The Language Of Covenantal Transmission


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:10 p.m.
Torah: Gen. Gen. 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7
Havdalah: 5:10 p.m.

Parashat Toldot is one of the classic “transition” narratives of the Torah; transition in the sense that the narrative is a case study in how the Covenant was transmitted from one generation to another. The core of the narrative [outlined in Genesis 27], is Isaac’s covenantal blessing of Jacob. The story, about Isaac, Esau and Jacob, is about clear and keen perception — Rebecca’s—and, more to the point, Isaac’s lack of perception. Blind Isaac.

The words used in our text tell us all we need to know about the message and provide the key to understanding the narrative. Rabbi David Silber notes that in Chapter 27 the story, and the underlying message of our entire parasha, hinges on our understanding of two words: “lech” and “kach,” two Hebrew commands in the jussive-imperative: “Go!” and “Take!”

Where in fact have we heard these words recently? Recall, a couple of weeks ago in Vayera [Gen. 22], in Akedat Yitzhak (the binding of Isaac), these two words — kach and lech, take and go — dominate the chapter. God’s instructions to Abraham revolve around these two words: “Kach ‘et bincha” (take your son) … v’lech lecha el eretz ha’Moriah” (and go to Moriah). Subsequent verses: “Vayelech el hamakom… Vayikach Avraham et atsei ha`olah…” (Abraham went to the place – Moriah — and took the wood for the sacrifice). Later in the chapter, the angel calls to Abraham: “Don’t do it!” Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees the ram. “Vayelech Avraham vayikach et ha’ayil” (Abraham went and took the ram) and brought the covenantal sacrifice. Note that every covenantal moment is accompanied by some kind of sacrificial expression.

Twice in Chapter 22 we have Abraham fulfilling God’s command with precisely these locutions of lech and kach. It is covenantal language.

What is this all about? That becomes clear in our parasha, Toldot.

What do the Abraham and Isaac narratives have in common? Indeed, in each there is some kind of sacrificial medium that permits the covenantal blessing to take place. But, as David Silber notes, there is a more basic dynamic at work. Given that what we have in Chapter 27, as in Chapter 22, is a “transfer-story” (the transmittal of the Covenant), what we would expect to find, as well, in the Isaac narrative with Esau (the favored son) would be language something along the lines of “And Isaac said to Esau, ‘kach!’ and ‘lech!’” That would be language common to the themes of the two stories, namely the transmittal of a covenantal blessing. But Isaac in his instructions to Esau uses every conceivable word but these two. Instead of lech, Isaac commands Esau “tzei!” (Go out!) Instead of kach, he uses “sa’na’” and “havi’ah li” (Bring to me). In Isaac’s interaction with Esau the covenantal language is, most deliberately, missing.

Continue the narrative. After Esau leaves, Rebecca — who has been eavesdropping—first repeats to Jacob the precise command, paraphrased in the same language that Isaac gave Esau: “Tzei” and “Sa’na” and “havia li.” She then, in an intensely dramatic, deeply moving, verse [Gen. 27:8-9] instructs Jacob in the covenantal language: “V`atah, b’ni, shema b’koli … lech-na el-hatzon, v’kach li misham” (And now, my son, heed me … Go to the flock and take for me from it). It is lech and kach! No accident, no coincidence, since earlier Rebecca specifically repeated the Esau-instruction in its precise language. No coincidence that Rebecca, in instructing Jacob, uses the covenantal language from the Akedah.

When Jacob hears this command, he expresses his reluctance: “It will bring a curse, not a blessing, on me.” Rebecca, however, “gets it” —“Allai kil’latcha, bini” (Your curse, my son, is upon me). Rebecca concludes with the absolutely crucial iteration [Gen. 27:13]: “Ach shema bikoli (obey me), lech v’kach li” (Go, and take for me). Rebecca’s speech begins and ends with lech and kach. And guess what the very next two words are? “Vayelech vayikach” (And [Jacob] went and took).

The text here is careful and it is precise. The text is talking Covenant, and it is the “Go” and “Take” locution that tells us the meaning of the narrative.

The fact that Rebecca has the classic language of the transmittal of the covenantal blessing means that she “gets it” in a way that blind Isaac never can. Isaac simply cannot articulate the words crucial to the covenantal transfer because he does not understand what he possesses. But (and here is the tension in the narrative that cries out for resolution) Rebecca understands it and wants to give it to Jacob, the son who is reluctant to accept it. However, she has no power to convey the blessing. Only Isaac has that power. Rebecca is expressing that which she understands, and she explains it for us: “This, my son, is the ultimate blessing. This is the blessing that brings us closer to God’s purpose in Creation. This is the connection to the Brit bein-Hab’tahrim, the Abrahamic Covenant of the Pieces.”

The true blessing is not merely about blessing a son; the true blessing is the covenantal transmission. 

Jerome Chanes, author of four books on Jewish public affairs, history, and arts and letters, is senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center. His current project is a book on Israeli theater.