitzchak's quality of gevura – unyielding justice – contrasted sharply with Avraham's attribute of chesed – his warm acceptance and kindness towards all human beings, deserving or otherwise.  Yitzchak differed so fundamentally from his father that Avimelekh was unimpressed.  Though he (or his father who bore the same title "Avimelekh") had suffered the consequences of mistreating Avraham, until he came to recognize his greatness, Avimelekh was not intimidated by Yitzchak.  Ultimately, however, Avimelekh came to recognize that "the Lord was with you," that God came to Yitzchak's side and assisted him just as He had accompanied Avraham, and at that point Avimelekh acknowledged Yitzchak as Avraham's spiritual heir.  Despite their differences in character and approach, both achieved spiritual greatness and earned special divine protection.  It was at that point that Avimelekh chose to seek a truce with Yitzchak.


            In a sense, this question surrounding Yitzchak's status underlies the entire narrative presented in this parasha regarding Avraham's wells.  The Pelishtim had stuffed the wells dug by Avraham until Yitzchak's servants dug them anew, at which point the Pelishtim claimed rights to them.  These quarrels over the wells of Avraham perhaps reflect the question over the continuation of Avraham's legacy.  The Pelishtim argued that Avraham's spiritual legacy died with Avraham the person; the "waters" he had discovered through his teaching and influence can no longer continue, as Avraham had left no successor.  The "stuffing" of the wells thus represents the rejection of Avraham's teachings.  Yitzchak had to struggle to prove that despite the differences between him and his father, he is legitimately the one to "dig anew" Avraham's "wells," that Avraham's legacy can and must be perpetuated even after his death, by his more reticent and rigid son.  The story concludes with the Pelishtim's recognition of Yitzchak as Avraham's heir, that Avraham's legacy indeed continues with Yitzchak, and that the influence of a great, pioneering leader can be felt even many generations after the leader's passing, despite the differences between him and his successors.




            Towards the beginning of Parashat Toledot we read of Esav's "sale" of his birthright to Yaakov in exchange for food.  In narrating this incident, the Torah offers us a glimpse into Esav's thought-process as he agrees to this transaction: "Behold, I am going to do die; for what do I need the birthright?" (25:32).  The commentators offer different approaches in explaining Esav's intent in this remark.  Rashi explains this comment as a reference to the numerous and demanding laws governing the sacrificial service, the responsibility towards which were to fall on the shoulders of the eldest son.  Yaakov informed Esav of the many prohibitions involved in this ritual service, many of which are punishable by death.  Esav thus exclaims, "Behold, I am going to die!"  He feared his inability to maintain the strict standards entailed in the responsibilities of the birthright, and therefore gladly rid himself of this burden in exchange for Yaakov's stew.


            Rashi's reading of this verse should perhaps be understood in light of the phrase with which the Torah concludes this narrative: "Va-yivez Esav et ha-bekhora" ("Esav scorned the birthright" – 25:34).  In theory, one can interpret this clause in one of two ways.  First, one might suggest that in the spirit of the Aesopian "sour grapes," Esav denigrated the birthright in order to retroactively rationalize his sale of the birthright.  Recognizing that he forfeited an eternal privilege in exchange for momentary gratification, Esav convinced himself of the worthlessness of the birthright he had just squandered, thereby consoling himself for having made this decision.  Alternatively, however, the Torah here perhaps offers some clarification regarding the sale, informing us that Esav forfeited his firstborn privileges because he "scorned the birthright," meaning, because he did not afford it any value.  According to this reading, this verse should be understood to mean, "This all happened because Esav scorned the birthright."  This appears to be Rashi's intent in his commentary to this verse: "The Torah testified to his sinfulness, in that he scorned the service of the Almighty."  Rashi seems to explain that the Torah here testifies to the fact that what had just transpired resulted from Esav's contempt for the birthright.


            This "testimony" of the Torah concerning Esav's squandering of the birthright sheds light on Rashi's earlier comments, regarding Esav's fear upon hearing of the responsibilities associated with the status of firstborn.  The Torah here instructs that excusing oneself from a certain task that appears too daunting and demanding effectively amounts to disregarding the importance of that task.  The attitude of "It's too hard for me" often results from a lack of appreciation for the value of the given undertaking.  A person who understands the importance of a task will be prepared to accept the challenges involved and commit himself to confronting them successfully.  Esav explained his preference on the basis of his fear of the rigorous standards he would have to meet as firstborn, but the Torah testified that he in truth "scorned the birthright."  Had he afforded this privilege the value it deserves, he would have accepted the difficult challenges involved, rather than flee from them.


(Based in part on Rav Moshe Feinstein's comments in Kol Ram, vol. 2)




            Much has been written about the legal mechanics of Esav's "sale" of his birthright to Yaakov, as told at the beginning of Parashat Toledot.  Specifically, writers have discussed the halakhic viability of this transaction in light of the rule of davar she-lo ba le-olam, that a person cannot legally sell an object that he has yet to own.  The most common example of a davar she-lo ba le-olam is a case of one who sells the fruits to be produced by his tree.  Since the fruits do not as yet exist, the sale is not binding.  Seemingly, the inheritance privileges of the birthright fall into this category of davar she-lo ba le-olam, and thus the validity of such a sale seems questionable.


