When Rebecca and her son Jacob joined forces to take the birthright that should have gone to Rebecca’s other son, Jacob’s decidedly non-identical twin, Esau, what was that?
A crime? A straightforward working out of God’s will? A crime and at the same time a straightforward working out of God’s will? If it’s a crime, by whose law? Biblical law? Later Jewish law? American law?
And what about the personal relationships that drive all the actions in the story? The relationships between Rebecca, certainly the feistiest of the matriarchs, and her husband, Isaac? The relationships between each parent and each son? Between the brothers?
Are the women in the Bible forced to act more deviously than the men because they have less power? Is there more hidden power when it is worked in the shadows than in sunlight?
Do the ends justify the means? In this case? In some cases? Always? Ever?
So many questions! Luckily, there’s all night to answer them.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey plans to devote this year’s tikkun layl Shavuot — the learning that traditionally goes all through the night on Shavuot, but here will stop well before daybreak — to “The Trial of Rebecca and Jacob.”
The mother and son team are charged with “Grand Theft Blessings.” The victim is Esau.
“We will be exploring, in considerable detail, both the biblical narrative in which Jacob first wrests the birthright from Esau in return for the proverbial mess of pottage, and the later narrative in which he dresses up as his brother and tricks his blind father into giving him the blessing,” Rabbi Prouser said.
It’s an appropriate discussion for Shavuot, the time of our “national spiritual birth,” because Jacob is our eponymic founder — the name he later earned was Israel — “so what the Torah says about Israel goes to the heart of our national identity,” he said. The Bible is straightforward about its protagonists, later rabbinic whitewashing notwithstanding. Jacob is “an underdog, and also a heel.” Jacob was born clutching his brother’s heel, we are told, and his name, Yakov in Hebrew, says so. The word for heel, in Hebrew as in English, means both the body part and someone who is “a cad,” Rabbi Prouser said. “Jacob was a heel.”
Jacob and Rebecca will be represented by Deb Gaston and the prosecution will be led by Robert Rosenblith. Both are lawyers and members of Emanuel.
Ms. Guston, who grew up belonging to Emanuel — and so did her mother, Sheila Eckhaus Guston, when it was in Paterson — and now lives in Teaneck, specializes in adoption, estate planning, and related issues. “This is among other things an estate dispute,” she said. “It is about a birthright.”
She is comfortable defending the pair because “I think that sometimes difficult choices are be made to achieve the right outcome.” Also, she added, “as a lawyer I believe that everyone has the right to a defense, and I was asked to provide that defense.”
And there are genuine arguments to be made. ‘I think that it is interesting to ask questions about biblical stories, and about what our system of law and sense of morality today tell us about the circumstances. There probably are a lot of people who will look at the facts and think, ‘Gee, this is wrong. They shouldn’t have done it.’ And there are others who will look at it as a bigger-picture issue.
“If you can understand what happened and why it happened the way it happened, then you can put it in proper context, either in its time or in our time. I am going to be looking at what we think modern American law and sensitivities would say, but also try to put it into context for its time.”
Is it fair for one lawyer to represent both Rebecca and Jacob? Are their motivations and actions the same? Not necessarily, Ms. Guston said. In real life, here and now, they would not be represented by the same person. “One of them might have a defense that might make it seem as if the other is wrong.” Luckily, the stakes here are theoretical.
As they do so often — perhaps as they do almost always — relationships between people are at the core of dry property issues. “I see a lot of that in my law practice, where children believe they are entitled to inherit from their parents, and their parents feel obligations to certain children based on who is the oldest, who is the firstborn male. When you try to follow certain societal or cultural norms, you may feel that you are doing your duty, but maybe you are making bad choices, bad either for the people or for the community. And it always is possible that the outcome that results from your decision is not necessarily the one you were working toward or hoping for.
“When do you have the courage to say no? To say I don’t want to do it? When do you break a cycle?”
Robert Rosenblith of Upper Saddle River, the prosecutor, is a commercial litigator and a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney.
“I feel very strongly that Jacob and Rebecca did connive and abet, and in fact did steal the birthright,” he said.
“Jacob and Rebecca perpetrated this crime long before the Israelites were given the Ten Commandments at Sinai, but one of those commandments is ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ If you look at the Bible, starting with Eden, all the way through, you see the same nasty things that we see today.
“Brothers jealous of brothers, mothers favoring one child over another. In my view, the fathers in the Bible, all of them, were wusses. They were dominated by strong women who called the shots. Women did whatever they wanted to do. In this particularly case, it is clear to me that Jacob was his mother’s favorite son, and when it came down to the nitty gritty, Rebecca did not want Esau, whom she did not favor, to get any special benefit common at the time. So she connived with her son Jacob.
“Rebecca went to great lengths, and her son did not say, ‘Mom, this is wrong. I’m not going to do it.’ And Esau, contrary to what some people might think, was a nice guy. Not the brightest light on the lamppost, but a nice guy. And when he came in and said, ‘I’m hungry,’ that’s because he was hungry. And then his wussy little brother came in and offered food for the birthright.
“When you’re starving to death, your birthright doesn’t mean anything.”
He summed up. “I think that Jacob and Rebecca took advantage of an opportunity and perpetrated a horrible crime. It was a mother conniving with a son to steal something of benefit from another son. That’s my view.”
Adriana Wos-Mysliwiec, another lawyer, will be the presiding judge. She specializes in immigration, foreclosure defense, and related matters; she also brings special expertise to her role because she’s been both a prosecutor and a judge in the Central Municipal Court of Bergen County.
She also is Roman Catholic; her distance from the ways in which the Jewish world usually sees this story will provide her with the dispassion a good judge needs.
“I plan on having both attorneys give their opening statements, where they will set out their facts, and then I will question them as I would at a moot court competition,” Ms. Wos-Mysliwiec said. “I won’t be introducing facts that everyone knows” — the story’s in the text, and neither time nor attention are entirely unlimited — but as far as the rest of the discussion, “we have to see what the attorneys present.”
How will Ms. Wos-Mysliwiec approach the case — as a 21st-century American or as a jurist time-traveling from the distant past? “We can only see things through the eyes God gave us,” she said. “Looking at it pursuant to New Jersey law would be doing it in one particular way, and based on biblical approaches it is a completely different kettle of fish.” That kettle probably isn’t one either she or anyone else owns now. “We can discuss what is moral or immoral, but that is personal,” she continued. “We can outline the outer boundaries of morality, but this is the gray area. And of course it’s easy to say this is black and this is white, but it’s much harder with gray.”
She’s excited about this opportunity to look deeply into a question of law and morality. “Our lives are filled with day-to-day experiences, feeding everyone, taking care of the kids, running from meeting to meeting and experience to experience. Very rarely do we have the chance to do this, to ask ourselves deeper questions. I can’t wait!”
Dr. Ora Horn Prouser is Rabbi Prouser’s wife; she also is not only the executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, she also wrote a book called “Esau’s Blessing.” She has studied the story and the periods in which it was set and during which it was written. “It is a text I have spent considerable time on,” she understated.
“The Torah is a living document,” Dr. Prouser said. “We continue to come to it with our own thoughts, approaches, moral values, views of the world, and the psychological insights from our own time.
“That is not a negative. That is what keeps the Torah living. In this program, I assume and hope that we will bring our current moral sensibilities to the text.”