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Miss Conduct Reads: Genesis

Posted by Robin Abrahams  November 20, 2012 06:13 PM

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Twenty years.

I've read it I don't know how many times, and somehow I never noticed.

What did they talk about?

Saturday's Torah portion was Toldot, which chronicles the birth of Jacob and Esau and the way Rebekah deceived her blind husband Isaac to bless her favorite son, Jacob, instead of Esau.

We met Rebekah in last week's portion, in which she ran back and forth to a well, watering 10 thirsty camels--one of those dun-colored image that Genesis specializes in, easy to overlook. Until you do the math. That was probably a ton of water. Literally, a ton. Do you think you could run back and forth carrying water until you had transported a ton of it from well to camels? Torah exaggerates for effect, of course. We're still supposed to ask what the effect is.

The effect on this reader is the realization that The Girl Who Watered the Camels was not to be messed with.

And that's all last week's portion. Before she gets pregnant, demands an explanation from God Himself for her morning sickness, blatantly favors one son over the other, deceives her husband, runs Jacob out of town, and makes her daughters-in-laws' lives hell.

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Rebekah is the gang wife of Genesis. She loves who she loves and hates who she hates and that's all she knows of morality and all she needs to know. She's smart, strong, the sister of one of the nastiest lying cheaters who lies and cheats nastily in the whole Bible.

Did Rebekah break bad? Or was there always something dark and hard there, something self-serving, some bitterness turned in toward the self? I wrote about it years ago--I still wonder.

And this year I noticed that Isaac and Rebekah get married, and she can't conceive, so they pray, and have twins -- twenty years later.

What happened during those twenty years?

Isaac is not a strong man. Remember, how Abraham was willing to sacrifice him on God's say-so? This may have kicked off a great honeymoon phase for Abraham and God, but it didn't do a lot of favors for Isaac's self-image. He's the least patriarchal Patriarch imaginable, a schlemiel, a momma's boy. He barely talks.

And Rebekah, The Girl with the Half-Shekel Nose Ring, is stuck with this loser for twenty years before she gets some kids to keep her busy.

Were they praying the whole time? Or did it take them twenty years to figure out that they should pray, and then they did, and BOOM!--twins?

I think it was the latter.

Because Isaac is a schlub. Isaac probably doesn't feel entitled to ask for what he wants. The last time Isaac expressed positive desire, his daddy had just asked him if he'd like to go for a hike in the woods and have a picnic. Isaac keeps his head down now.

And Rebekah is a gangster. Rebekah manipulates and takes what she wants, she doesn't ask.

Isn't it odd that excess humility and excess pride can lead us in the same direction?

What is it that keeps you from asking for what you need? What shame, pride, fear? Or not even realizing you could ask?

Torah reminds us that God loves the schlubs and gangsters, too. But it's still better not to be one. To speak up, unlike Isaac. To speak honestly, unlike Rebekah. To learn how to take both "yes" and "no" for an answer.

I always like that this particular Torah portion comes right around the start of Christian holiday season, when personally and professionally I am absorbed with questions of family and giving and taking and the way twenty years can go by in the span of a paragraph.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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