Dedicated in loving memory of Kathleen Rochel KleinForever in our hearts, Jeff and Deborah Berg

Essay Toldos
Why Deceive Your Husband?
How Mother Rebecca Initiated the Outreach Revolution

My Fellow…

Martin Lewis converts and becomes a priest.

He gives his first Mass in front of a number of high ranking priests who came for the occasion. At the end of the new priest's sermon, a cardinal goes up to congratulate him.

"Pastor Lewis," he said, "That was very well done, you were just perfect. But next time, please don't start your sermon with, "My Fellow Goyim..."

The Blessings

Isaac grows old and his eyes become dim. He expresses his desire to bless his beloved son Esau before he dies. While Esau goes off to hunt for his father's favorite food, Rebecca – the mother -- dresses Jacob in Esau's clothes, covers his arms and neck with goatskins to simulate the feel of his hairier brother, prepares a similar dish and sends Jacob to his father with the food.

Jacob receives his father's blessings for "the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land" and mastery over his brother. Jacob, dressed in Esau's clothes, has taken Esau's blessing[1].

The absurdities of this story are numerous. One question cannot be ignored: Is this the proper way for a woman to behave, to contrive a scheme to outsmart her husband's planning? If Rebecca had a good reason as to why Esau was undeserving of his father's blessings, why couldn't she communicate it directly to Isaac? Why couldn't Rebecca "follow" the glorious old tradition of Jewish wives who commonly explain to their husbands how wrong they are?

Indeed, Rebecca had a good argument against granting the blessings to Esau, one that Isaac would certainly understand. The Bible attests that Jacob was "a wholesome man, a dweller of the tents of study," in contrast to his twin-brother Esau, who is described as a "skilled hunter, a man of the field[2]." Rebecca favors Jacob for good and just reasons. Esau -- the hunter, the man who "despised his birthright" and had sold it for a dish of lentils (3) [3]-- was clearly a bodily and material human being, not destined to be the faithful follower of an invisible, transcendent G-d. The Abrahamic covenant must surely pass through Jacob, the "wholesome man, a dweller in the tents."

Jacob's descendants became the nation of Israel, who granted the world the vision of ethical monotheism; while Esau fathered the Edomite nation and ultimately the Roman civilization with its culture of ruthless power and great material achievement[4].

So why would Rebecca not share this insight with her husband, instead of manipulating the situation?

The Future

Much ink has been spilled on the subject. Today, let me share with you a moving idea by one of the great Chassidic masters of Jewish thought, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Rebbe of Ger[5]. (He says it in two lines, but I will try to explain his idea.)

Rebecca, he suggests, knew that Jacob’s grandchildren may one day strip themselves of their grandfather’s garments, and don the cloths of Esau. The matriarch of Israel was aware that the day will come when the Jew might be compelled to replace Jacob’s dress with Esau’s: Inside he will be Jewish, but on the outside he will seek to appear like Esau.

Rebecca understood – as only a mother could understand – the confusion and ambivalence that might consume her descendants following thousands of years of a tumultuous history, singular in the annals of any people. Rebecca appreciated the identity crisis of the Jew in the modern era, craving to integrate, sometimes even assimilate, among the other nations and cultures.

Rebecca could have persuaded her husband to grant the blessings directly and straightforwardly to Jacob. But then, these powerful spiritual energies would have been transmitted to the Jacob of old, the Jacob who looked like Jacob from within and without; the wholesome Jacob, the dweller in tents. How about – thought Mother Rebecca – the Jacob who would one day in history become entrenched in the glittering embrace of secularism, and appear like Esau, would he or she be lost to the blessing? Would he or she become disconnected from our people? Would this completely modern and secular Jew belong any less to Torah and to our faith?

Rebecca knew the answer: No way! They too are an essential part of the blessing and the covenant; even the Jacob who looks just like Esau is an integral part of the covenant, of the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  

The moment Rebecca dressed her son Jacob in Esau’s clothes to receive Isaac’s blessings, she insured that the spark of Judaism, the essence of the Jewish soul, the fountain of Jewish faith, would remain embedded in the heart of every single Jew forever, even the Jew that so many others dismiss as merely an Esau.

The Bear

It reminds me of the anecdote about the atheist who was walking through the woods.

“What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!” he said to himself.

As he was walking alongside the river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look. He saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge towards him.

He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the bear was closing in on him. He continued to run, then looked over his shoulder again.  The bear was even closer. The atheist tripped and fell onto the ground.  He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear was right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw and raising his right paw to strike him.

At that instant the atheist cried out, “Oh my God!”

Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent.

As a bright light shone upon the man, a Voice came out of the sky. “You deny My existence for all these years, teach others I don’t exist and even credit creation to cosmic accident.  Do you expect Me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?”

The atheist looked directly into the light. “It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a believer now, but perhaps you could make the BEAR a believer?”

“Very well,” said the Voice.

The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed.  And the bear dropped his right paw, closed his eyes, meditated for a few minutes, and then spoke slowly:

“Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu melech haolam hamotzi lechem min haaretz."

