Toldot - Machalat bat Ishmael

by Rabbi Jill Hammer

The purpose of this monthly d'var Torah is to alert us to the most hidden and obscure female presences in the Torah, named or unnamed, and to use these hidden voices to understand our inner truths.

"Esau realized that the Canaanite women [he had married] displeased his father Isaac.
So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Machalat
the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nevayot."

We hear enough about Jacob's wives Leah and Rachel to get to know them a little bit. Leah is silent at first but becomes eloquent as she names her children, lamenting that her husband does not love her. Rachel has Jacob's love but desperately desires children and becomes relentless in her pursuit of fertility, finally dying as she births her second son Benjamin. We hear a good deal less about Jacob's concubines Bilhah and Zilpah. And we hear nothing at all about the wives of Jacob¹s rejected twin Esau. Who are the Canaanite women, named Bosmat and Yehudit, who displease Isaac and Rebecca? Who is the daughter of Ishmael, Machalat, whom Esau marries to appease his father? If we investigate further, we may learn that Machalat helps Esau to
find a blessing.
In Parashat Toldot, Isaac seeks to give his elder son Esau, whom he loves best, a firstborn's blessing. But Rebecca, Isaac¹s wife, who loves the younger son Jacob and who has received an oracle that Jacob will rule his brother, convinces Jacob to wear goat skins, simulating Esau's hairy skin, and trick the blind Isaac. Jacob brings Isaac freshly-killed meat, as Esau was supposed to do, and claims he is Esau. His blind father, though suspicious, blesses Jacob with wealth, prosperity, and dominion over his
brothers. When Esau discovers the ruse, he is heartbroken. He begs his father for another blessing, and Isaac gives him one, but it is a lesser blessing. Esau is so angry he wants to kill Jacob. To save her favorite son, Rebecca goes to Isaac and tells him to send Jacob far away, to her family, to find a wife. Isaac sends Jacob off, reminding him not to marry a Canaanite woman. Esau, knowing that his father is angry about Esau's foreign wives, marries his grandfather¹s son's daughter, Machalat.
Is this a good move? We could imagine that Isaac and Rebecca would be pleased that Esau has married a relative, just as Jacob will soon do. Isaac, who saw his brother Ishmael exiled when both men were children, may be delighted to welcome a member of Ishmael's family into his household. There are even midrashim, legends, that Isaac went to visit his brother Ishmael and try to convince him to come home. So maybe this is a sign of repentance for Esau, and some ancient rabbis say that the name Machalat,
"forgiveness," means that Esau was forgiven when he married her (Genesis Rabbah 67:13). Or, perhaps, Esau is making a foolish, or even a spiteful, move. Abraham and Sarah rejected Ishmael and his mother Hagar, Abraham's concubine. Esau now brings a daughter of the rejected Ishmael into the house, on top of his already offensive Canaanite wives. Some ancient rabbis argue that if Esau really meant to make his parents happy, he should have divorced his first wives (Genesis Rabbah 67:13).
But while some people do get married to please or spite their parents, it is also possible to choose a life partner because that person gives you something unique. We don¹t know what Machalat's personality is, but we can speculate. What might Machalat have given Esau that he needed?
One thing we know about Machalat is that she is Ishmael's daughter, and therefore she understands what it is to be rejected. Her father and grandmother were forced into the desert, nearly dying of thirst, because Sarah, Abraham's wife, did not want Ishmael to inherit Abraham's blessing and possessions‹ Sarah wanted Isaac to inherit. So Machalat knows how Esau feels. She may be able to give him empathy and understanding that no one else can give him. Machalat's empathy may help to heal Esau of his deep bitterness and we know that Esau is healed, because in Parashat Vayishlach, when Jacob and Esau meet again after many years, Esau is no longer angry, he embraces his brother and forgives him.
Machalat also is Hagar's granddaughter. Hagar is one of the only women in Genesis to talk to God, and she is the only person in Genesis to give God a name, she calls God El-Ro'i, God of seeing, when she has a vision near a well that she will give birth to a son. Machalat calls the son she has with Esau Reu'el, "See God!" The similarity between Hagar's name for God and Machalat's name for her son shows that Machalat is spiritually connected to the God of her grandmother. She has successfully inherited a way of
speaking to God‹ one might even say that she has inherited a blessing. So Machalat has spiritual wisdom to offer Esau, and she can also show him how to connect with his family. It must be hard for Esau to trust her after he has been rejected by his mother, father, and brother, but perhaps it is her wisdom and kindness that allow Esau to finally reach out to his brother Jacob.
In later chapters of the Torah, it turns out that Machalat has two names‹ Machalat and Bosmat. Machalat can mean "illness." Bosmat can mean "herb." Shoshana Jedwab, who studied this text with me, pointed out to me that Machalat/Bosmat embodies Esau's illness (the pain of his rejection) and his medicinal cure (wisdom and compassion). Our families and loved ones
know us well enough to understand what causes us pain, and therefore we turn to them for comfort and closeness when we are hurting. The message of Machalat bat Ishmael is that even when we are distrustful, angry and suffering, we can still reach out to those who understand us.