HomeFebruary 2012Torah for Today

Torah for Today

Every day we hear about dysfunctional families, and can even witness their behavior on reality TV.  But we don’t have to stray far from our heritage to find dysfunctional family members.  Let’s consider our ancestors.  Perhaps one of the most dysfunctional families is scripted right in the Torah.  Isaac, first abused by his half-brother and nearly murdered by his father, is then tricked by his wife, Rebecca, and son, Jacob, in obtaining his brother Esau’s birthright.  Jacob will later be known as Israel, and an entire people will bear his name.  Are all later generations tainted by Rebecca and Jacob’s actions?
For the past four years, University Synagogue in conjunction with the American Jewish University, has presented “trials” of various Biblical characters in an attempt to both educate audiences and engage people with the great stories from the Torah.  Once again an audience is invited to witness the trial, serve as jury and decide whether the defendants, Rebecca and Jacob, are guilty or not.
Charges will be brought against mother and son in an extraordinary afternoon of learning and live courtroom dramatics as the audience grapples with the eternally relevant issues of Jewish ethics and morality.  Esteemed legal minds Erwin Chemerinsky (dean of UCI Law School, representing Rebecca and Jacob) and Laurie Levenson (professor at Loyola Law School representing the People) will argue the case in front of the Honorable Justice William Bedsworth of the California Court of Appeals.
Following the trial, a panel will discuss the moral, ethical and philosophical themes of the story that are relevant to our lives today.  “The panel is an important part of the program,” said Eric Blum, chair of the event.  “Each year we include new scholars or rabbis in the discussion.” This year Rabbi Emily Feigenson will join Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue on the panel.  Rabbi Feigenson served as rabbi at Leo Baeck Synagogue Los Angeles and is currently chaplain at LA’s Harvard-Westlake School.  She is the editor of Beginning the Journey: Towards a Women’s Commentary on Torah, and recipient of an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College.
“The overall purpose of these trials each year is not only to teach Torah, but to get a look at the eternal views of right and wrong that we still face today,” said Rabbi Rachlis.
What exactly were the crimes of Jacob and Rebecca?  After 20 years of marriage, Isaac’s prayers are answered when Rebecca conceives.  However, her pregnancy is exceedingly difficult due to the children struggling in her womb and she asks God “why this is happening to me” (Gen. 25:21).  She is told that she is bearing twins who represent opposing nations, and that “the elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23).
Jewish legends say Jacob and Esau tried to kill each other in the womb; and that every time Rebecca went near an idol’s altar, Esau would get excited in the womb.  But when she would go near a place where the Lord was worshipped, Jacob would get excited, implying the inherent difference in their natures.
At birth, the first child to emerge from the womb is ruddy and hairy.  He is named Esau.  The second child emerges grasping his brother’s heel, as if to pull him back and assert his own right to be born first.  He is named Jacob.  As the twins grow up, their differences become apparent.  Jacob becomes “a dweller in tents” (a herdsman and also one who follows the family tradition) and Esau becomes “a man of the fields” (probably a farmer), but also an avid hunter who roams far from the family dwellings.  Isaac preferred the older twin, Esau, a real man’s man and an excellent hunter.  Rebecca begged to differ.  She loved Jacob, the quiet one, the one who thought before he acted.
Like so many siblings in a family, Jacob and Esau were very different from each other in their personality and tastes.  And as is sometimes the case, each parent had a “favorite” child.
When Isaac is old and blind, he decides to bestow his blessing on Esau.  He sends Esau out to the field to kill and cook for him a piece of savory game, before blessing him.  Rebecca overhears this exchange and, believing that Jacob is more deserving of the blessing, conspires with him to obtain the blessing by deception.  When Jacob fears Isaac’s curse, she declares herself fully responsible for any guilt, saying: “My son, let the curse fall on me.  Just do what I say.”
While Rebecca was instrumental in Jacob’s winning the blessing of his father Isaac,  albeit by deception, she also wisely saved Jacob from the wrath of his brother Esau, advising Jacob to flee to her brother Laban when Esau sought Jacob’s death.  In rabbinical tradition, she is considered a prophetess and a woman of great virtue.
Was Rebecca was guilty?  Even though she knew God’s promise that Jacob would be blessed, she still tried to bring this about by a deceptive scheme.  She tried to get the right thing in the wrong way.  Was Jacob was guilty? He went along with his mother’s scheme and became a deceiver and a liar.
It is a moot point whether the Genesis narrator approves or disapproves of Jacob’s subterfuges in wrestling the birthright and the blessing from his brother.  The prophet Hosea certainly indicts Jacob for “supplanting” his brother and in subsequent Jewish commentary on the narrative, there are echoes of disapproval of Jacob’s stratagems, if not of his right to both the birthright and the blessing.
On the other hand, there are many attempts to defend Jacob as acting honorably, given the circumstances in which he found himself.  We must remember that in our tradition, Jacob is seen as representing the Jewish people.  Attacks on the character of the patriarch are often seen as displaying anti-Jewish sentiment.  Rashi also explains Jacob’s action by pointing out that Esau despised his birthright.  Was it therefore acceptable for Jacob to take it from him?  Can such deception ever be excused?  What could possibly be the reason for this behavior?  These are the issues to be addressed at this year’s “Trial.”
“The continuing response to this program testifies to the fact the people are interested in studying Torah, but in an unusual way,” said Rabbi Rachlis.
“Every year we try to reach out to the entire community, because it really is an exciting program that never disappoints,” added Blum.  There is great talent on the bimah addressing great philosophical questions that are both entertaining and thought provoking.  “We have never had fewer than 550 in the audience,” Blum commented.  And there’s always room for more!
You will have your chance to be part of this audience and to voice your opinion on the guilt or innocence of Jacob and Rebecca on Sunday, February 26, from 1 to 3:30 p.m., when they are tried by a jury of their descendants.
For tickets and more information, call (949) 553-3535.

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