You see, sometimes you never know what lurks behind the bear-garment. Externally he may be dressed a bear, but if you listen carefully, you might hear the “Baruch Atah Hashem…”

Jewish Traitors

This above Chassidic insight is subtly expressed in a perplexing Talmudic interpretation on this story of Jacob dressed up like Esau to obtain his father’s blessings.

"Isaac smelled his clothing," the Torah relates[6], “and proclaimed: ‘See, the aroma of my son is like the aroma of the field blessed by G-d.’" Then Isaac began giving the blessings.

The Talmud[7] focuses our attention to the fact that the biblical term used for “his clothing” (begaduv) could also be pronounced and translated as “his traitors” (bogdav). The Hebrew term for a garment, beged, can also ber pronounced “boged,” which means a traitor[8]. This is because garments eclipse and “betray” a man’s inner persona. A wealthy billionaire can dress like a schnorer, and conversely the poor man can dress up as an aristocrat. Since in the Torah scroll there are no vowels, you can read the story as “Isaac smelled his traitors and proclaimed: ‘See, the aroma of my son is like the aroma of the field blessed by G-d.’"

Isaac, the Talmud is stating, smelled the traitors of the Jewish people and enjoyed their fragrance. He was now inspired to bless the progenitor of these traitors, Jacob.

This is deeply disturbing. What is so pleasant about the “aroma of traitors?” And why would they inspire Isaac to bless their grandfather Jacob? The great souls and spiritual giants that would emerge from Jacob’s seed throughout history did not suffice to entice Isaac to confer the blessings upon the wearer of the garments; it was only the traitors that moved him so deeply. Why?

The Temple Thief

The Midrash[9] relates a tale illustrating the nature of the Jewish “traitors” which Isaac sniffed. The episode takes place in Jerusalem, in the year 70 CE, during the Roman conquest of the Holy City and the destruction of the second Holy Temple.

When the Romans entered the incredibly large and intricately designed Temple, they did not know their way around nor did they have knowledge of the multitude of chambers and compartments containing valuables. They needed a good tour guide.

One Jew volunteered. His name was Yosef Meshisa, and he was the quintessential traitor, the man ready to sell his soul, his people, to the cruel enemy just to protect his own skin. The Roman legions did not remain unappreciative: they promised him that as payment for the “tour” he could take whatever he wished from the Holy Temple as his own.

Yosef Meshisa entered the spiritual epicenter of the universe and fetched for himself the menorah, the splendid golden candelabra situated in the inner chamber of the Temple, one of the holiest articles used in this Holy Temple.

This, we ought to understand, tells us something about the nature of this guy Yosef Meshisa. While Jerusalem was engulfed in flames, Jews were being massacred by the hundreds of thousands, and the Temple about to be destroyed, this man had the audacity, the chutzpah, to join the enemy ranks, assist the Romans and remove the menorah from the Temple for his personal exploit!

Yet upon exiting, the Romans refused to let him walk away with the menorah. “It is inappropriate for a simple man like yourself to have such a precious item in your home,” they said. "Go back and take something else, anything else, just not the menorah,” the Romans instructed.

But, lo and behold, Yosef Meshisa refused to re-enter the Holy Temple to steal another item. “It is not enough,” he proclaimed, “that I angered my G-d and defiled His Temple one time; but you want me to do it a second time too? No way!"

The Romans tortured this Jew brutally. They placed his body on a work table used by carpenters and perforated his body with nails, until he died. The last words on his lips were: "Woe unto me! I have angered my Creator.” [10]

The Mechanism of Transformation

What happened to this man? At first he has fallen to lowest of the low, ready to assist the brutal enemy of the Jewish people for his own financial gain; and suddenly, he is ready to give his life in order not to re-enter the Temple and steal another holy item? Whence this sudden transformation? What happened in between the two episodes that radically changed this individual from a lowly opportunist to a grand hero?

The answer: He walked into the Beis Hamikdash (the Holy Temple)! And he held onto the menorah! He entered into a space of holiness, where the presence of G-d was felt and experienced. When he entered into the environment, the atmosphere, of the home of G-d, where the divine presence was manifest, he felt for the first time in his life his neshamah, his pintele yid, his truest essence. Suddenly, he was not Yosef Meshisa, the collaborator of Rome; now he was Yosef Meshisa, a Jew, a collaborator of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Reb Akiva. He was part of an unbreakable chain of 4000 years!

Don’t be Fooled by the Garments

These are the “traitors,” the Midrash says, that Isaac smelled when Jacob entered into the room—as they generated an extraordinary spiritual aroma.

We can now see the brilliant correlation between the “clothe” and the “traitors,” which Jacob smells. Jacob, dressed in Esau’s clothes, represented at that moment the Jews who might look and behave just like Esau. The Yosef Meshisa’s of history—men and women who might betray their people and faith, in blatant or subtle forms. And yet at the moment of truth, their inner Jewish soul would emerge in its full fragrance. The blessings of Isaac were inspired particularly by these Jews, because they are the ones who demonstrate the truth that Jewishness and G-dliness is at the core of a Jew, entrenched in his or her very DNA[11].

