By Shlomo Riskin
One of the most innovative and fascinating creations of religious Zionism is the educational institution known as “yeshivat hesder.”
This refers to yeshivot which have an “arrangement” (hesder) with the IDF allowing observant high school graduates to fulfill their three-year compulsory draft obligation by attending a yeshiva for a year and a half, followed by a year and a half of serving in the army and then a final two years of Torah learning.
This was a creative compromise between secular Israeli society, whose members are expected to enter the IDF for three full years after high school, and the ultra-Orthodox (haredim), who are automatically exempted from the IDF as long as they are registered as full-time yeshiva students.
I would submit that the “spiritual mother” of the yeshivat hesder model was none other than the Matriarch Rebecca of this week’s biblical portion – but we must read between the lines to understand this analogy.
Our analysis begins with the very troubling act of deception that Rebecca persuades her son Jacob to perpetrate against her husband Isaac. She informs her beloved younger son that his elder brother Esau is about to receive the blessings/birthright from the blind and aged Isaac, and convinces him to dress and pose as Esau so as to preempt his brother and receive the blessing himself. How could a righteous matriarch pit one brother against the other in an act of subterfuge against her husband? And didn’t Rebecca realize that her deception would be discovered? After all, in only a few hours, Esau would return with the venison, present the dish to his father and expect to receive the blessing, and Isaac would understand what had happened. She and Jacob would be disgraced, at least in the eyes of Isaac – perhaps irreparably. Why go through such a flimsy masquerade?
I maintain that Rebecca certainly understood the seriousness of deception and the certitude of discovery, but was playing for very high stakes. The son who would receive the blessings was to be heir to the Covenant of Abraham, the carrier of a vision of ethical monotheism which would eventually bring blessing and redemption to all the families on earth. If the wrong son had received the patrimony, the history of Israel would have ended almost before it had begun.
The Abrahamic mission of bringing ethical monotheism to the world required profound faith, commitment and intellectual acumen. It would also require courageous physical prowess to defeat enemies of a god of love, morality and peace (witness Abraham’s almost single- handed defeat of the four enemy kings).
Rebecca knew her husband very well. The effect of being the son of an ambitious, path-breaking and aggressive father – consummately successful in all his endeavors – is to withdraw from competing, to flee from military conflict, as he does with Abimelech, and to live a more passive, but no less dedicated, life.
But Isaac was also obsessed with the aggressiveness of his elder brother Ishmael, who made him feel inadequate and unworthy of the Abrahamic patrimony. He feared that his father really favored this “wild ass of a man” (“Would that Ishmael live before Thee” had been Abraham’s response to God’s message of Isaac’s birth), that his father was only too anxious to take him, Isaac, to the akeda (binding) and get him out of the familial picture. And so Isaac constantly wandered back and forth from Be’er Lahai Ro’i, the place where the angel of God rescued and blessed Ishmael, consumed with jealousy toward his elder brother.
Then Isaac and Rebekah are blessed with twin sons: the elder – ruddy red, hirsute and aggressive – a man of the fields and of the hunt; the younger – wholeheartedly naïve – an introspective and studious dweller of tents. Isaac is immediately drawn to his older and more aggressive son; he realizes that the heir to the Abrahamic Covenant requires physical courage, strength and fortitude.
The wiser Rebecca, however, understands that the essence of the patrimony is compassionate righteousness and moral justice, spiritual strength and fortitude in faith. She also remembers how Jacob – even in the womb – grabbed Esau’s heel, attempting to overcome and surpass this physically aggressive first-born.
Rebecca realizes that all that Jacob requires are the hands of Esau, the external garb of Esau – and he will be capable of
acquiring the essence of the Covenant that is the voice of Jacob, the message of ethical monotheism.
Rebecca never sets out to deceive Isaac. She merely wants to prove to him that Jacob has enough of the external virtues of Esau
to champion the cause of compassionate righteousness and moral justice even on the battlefield, if need be.
Thanks to the yeshivot hesder, Rebekah’s children have emerged victorious in the IDF even as they realize that their essence lies in the words and love of the Divine Vision.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.