In the Hitchcock classic “Psycho,” we are treated to a grand misdirection. For the first half-hour of the film, we follow the story of Marion Crane, a bored and frustrated Phoenix secretary who steals $40,000 from her employer and hits the road to seek a new life. Turns out, Marion isn’t the main character after all; she is a vehicle for Hitchcock to introduce us to perhaps the director’s most memorable character: Norman Bates, a disturbed young man whose ghoulish fantasies lead him to a killing spree as he descends into complete madness.
Such a misdirection also occurs in this week’s Torah portion. Its first words are, “V’eileh toledot Yitzhak ben Avraham,” “These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham” (Gen 25:19), which would lead us to believe that these chapters will revolve around Isaac. Yet, in the very next verse, we are introduced to the real lead character of the story: Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, whom he marries when he is at the rather advanced age of 40.
Isaac’s life often reads like a carbon copy of his father’s. Like Abraham, during a famine he travels to the land of the Philistine king Avimelech and tries to pass off his wife as his sister. Like Abraham, Isaac becomes exceedingly rich; he digs wells where his father did; he forges treaties as his father did, which will allow him to live in relative peace.
Rebekah’s life, on the other hand, is anything but peaceful. Barren for 20 years, then found to be carrying twins, Rebekah cries out in anguish as the babies battle within her: “If this is so, why do I exist?” she asks of God, who replies that in her womb are two great nations battling for supremacy and that “the elder shall serve the younger.” It is to Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel – and not to Isaac, son of Abraham – that the secret of Jacob’s pre-eminence is revealed.
And so it is Rebekah, and not Isaac, who orchestrates the plan to make God’s word come true. It is she who oversees Jacob’s upbringing. It is she who directs him to dress like Esau, cook like Esau and present himself to his ailing, blind father as Esau in order to receive the first born’s blessing. It is she who then spirits Jacob away – away from his brother’s homicidal anger and toward her own family to find him a wife among them. The text tells us that Esau pledged to kill Jacob as soon as his father was dead and that “when Rebekah was told her elder son Esau’s words, she sent for her younger son.” “Who told her?” ask the rabbis in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (67:9). “Rabbi Haggai said in Rabbi Isaac’s name: The matriarchs were prophets, and Rebekah was one of the matriarchs.” By fulfilling God’s wishes, say the rabbis, “Rebekah merited that the 12 tribes should spring directly from her” (Bereshit Rabbah 63:6).
As Tamar Kadari, professor of midrash at Bar Ilan University, writes: “The midrash thereby transforms Rebekah from an individual character with a personal story into a symbol of the realization of God’s promise to Abraham. Through her, Isaac’s line would continue, and by her merit he would become a great and numerous nation that would go forth from Egypt and inherit the land of Canaan.”
Isaac’s line – toledot Yitzhak – is, then, actually Rebekah’s story. First she bears the pain of dual childbirth, then the pain of sending away her beloved Jacob, in order to fulfill her responsibility as prophet and her son’s ultimate divine destiny.
We Jewish women today may not merit the title of prophet. Yet, we find in Rebekah’s story – and in the rabbis’ own overwhelming admiration for her – that a life spent in fulfillment of God’s teaching merits respect from men and women alike. Whether it be in our roles as mothers, teachers, communal leaders or rabbis, we are responsible for preparing the minds and arousing the hearts of young Jews – a responsibility we have accepted with eagerness and passion since the time of our matriarchs.
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin leads Temple Beth Israel in Altoona. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.