Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Trial of Jacob Isaacson - Reflections on Parshat Toledot 5773

"Order in the court!" The sharp cracks of the gavel echoed through the crowded courtroom. "I will have order in my court!"

The packed courtroom gradually settled down to a restive silence. 

"Counsel, proceed with your summation."

"Yes, your honor. My client, Ya'acov (Jacob) Isaacson, stands accused of being a thief, trickster, con-artist and schemer; specifically, that he wrongfully acquired the birthright from his older brother, and later conned his blind, ailing father Isaac into giving him the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau. It is said that an oft-repeated lie becomes the truth; and because these scurrilous charges went unanswered for so long, they have been magnified, perpetuated and hurled at my client's progeny by their enemies to advance their own pernicious agendas. 

"I would like to lead the jury through the facts in evidence to demonstrate categorically that not only is my client innocent of these charges, but that the real deceiver is none other than his primary accuser - his twin brother Esau Isaacson."

The jury sat a little straighter, while the spectators in the courtroom shifted nervously in their seats.

"Let's begin with my client's parents. My client is accused of conspiring with his mother, Rebecca, to swindle the Blessing from Isaac; that somehow the mother and father were on opposite sides of this intense fraternal dispute. And yet we have been presented evidence that that they were, in fact, an exceptionally close-knit couple. Eyewitnesses report that when Rebecca first laid eyes on her future husband, she was so smitten that she fell off her camel! Isaac returned her love with a passion and depth that even eluded Abraham and Sarah, his parents. Later on in Gerar, they are seen trading caresses, confidences and private jokes the way only young lovers do - so much so that it was obvious they were married and very much in love. 

"Isaac was orphaned at a relatively young age, and Rebecca was an immigrant, completely cut off from her family in the old country. Isaac and Rebecca had only each other upon whom to rely, and by all accounts, they were inseparable in both thought and deed. I ask the jury to consider: is this a couple that would abide secrets and dissension between them?

"Now let us turn to their two sons: Esau and Jacob. As you know, Esau, the elder, became a proficient hunter, but perhaps 'predator' is a more fitting term. Rabbi Shlomo came all the way from France to testify before this court that Esau acted more like the wild animals he hunted: he was guilty of murder, rape, extortion, blasphemy and idol worship. Damning evidence, indeed! But when he came home, he would tuck a book under his arm and pepper his father with intricate ethico-legal questions, in order to convey the impression that he was just as thoughtful and scholarly as Jacob. Is that the behavior of an honest man?

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: I now ask you to cast your gaze upon my client. He is an "Ish Tam" a simple man, incapable of artifice or chicanery; a contemplative young man whose best friends were the books he surrounded himself with day and night. Through his academic studies he was animated and inspired by the exploits of the grandfather he barely knew, the towering personality of Abraham. He desperately, passionately wanted to carry on in those footsteps. More than anything else in life, he wanted the Blessing of Abraham, through Isaac, to be bestowed upon him. He knew that somehow it was his destiny. And for my client, that Blessing was inextricably entwined in the birthright. (In the original Hebrew, the words "my birthright" and my blessing" are anagrams of each other. Genesis 27:36)

"Let us turn now to the first charge: that my client wrongfully acquired the birthright from his older brother. I will re-create the scene, but before I do, let us recall the testimony of Rabbi Ibn Ezra, who stated that despite the grand wealth of grandfather Abraham, by this time the family had been reduced to penury. This was the reason my client was cooking rice and beans - it was the only food they could afford. This also explains why my client later left for Labanland without a drachma to his name.

"Picture the scene if you will: as my client is cooking his lentils, in bursts Esau - dirty, exhausted and ravenously hungry from a day of predations. Without so much as a 'hello' or a 'bid thee well" he imperiously demands the red porridge my client was cooking. Thinking on his feet, my client offered an exchange: the food for the birthright. The evidence has shown that Esau viewed his birthright as being of no financial value; true the firstborn normally receives a double portion of inheritance, but as we have seen, Isaac was impecunious, so Esau reckoned that double of nothing is still nothing. Something for what amounted to nothing? The deal was quickly struck.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: a valid and binding sale took place on that day. Each party to the sale thought that they had the better end of the bargain. Esau - because he had traded something of no value (his birthright) for something of tangible value (food); and Jacob - because he believed that he had secured for himself his life's goal - the Blessing of Abraham.

"We now turn to the most serious charge - that my client, Jacob Isaacson, tricked his blind, ailing father and stole the Blessing of Abraham that Isaac intended to bestow upon Esau." 

