Posted on November 5, 2021
November 5th 5782
What should we do with information we overhear?
Many years ago someone said to me: “I need to come clean. You must have wondered why I never responded to all your friendly overtures over the years. The reason I didn’t accept any of your lovely invitations is that a long time ago I heard you talking with my son-in-law and I did not like what you said, so I did not want to interact with you.”
Pow! I was surprised, to put it mildly. First of all, while of course, I knew that she had never taken advantage of my invitations, I had no idea until that minute that it was personal. (I could write about the value and lack thereof of “confessions” years later, but that is not my topic for today.) Second of all, the discussion that she overheard was a private conversation between two rabbis. But most of all, she had completely misunderstood what she thought she heard me say –she was in a different room after all. The truth was that I did not say what she thought I had said, and indeed my point was quite the opposite.
Imagine if she had confronted me immediately after she overheard what I never said. We could have cleaned it up right away, saving her years of misplaced distress with me — and she might have come to visit. Imagine if she had not been listening to a private conversation in the first place and thus would not have had to confront me or carry the burden for umpteen years — and she might have come to visit.
Tomorrow’s Torah portion includes at least two times that Rivka “hears” things that were said to others and acts upon them. The first is in the middle of the parashah (and we won’t be reading it tomorrow). Yitzhak was old and decided to give his elder son his blessing. He called Esav to him and said: “I am old. Go out and hunt some game and cook it for me the way I love so much. I will eat and then I will give you my heartfelt blessing before I die.” (Gen. 27:1-4).
The Torah then says: וְרִבְקָ֣ה שֹׁמַ֔עַת בְּדַבֵּ֣ר יִצְחָ֔ק אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו בְּנ֑וֹ. “Rivka heard what Yitzhak said to his son Esav” or “Rivka was listening when Yitzhak was talking to his son Esav”. (Gen. 27:5). If you were painting this scene, where would you place Rivka? Would you paint her in the tent with Yitzhak and Esav; no secret how she overheard what was said? Would you paint her outside the tent, cooking on the fire or darning the socks, and accidentally overhearing the conversation? Would you paint her behind the tent flap, deliberately listening in? Indeed I have seen a number of paintings that do picture it exactly like that, and many commentators also assume she was eavesdropping on purpose. In any event, she sprung into action immediately, convincing Yaakov to make sure that he and not Esav received the first blessing. What might have happened if she had spoken to Yaakov about her concerns — might Yaakov have reassured her about his intentions with the blessing? What might have happened if she had not heard what Yitzhak said to Esav — might the whole thing have gone down unremarked? Or — are we extremely glad that she did overhear however it happened and that she put the information into use?
As the story goes on, in the part that we will read tomorrow, Yaakov received Yaakov’s blessing that was intended for Esav. Esav was so devastated that he said to himself (Hb: בְּלִבּ֗וֹ, literally: in his heart) “After I am done mourning for my father I am going to kill that brother of mine!” (Gen. 27:41). When Rivka was told about what Esav said, she was frightened for Yaakov and told him to go visit her family in Haran (Gen. 27:42). Again Rivka heard things that were not said directly to her and acted upon them. And again we ask: What might have happened if Rivka had not heard Esav’s threats or if Rivka had spoken to Esav directly?
We might very well conclude that Rivka behaved appropriately and it was a good thing that she did! And even so, Rivka might be the first one to tell us that we should act on overheard information only with great caution and care.
Tomorrow we will be talking about the blessing that Yitzhak gave Yaakov when he thought he was blessing Esav and the blessing that Yitzhak gave Yaakov when he knew that he was blessing Yaakov.
An Ask the Rabbi question: I noticed that you use a slightly different formula for calling folks to the Torah. Can you explain it?