Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban to Toledot: Evil and Good We Do and Do Not Recognize

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Toledot opens with Yitzhak’s prayer on behalf of Rivkah, Rivkah’s difficult pregnancy, and then the challenges of having two sons take contrasting paths one good and one not. Comments of Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban draw our attention to the delicate choices to be made in building lives, and how those choices determine whom we become.

Rivkah’s Pregnancy

The Torah describes Yitzhak’s praying for Rivkah, 25;21, with the verb va-ye’tar. Onkelos translates it as ve-tzali, prayed, an Aramaic word he uses in 26;25 for the Hebrew va-yikra be-shem Hashem, he called out in the Name of Gd, in 20;17 for the Hebrew va-yitpallel, when Avraham prays for Avimelekh, and in Shemot 15;25 for Moshe’s crying out to Gd, va-yitz’ak.

In a parsha where I am drawing attention to how blurry life can be, Onkelos saw little need (or wrote for an audience who saw little need) for exactness of synonyms.

Onkelos also blurred Rivkah’s response to her pregnancy. The verse says she went lidrosh et Hashem, for Onkelos she sought ulfan, a word he also uses to translate the Torah’s description of Ya’akov as a yoshev ohalim, one who sits in tents and studies. Theoretically, then, she might have gone to seek help from scholars; yet later in the parsha, when she reassures Ya’akov he will not suffer for the ruse to extract the blessing from Yitzhak, Onkelos reads her as saying she had been told a prophecy that he would get the blessing.

Onkelos evinced no need for exactness on how types of prayer differ, nor about the specific line between study and prophecy.

Ramban combined those as well. While Rashi thought Rivkah sought prophetic guidance on her pregnancy (and received it), Ramban understood lidrosh to here connote prayer.

Where Evil Lurks and Stands Straight Up

At several junctures of the parsha, evil plays a role we might have missed without having our attention drawn to it.

The Lasting Damage of Evil: Rivkah

Rashi thought both Yitzhak and Rivkah prayed for children, 25;21, although Gd answers Yitzhak’s prayer. For Rashi, the prayers of a tzaddik ben tzaddik, righteous child of a righteous person, are more easily successful than of a righteous person born to non-righteous parents.

The evil men do lives after them, indeed.

The Many Forms of Esav’s Evil

One of the sons she bears is evil, in ways more subtle than we might realize. When he marries at age forty, 26;34, Rashi read it as a show of imitating his father, who married at forty. His hypocritical tribute to virtue involved taking on a meaningless aspect of a virtuous person’s life.

Rivkah’s sending Ya’akov away to avoid Canaanite wives showed Esav he had chosen his own wives poorly. To rectify his error, he married a cousin, a daughter of Yishma’el. However, as Rashi notes in 28;9, he stays married to the old wives, showing he did not understand he could not change his life without freeing himself of his evil wives.

The last example comes earliest in the parsha; I left it for here because Ramban adds an element. Esav sells his birthright to Ya’akov, then denigrates it. Rashi says he was looking down on the service of Gd in general, because the birthright was meant to include the priestly service (originally, before the sin of the Golden Calf).

For Rashi, Esav’s evil was not—or not only—blatant, it took more insidious forms as well.

Esav’s reasoning for the sale, for Ramban, goes to the heart of the nature of evil: he thinks Esav could see only his hunger, the soup in that moment looming too large to notice anything else down the road. Ramban says it is characteristic of bad choices, the person taking the wrong path focuses the immediate, forgets to pay attention to the long term.

Indignantly Blind to His Missed Evil: Avimelekh

Rivkah may have known she started with a handicap [although I assume she also got credit for overcoming it]; Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, did not. After he spies on Yitzhak and realizes he and Rivkah are husband and wife, he complains about their trickery. In 26;10, he says kim’at shakhav ahad ha-am, it almost happened that one of the people raped Sarah.

Onkelos pointed the finger more clearly, reading “one of the people” to mean the greatest of them, Avimelekh himself, and thought kim’at, almost, meant kiz’er pun, he had just barely avoided it. The forcible taking of women was still alive among Pelishtim, just delayed, yet Avimelekh thought himself innocent, blamed Yitzhak for almost tripping him up. We can hurt ourselves with our obliviousness.