A low murmur began to ascend through the crowd. One bang of the gavel brought the murmur back down to a simmer.

"Now let us review the relevant testimony regarding the alleged swindle.

- Isaac bids Esau to go out and trap a deer; dress, prepare and cook the venison; and finally serve it up in order that Isaac may bless Esau before he dies. 

- Rebecca casually overhears these instructions, and rushes to alert Jacob that Isaac is preparing to bless Esau. 

- Rebecca devises an elaborate plan, seemingly on the spot: she will quickly cook some goat meat for Isaac. Jacob will serve it, bluffing through this charade as Esau, and receive the blessing Isaac is preparing to give.

- Jacob objects that Esau is hairy and smelly, while he is smooth-skinned and fair. He is certain his father will see through this transparent hoax and will curse him instead of blessing him. Rebecca suggests putting goatskins on Jacob's arms and neck to "hair him up," and dress him Esau's clothes to "smell him up." Despite my client's objections, Rebecca is completely confident this improbable plan will work. Somehow, she's not worried about a negative outcome.

- My client reluctantly yields to his mother and the plan proceeds. Incredibly, Isaac falls prey to this slipshod hoax, eats the goat meat and never notices that it's not venison. He blesses his "first born" with a generic blessing of strength and abundance. Jacob quickly exits.

- Just then, Esau enters with his prepared dish. Isaac trembles when he discovers the deception. He claims to have no blessing for the real Esau, and then scares up a blessing not dissimilar from the one he granted Jacob a few moments earlier.

- Esau seethes with rage, vowing to kill Jacob after their father dies. 

- Isaac and Rebecca dispatch Jacob to Labanland to escape the wrath of Esau. Before he leaves, Isaac bestows upon him the Blessing of Abraham. 

The defense attorney paused, and cast his eye for a long moment across the judge, jury and gallery.

"Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: I must confess, that in all my years at the bar, I have never heard a more outrageous and frankly unbelievable story than the testimony presented to us in this case. Why, may I ask:

- Did Isaac request venison for dinner, when something simpler would have sufficed? How does Rebecca dream up this hoax on the spot? Why she is assured of it's success? Why is Isaac taken in by the crude and childish deception of the goatskins? Why does he not notice that the goat is not venison? Why does he give both brothers a rather generic blessing during the hoax? And most important of all:

- Why, after the hoax, wasn't Isaac upset with Jacob? Instead of demonstrating feelings of anger and betrayal, Isaac protects Jacob and bestows upon him his most precious legacy: the mantle and blessing of Father Abraham.

Perhaps...the request for venison will get Esau out of the house for several hours.

Perhaps...Rebecca's embellishes Isaac's words to Esau by adding  "before God" as she relates what she heard to Jacob in order to spur him to action.

Perhaps...Isaac is taken in by Rebecca's hoax BECAUSE THEY DEVISED THE PLAN TOGETHER, IN ADVANCE!!"

Bedlam erupted in the courtroom. After fifteen minutes of gavel banging and the appearance of several armed bailiffs, a semblance of order was restored to the courtroom. 

"Mr. Orekhdin, do you realize that you are exculpating your client by implicating his parents in a massive conspiracy?"

"Your honor, I can see no other way to account for all the facts. You see, Although Isaac was visually blind, his other senses were actually heightened. Furthermore, he was, by all accounts, a very holy and wise man, and it is well known that sages become even more perceptive as they get older. Esau thought he had his father fooled, but Isaac had Esau's number from the very start.

"However, Isaac and Rebecca had a problem. Esau had married two Hittite women - both of whom were known idolaters and possessed of - ahem - a rather colorful and scandalous reputation. This act confirmed what they knew all along: that Esau was not the intellectual and spiritual heir of Abraham. They had to devise a ploy to give Jacob the Blessing, and yet protect themselves and Jacob from Esau's uncontrollable and bloody rage. And so this elaborate ruse was conceived.

"As further evidence, your honor, I respectfully direct you to the transcript, where Isaac and Rebecca facilitate Jacob's escape. They charge him in the strongest possible terms not to marry a Canaanite woman, but rather to find a bride among the kinsfolk of Rebecca in Labanland. They expect him to be home again very soon, after Esau's temper has cooled and he was once again distracted by his normal appetites and diversions.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: justice and history demand that you acquit my client, Jacob Isaacson, of all the charges leveled against him. The defense rests."