Isaac and Rebekah: A Failure to Communicate?

At the heart of the world is the family. At the heart of the family is the relationship between a husband and wife.

This relationship is the foundation upon which a family is built, children are raised and they in turn become contributing adults and normally marry and become parents and begin the whole cycle over again.

For a marital relationship  to work well, good communication is vital and yet, there are few courses that offer the in-depth and strenuous training needed for couples to enter into a relationship with the communication skills needed to cope with the inevitable tensions and relationship break-downs that occur.

No marriage is immune (or at least I am not aware of any). Few, if any couples, begin a marriage with perfect skills in communication. Effective, supportive and helpful communication is easy when times are good; when the full bloom of the relationship is in its ascendancy. When the inevitable disagreements arrive and the tension and separation occurs, good communication is difficult. If the tension escalates; normally the emotional separation grows and the barrier to effective resolution rises and begins to seem insurmountable.

A wall is built up, a dividing wall of pain and misunderstanding, of hurt and frustration and fear. How is this dividing wall to be torn down, but even more importantly, how can the communication skills be improved so that it rarely begins to build in the first place?

Well-developed communication skills are needed in great measure. It is at this point that we all need guidance. This guidance surely includes an appreciation of how serious the consequences can be to relationship breakdown and poor communication, even while the marriage remains intact.

This brings me to this weeks Torah Portion, Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9). In this parshah, we read about the deception of Rebekah.

While some may search hard to excuse Rebekah’s apparently immoral and unethical behaviour, on reading and reflecting on the narrative here, most would feel that Rebekah acted in a deceptive manner. Rather than try to find excuses for her behaviour, let us instead accept it at face value and ask the question, what can we learn from this mistake of Rebekah’s? What lead to this inappropriate behaviour and what life lessons should it teach us.

There is a link below to a brilliant article from Chief Rabbi Sacks of London about this very situation. He argues that there was most likely a power/position imbalance in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah that made it difficult for Rebekah to be as direct and up-front with Isaac as she should have been. This meant she kept things to herself and when suddenly faced with a potential calamity in her eyes, her reaction was underhanded instead of open and trusting.

Isaac was much older than Rebekah when they met and married. It was also some 20 years before Rebekah fell pregnant with her first babies, the twins Esau and Jacob. And yet, Isaac knew the promises that the Almighty had made to his father Abraham, that through him (Isaac) would come a great nation. The tension of these barren 20 years would have had some impact and perhaps negatively affected their communication and harmony.

Add to this the great, yet troubling message that Rebekah received while pregnant: “And the LORD said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” – Gen 25:23.

It appears she never shared this prophecy with Isaac. So when the time of the blessings arrives, it is quite possible that there was a significant communication barrier, a dividing wall, between Rebekah and Isaac, and therefore she looked for an ‘easy way out’.

I would suggest that there are at least two central lessons we can take away from this:

1)   Honesty and good communication are central to all relationships and in particular to the relationship at the centre of this world, the marriage;

2)   We can often learn more from the imperfect lives of the great characters of the Bible, than from the explicit teachings contained therein. Often, it is the mistakes that the Biblical heroes make that help us to better see ourselves reflected in their human frailty, and in turn, this enables us to reject their mistakes and instead turn from error to truth, from distance to close communication, and heal our relationships. I believe an appreciation of the conflict of the ‘good’ and ‘evil inclinations’ also helps with this – see the 2 part series of podcasts on the Hebraic Mindset for some more details on this – at http://aubreyandpaul.podomatic.com/

The great Chief Rabbi of London, Lord Sacks explains this all brilliantly in his blog post ‘The Tragedy of Good Intentions’, which I strongly recommend – at Aish.com –  http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/134230588.html

Update: 2nd December 2016

Since writing this short reflection over 4 years ago, I have revisited this Torah Portion and few times and read a number of books that discuss these events surrounding Rebekah (including Gary Rendsburg’s brilliant ‘The Redaction of Genesis’ and Rabbi Sacks great ‘Not in God’s Name’.

I wrote a couple of articles related to insights gained from Gary’s book – see Feeling for Rebekah – http://circumcisedheart.info/Feeling for Rebekah.pdf

I have also read a number of books on marriage, and now would argue that the best book on marital relationships that I have ever read (of 10’s of books on Marriage and Divorce), is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s ‘Kosher Lust: Love is Not The Answer’.

I strongly recommend all three books!

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