We can also hurt ourselves with our evil social circles. Esav’s wives are the example in our parsha, 26;35 describing them as a morat ruah, they made life bitter, for Yitzhak and Rivka. Onkelos and Rashi think it was deliberate. Later in the parsha, when we are told Yitzhak lost his sight as he aged, Rashi thinks the smoke from their idolatrous sacrifices might have caused it.

Nor Is It Easy to be Righteous

What Righteousness Cost Avraham

Hard as it can be to notice evil, extirpate it in its most subtle forms, the parsha is also strewn with reminders of the challenges of life for the righteous. On Yitzhak’s way to Gerar during a famine—the famine itself a challenge to the faith of the righteous, who could have complained about the trouble Gd was causing, as Rashi noted in Lekh Lekha—Gd promises to do well by Yitzhak, bless him with many descendants, in return for Avraham’s obedience and service.

One element of the service was Avraham’s having observed Gd’s hukkim, laws without an obvious rationale. Rashi notes these laws are those our evil inclination and the nations of the world throw in our faces as signs of irrationality. The righteous must do what Gd says even when they do not understand, even at the cost of being mocked or rejected.

While Rashi took Gd’s reference to Avraham’s adherence to Gd’s mishmeret, mitzvot, hukkim and torot to mean actions the Torah would later command the Jewish people, Ramban reads those words more simply. For him, Gd’s mishmeret means he asserted the truth of monotheism, a realization that obligated/forced/led Avraham to disagree publicly with those around him, dispute the pagans he knew, and work to bring many to Gd’s service.

For Avraham, Gd’s mitzvot were the commands he had received, to leave Haran for Canaan, expel Yishma’el from the house when Sarah demanded it, sacrifice Yitzhak. Hukkot were Gd’s paths, seeking to emulate Gd’s Attributes, such as being hanun ve-rahum (loosely, compassionate and merciful), acting with charity and justice. Torot were laws meant to continue beyond Avraham, the Noahide ones as well as circumcision.

Righteousness shapes a life significantly with or without the Torah, Ramban’s reading of Avraham’s life shows, leading him to remake himself in ways intuitive and not.

What Righteousness Cost Yitzhak

Rashi offered two more options than the possibility the smoke of Esav’s wives’ sacrifices dimmed Yitzhak’s sight, the angels’ tears at the time of the Akedah, or Gd’s taking his sight to pave the way for Ya’akov to receive the blessing.

In each option, Yitzhak’s spiritual greatness fosters his blindness. Whether his sensitivity to the evil of idolatrous sacrifice, his relevance to events in Heaven while he was bound to the altar, or his crucial role in bringing the blessing to Ya’akov, Yitzhak bore the cost of living in the spiritual realm.

The Cost of Righteousness: Rivkah

To help convince Yitzhak, Rivkah gave Ya’akov Esav’s clothing. While telling the story, 27;15 pauses to refer to Esav as “her elder son,” to Ramban, the verse’s way to call our attention to her extraordinary choice. Most mothers want their first-born to get more rights and privileges than later children (Ramban says, a motherly perspective I am not sure is true in our times).

Rivkah overcame her instincts because she knew Esav was evil and Ya’akov was not. A cost of righteousness, quelling our emotions in the name of right and wrong.

The Cost and Delicacy of Righteousness: Ya’akov

Yitzhak’s blessing to Ya’akov, 27;29, says those who curse him will be cursed, those who bless him will be blessed. Rashi notes Bil’am reversed the order, Bamidbar 24;9, and attributes the change to the different life circumstances of good and evil people. The evil start out with serenity and success, so Bil’am would have thought of “those who bless you” first, where the righteous begin with suffering, eventually granted serenity. (Rashi does not address the why, so neither will I).

Nor is Ya’akov’s righteousness secure or assured. To bless Esav, Yitzhak says, 27;40, ve-hayah ka’asher tarid, when you are aggrieved, you will be able to overthrow him. Onkelos and Rashi think such success will be possible for Esav only if Ya’akov’s descendants, the Jewish people, transgress the Torah.

Much of Ya’akov’s life (and other righteous people’s) will be difficult, a road to an eventual serenity, knowing Esav is always waiting in the wings, any slippage of righteousness an opening to their rising up out of their submission.

Toledot opens with Rivkah’s mothering two children whose contrasts take us into the challenges of evil and righteousness, paths for us to know to forsake despite their attractions or adopt despite their costs.

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