Portion of the week: Toldot

“Isaac dwelt in Gerar… and he said, ‘She is my sister’…. And when he had been there a long time, Abimelech, king of the Philistines looked out at a window and saw Isaac sporting with Rebecca, his wife” Genesis 26:7-8


A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The "yod" - a hand-shaped silver pointer - is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

Isaac arrives in Gerar and, like Abraham before him, pretends that Rebecca is his sister, rather than his wife. The subterfuge fails when King Abimelech sees the two of them behaving in a manner more consistent with a married couple and rumbles their deception. The Torah uses the phrase mesachek — playing, messing around, laughing and joking, to describe the behaviour which gave them away.

Surely someone of the stature of our forefather Isaac would hardly be laughing and joking and over-familiar with his wife right by the window for all to see? Would they really have indulged in such a “PDA” (Public Display of Affection)?

The Levush (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, 1530-1612) in his commentary Ha’orah, addresses this question and concludes that they closed the window, or did the equivalent of closing the curtains or blinds nowadays, in such a way to suggest privacy, something that would not be expected from siblings. From this King Abimelech deduced that there was more to the situation than met the eye.

The famous prophet Balaam, sent by King Balak to curse the Children of Israel, ended up blessing them instead saying the famous line “Mah Tovu…”, “How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel”. The rabbis took this as a reference to the modesty of the people, their sense of privacy within their own homes.

We live in an age where everything is on show, filmed for social media. Peer pressure is immense and there is no sense that some things belong in private. Anxiety is at an all-time high. Influencers peddle their influence, with the viewer not realising it may be just a show for the cameras.

A return to the notion of saving certain thing just for ourselves is long overdue. Like Isaac and Rebecca, maintaining that sense of privacy, not everything having to be public or on show, would reduce a lot of the anxiety and pressure to “keep up with the Cohens” which is so prevalent.

As a rabbi, when I learn with a couple before marriage, I always emphasise this idea that not everything has to be public, for everyone to see and comment on. A sense of privacy and dignity, of retaining the best parts of ourselves for our nearest and dearest, would go a long way to counteract the unhealthy aspects of today’s world.

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