            The Rivash (Rabbi Yitzchak Ben Sheshet Perfet, Algiers, 1326-1407), in a famous responsum (328), asserted that the rule of davar she-lo ba le-olam did not apply before Matan Torah.  Only after the Torah was given did it become impossible to sell possessions that one has yet to receive, and therefore Esav could, indeed, sell the privileges of his birthright.


            The Netziv, in his Herchev Davar, hinges this issue on a debate among the Rishonim concerning davar she-lo ba le-olam.  The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (66b) establishes (according to the accepted view, of Rav Nachman) that if a person sells fruits that have yet to grow, the seller can rescind the sale, but if in the meantime fruits grow and the buyer takes and partakes of the fruit, he need not compensate the seller, even if the seller chooses to rescind the sale.  Rabbenu Tam explained this halakha to mean that in truth, the sale of a davar she-lo ba le-olam is an effective legal transaction, but with a provision allowing the seller to retract his decision to sell.  According to other Rishonim, however, the sale is not valid, but the buyer is not required to repay the seller for the fruits because there is presumed mechila (waiving of rights on the fruits) until the seller expresses his desire not to proceed with the transaction.


            According to Rabbenu Tam's view, the Netziv explains, we need not resort to the Rivash's theory, that the law of davar she-lo ba le-olam did not apply before Matan Torah.  We could easily claim that for this reason Yaakov asked Esav to make an oath, promising that he would never retract his decision to sell the birthright.  Since the transaction is valid but with the seller reserving the right to retract, Yaakov simply had to secure an oath from Esav, and the sale would then be permanently binding.  According to the other view, however, the sale is not binding at all, and we must therefore resort to the Rivash's claim that the laws of davar she-lo ba le-olam had not yet come into effect during the time of Yaakov and Esav.




            In the beginning of Parashat Toledot we read that Yitzchak was forty years of age when he married Rivka.  Rashi, in his commentary, writes that Yitzchak was thirty-seven years old at the time of the akeida, when God had instructed Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak upon an altar, and Yitzchak married three years later.  Rivka, Rashi claims (based on the Midrash), was born at the time of the akeida, and was but three years old when she married Yitzchak.  Chazal reached this conclusion on the basis of the verses following the akeida narrative, which tell that Avraham was informed of the birth of children and grandchildren to his brother, Nachor, including Rivka, the daughter of Nachor's son Betuel.  According to the Midrash's reading, as Rashi here writes, Rivka was born at the time of the akeida, and she was thus but three years old when she married.


            Based on this and other passages elsewhere in Rashi's commentary, we can determine Rivka's age when she passed away.  (Unlike with regard to Sara, the Torah makes no clear mention of Rivka's age at the time of her death.)  In his commentary to Parashat Vayishlach (35:8), Rashi cites the view of Bereishit Rabba (81:5) that Yaakov was informed of Rivka's death during the period when he resided near Shekhem after his return from Padan Aram (where he had married and worked for his father-in-law, Lavan).  We can thus determine Rivka's age at her passing by calculating the number of years that transpired until Yaakov's residence near Shekhem.  The Torah tells that Yitzchak was sixty years old at Yaakov's birth (25:26), and thus according to Rashi, Rivka was twenty-three years of age at that time (thirty-seven years younger than Yitzchak).  Commenting on the final verse of Parashat Toledot, Rashi writes (based on the Gemara in Masekhet Megila 17a) that Yaakov fled from his brother at the age of sixty-three.  He then spent fourteen years studying Torah before traveling to Padan Aram, where he spent twenty years with Lavan (see 31:38).  He then returned to Canaan and spent nearly two years in Sukkot before settling outside Shekhem (see Rashi, 33:17; Masekhet Megila 17a).  Thus, thirty-six years transpired from the time Yaakov fled from home – at the age of sixty-three – until Rivka's death.  This amounts to ninety-nine years since Yaakov's birth, in which case Rivka was one hundred and twenty-two years of age at her death.


            As noted by several writers, this conclusion runs in opposition to a comment of the Sifrei in Devarim (357), which writes that Rivka lived the same number of years as her great-grandson, Levi's son Kehat.  Now the Torah writes explicitly in Sefer Shemot (6:18) that Kehat passed away at the age of one hundred and thirty-three.  According to the Sifrei, then, Rivka died at an age eleven years older than she did according to Rashi.


            Apparently, the Sifrei disagreed with one of the several assumptions mentioned above concerning the chronology of events.  Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi claims that the Sifrei did not accept the Midrash's assertion that Rivka passed away during the period of Yaakov's residence near Shekhem.  Indeed, the Torah (35:8) makes reference only to the death of Devora, Rivka's nursemaid, and the Midrash reads the verse as implying that Yaakov learned as well of his mother's passing at that point.  It should be noted that Rashi cites this comment of the Midrash as an additional, secondary reading of the verse, clearly suggesting that this is not the universally accepted view.


            A different, lesser known work on Rashi's commentary, Eved Shelomo by Rabbi Moshe Gabai, claims that the Sifrei denied the fact that Rivka was only three years of age at the time of her marriage to Yitzchak.  The Sifrei instead held that she was eleven years older, fourteen, which far better accommodates the description of her graciousness towards Avraham's servant and her ability to draw water for ten thirsty camels.