In a Shtible

Lest one claim that this power is unique to the Beis HaMikdash, to the Jerusalem Holy Temple, lest one claim that today there exists nothing comparable which can so instantaneously turn an alienated individual into a passionate Jewish soul, I will tell you a story. It is about a Jew named Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), an influential Jewish theologian and philosopher in Germany, recorded in his book, The Star of Redemption.

Franz Rosenzweig was a totally secular and assimilated Jew. He was a prolific author and a great philosopher, but living in Germany in an age when modern philosophy and science presented themselves as a rational alternative to the sham of religion. In 1913 he was preparing to convert to Christianity.

It was Yom Kippur night. October 11, 1913. Franz Rosenzweig, then 27 years old and already one of the brilliant philosophers of his time, walked into a Berlin Synagogue with the intention of making that his final act as a Jew. After those 24 hours were over, he would enter the church where his sponsor, Rudolf Ehrenberg, awaited him for baptism to Christianity. Alone and unknown to anyone that Yom Kippur Eve, the prospective convert went to Berlin, to a shtible filled with pious, observant and sincere Jews.

And something happened to him. Franz Rosenzweig walked into the synagogue just to see what it was like, out of curiosity. He walked out of there a Baal Teshuvah, a "returnee" to Judaism. He became a fully engaged Jew. Kol Nidre – and the subsequent 24 hours – where enough to completely transform this young Jew. After Neilah, he wrote a long letter to the cousin who was to sponsor his baptism. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am remaining a Jew.”

Now, this was not in America in 2013 where it is a common phenomenon for Jews to become Baalei Teshuvah, or to begin celebrating Mitzvos and re-embracing the heritage of their grandparents, but in Germany in 1913, where it was almost unheard of for a secular Jew to become Torah observant.

What did it? What was it? It was the same as with Yosef Meshisa. He was exposed to Kedusha, to holiness, to the reality of the sacred. A person who is totally secular, or even anti-religious, or even a person who is prepared to adopt another religion, who goes to a shul -- not to pray and not to participate, but merely to observe... Someone who is merely exposed to such a place of holiness, on such a night of holiness -- that can do something to a person's soul. It can change a person. 

Because holiness, kedusha, is real. G-dlioness is real. Torah is real. When a Jew says “amen yehay shmay raba” with his whole heart it is real. Through his exposure to a moment of    G-dliness, Rozenzweig became a different person. This does not require exposure to the Beis HaMikdash. It just takes a minyan of honest Jews praying sincerely to the Master of the World. That can change a man forever.

When Rebecca donned the clothes of Esau on her son Jacob, she ensured this truth for all of eternity. Even if you encounter an Esau-like Jew, remember that he or she is really a Jacob, only dressed like Esau.

At that moment, Rebecca planted the seeds of the work known today as “kiruv” or “shlechus”—the towering vision for our generation articulated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe: “Go out of yourself and humbly peer into the heart of another Jew, and you will encounter the flame and sanctity of Jacob. You will help him ignite his flame, so that he can in turn ignite other latent flames, until the entire world is aflame with the light of G-d.”

Today, the first day of Kislev, we commemorated the yartzeit of Rabi Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg and the other Jewish men and women murdered in Mumbai, India. Gabi and Rivky turned their home and heart into a place where thousands of Jews, from every walk of life, felt at home. You see, Rivkah Holtzberg carried the torch handed down to her by her great-great-great-grand mother and namesake — Rivkah our Matriarch, who dressed up her son in Esau’s clothes. She too breathed and lived this truth that beneath the clothes of every Esau lay a holy Jacob. May their memory serve as an inspiration and invigoration to all of us. 

[1] Genesis ch. 27.

[2] Ibid. 25:27.

[3] ibid. 25:34.

[4] Esau lived in the ancient country of Edom, or Idumaea, southeast of Israel. The relationship between Edom and Rome is a frequent theme in rabbinic literature and explained in Otzar Yisrael (Eisenstein), under the entry of Edom.

[5] Chedushei Harim Parshas Toldos, by the first Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir of Ger (1799-1866). The explanation is quoted in the Kehos Chumash in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but I have not seen this explanation in any of the Rebbe’s published works (though the general theme is found frequently in the Rebbe’s works.) I would be thankful to any reader who would alert me to the source.

[6] Genesis 27:27.

[7] Sanhedrin 37a. See there the beautiful story about how Reb Zeira would pray for Jewish sinners.

[8] It is interesting to note that according to the system of ATBASH, the three letters of the Hebrew word “begged” are interchanged with the three letters of the Hebrew word “sheker.” 

[9] Midrash Rabah Bereishis 65:22 – on this verse. It is clear that the Midrash is basing itself on the above Talmudic interpretation (Or Hatorah Toldos p. 294).

[10] See Midrash ibid. for a second story on these lines about a man named Yakoom Eish Tzeroros.

[11] Similar to the fact the Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi demonstrated the true essence of the Jew by reflecting on the martyrdom of the most light-headed of Jews throughout history (Tanya chapters 18-19.)

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Why Deceive Your Husband? - How Our Matriarch Rebecca Initiated the Outreach Revolution