Tucked away unobtrusively in this week’s Parsha are two pesukim describing the marriage of Esav at the age of forty. The location of these pesukim, between the story of Yitzchak’s prolonged struggle for political recognition from Avimelech and the people of Grar on the one hand, and the more famous story of the blessings bestowed by Yitzchak on his two sons on the other, has consistently troubled commentators. Why does the Torah tell us of these wives, and why particularly here? Even the Mesora seems to be noncommittal; the two pesukim are offset by “stumot” (a break the length of several letters in the line of the Torah) on either side. What, therefore, is the significance of this information?
One possibility is that the story is connected to the previous section, the story of Yitzchak and Avimelech. The Abarbanel adopts this position, suggesting that the Torah is trying to contrast the behavior of Esav’s wives with that of Avimelech. When confronted with the alleged mistreatment that Yitzhak had suffered at his hands, Avimelech’s response is respectful, even contrite. This behavior serves as the basis for the covenant between them. Esav’s wives, on the other hand, show no such respect toward their in-laws. Instead, they continue to practice their pagan ways, even though it causes obvious discomfort to both Yitzhak and Rifka. The Abarbanel sees this as further proof of the evil of Esav and his wives, and Yithak’s continuing obliviousness to this, thus explaining the need to tell us the story.
Most of the meforshim, however, link the marriages to the story of the blessings. (The prospect that there is no link to either of the parshiot is also a possibility. Both the Abarbanel, in a second explanation, and the Radak see a general swipe at Esav. Despite the fact that his wives were causing such anguish to his parents, Esav fails to either “bring them in line” or to at least place some distance between his wives and parents. This stands in contrast to the general image we have of Esav as championing the mitzva of Kibbud Av. The Ibn Ezra also delinks, suggesting that the Torah is coming to give a general warning against marrying Caananite women. We will return to this theme later in the shiur).
Though he doesn’t answer the question directly, Rashi supplies the most famous link. While answering the question of why Yitzhak had gone blind, Rashi, in one of three possibilities that he entertains, quotes the midrash that the smoke from the incense that Esav’s wives burned for their idol worship caused Yitzhak’s blindness. (As an aside, it is worth remembering Nechama Leibowitch’s famous dictum about Rashi. Since Rashi’s goal is to show us what he believes is pshat, and not to give us an overview of various explanations to a passuk, the appearance of more than one explanation is a sign that Rashi was not fully comfortable with any given one. Our goal, therefore, should be to understand what weakness in each explanation forced Rashi to quote other possibilities. Something to do Shabbat afternoon.) As is his custom, Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, forgoes this resort to dersash to explain pshat. The link is at the end of the story. This experience with Esav’s wives was enough to convince Rifka of the need to send Yaacov away to find a wife. These two pesukim, therefore, provide the necessary background information for Rifka’s request at the end of the story to send Yaacov to her family to find a wife.
The Seforno also links Esav’s wives to the next story, but from a radically different angle. The Seforno sees the Torah as being very critical of the unquestioning nature of Yitzhak’s affection for Esav. Esav’s choice of wives could only be a result of Yitzhak’s failure to caution Esav against such a choice of companions. Yitzhak then compounds the error by continuing to fail to comprehend Esav’s true nature and consenting to blessing him, even in a truncated form. Rather than rebuking Esav, Yitzhak allows his love for his eldest son to continue to mislead him. The result is a blessing that will allow Esav to harm Yaacov for all generations.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch takes the Seforno’s approach in a different direction. In attempting to explain Rifka’s behavior in deceiving Yitzhak, Rav Hirsch suggests that Rifka was well aware that she and Yaacov would eventually be found out, and sooner rather than later. But, insists Rav Hirsch, this was in fact her intention, to do something to shock Yitzhak out of his complacency regarding Esav. That even Esav’s choice of wives had failed to do this must have been difficult for Rifka to comprehend. She was then forced into a truly audacious action, one which, the medrash tells us, ultimately shakes Yitzhak up enough that he perceives himself perched over the abyss of Gehenom (see Rashi on passuk 33). What Esav’s wives failed to do, Yitzhak’s own wife finally manages on her own.
A different kind of link can be found by connecting a comment of the Kli Yakar (this is dedicated to Rav Milston) made in last week’s Parsha to our pessukim. The Kli Yakar, when explaining the test that Eliezer proposed for finding a wife for Yitzhak, takes up the famous theme of Gemillut Chasadim. With no tried and true shadchan to rely upon, Eliezer instead proposes a test that will prove its taker worthy of marrying into thje household of Avraham Avinu. Only a woman who expends herself in a marvelous act of chesed for a stranger could be appropriate for Yitzhak.
This idea, already mentioned by Rashi, is by no means unique. The Kli Yakar, however, links this story to the purchase of Maarat HaMachpela by Avraham, the story of which immediately precedes Eliezer’s search for a bride for Yitzhak. Avraham had just witnessed the hospitality of the Hittites and had found the experience underwhelming. While formally offering the Maara as a gift, Ephron had in fact extorted an exorbitant price from a man mourning his wife. This type of “chesed” had no place in the home of Avraham, and thus Avraham forbids Eliezer from taking a wife for Yitzhak from the Caanaites. Their behavior is the antithesis of what Avraham stands for, the antithesis of the behavior that Rifka exemplifies. And yet, whom does Esav choose for a wife? Hittites, cousins of Ephron, the very tribe that Avraham sought to distance from his family. No wonder that Rifka and Yitzhak, first raised under the banner of Gemillut Chassadim, and now its standard bearers, are appalled. Their daughters in law are not only idol worshippers, but stand in direct contrast to all the moral and ethical values that they hold dear.
With this in mind we can now strengthen the pshat suggested by the Rashbam. Rifka’s plea to send Yaacov off is not a mere ruse to help him escape Esav’s murderous intent. Far from it. Rifka sees the possibility that Yaacov might marry Hittites, as Esav did, as an existential threat to the continuity of Avraham’s legacy. Hence the language she uses in her plea to Yitzhak “if Yaacov takes a wife from the daughters of Het… what use is life unto me” (passuk 46). These sre not simply dramatic, rather the are the simple truth. Without Gemillut Chasadim as a backbone of her family, of the Jewish people as a whole, her life has been wasted, it has no purpose and in fact never had any purpose. Hence the story of the development of Am Yisrael, a story which in no small part is the story of choosing the proper spouse (as we see in Parshat Chaye Sarah and Parshat VaYeatze, is also echoed in Parshat Toldot, precisely through the story of the choice of the wrong wives.