Parashat Toldot: To continue, not to imitate

Parashat Toldot To cont

"These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac" (Genesis 25:19) The Bible describes the miraculous conception of Isaac, leaving no room for confusion about his parentage, so why does it now informs us twice in one verse that Isaac was the son of Abraham? What is it teaching us about the lives of the patriarchs? Family can be a source of support and comfort, but it can also be a source of terrible jealousy, fostering a lifetime of enmity. This is as true of the biblical families as it is of our own. Perhaps we get an indication of that from the opening verse of this week's portion, which describe Esau and Jacob as "the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham." These boys will battle against each other from their mother's womb, and "the events of the patriarchs will foreshadow the experiences of their descendants," leading to an ongoing conflict throughout the generations. But what is the source of this sibling enmity? Perhaps the end of our verse hints that the answer lies in the complex relationship between the first patriarch and his son: "Abraham begat Isaac." Abraham is a world leader of great stature. He is a successful businessman with plenty of land and livestock, a fearless warrior. He is a pioneering philosopher and the founder of ethical monotheism. Most important of all, he is chosen by God to bring blessing to all the nations of the world. Isaac is born into this household of awe-inspiring royalty. He knows that as the only son of Sarah, whose birth was foretold by angels, he is divinely destined to be Abraham's heir. This is a heavy responsibility and a difficult role. So perhaps Isaac felt overwhelmed by the duty to replicate his father's accomplishments, which may explain why he sometimes acts like the passive son of a creative and determined father. But Isaac's challenges do not end here. He also lives in the shadow of his elder half-brother Ishmael, an aggressive "wild ass of a man, whose hands are on everything and everyone" (Gen. 16:12). Isaac is deeply troubled by this boy whom Abraham had wished to maintain as part of the household, requesting of God that: "Ishmael live before Him," even at the expense of Sarah's miraculous conception. Isaac may even have feared that Ishmael was the more likely heir, suspecting that their father had subconsciously interpreted God's instructions at the Akeda as "sacrifice" your son rather than merely "dedicate" him in order to remove him from the family. Perhaps this is what led to the apparent estrangement between father and son after the Akeda, so that Isaac is missing from his mother's funeral and from the family home, constantly wandering to and from Beer-lahai-roi, the place of God's revelation about Ishmael. Perhaps this explains why when Isaac bestows the mantle of the firstborn, he favors the hunter Esau over the "dweller of tents" Jacob. Maybe this is what led Jacob to imitate the more extroverted and aggressive characteristics of his brother Esau to gain Isaac's love and acceptance, so that the next heir will resemble the path-breaker Abraham rather than the quieter Isaac. At the end of this three-generational sequence, Jacob finally becomes Israel. He understands that the truest and most worthy heir to Abraham's legacy must express compassionate righteousness and moral justice rather than duplicitous deception (Gen. 18:19). This marks his victory over the "spirit" of Esau, enabling him to return to his brother the blessing which he gained by deception (Gen. 33:11). History and theology are much kinder to Isaac than he may have been to himself. Managing a successful company requires very different skills than those displayed by the risk-taking and often impetuous founder. So it is with religious movements. For Judaism to take root, the heir to the path-breaker could not be a carbon copy of his father; he had to be a consistent continuer. Thus Isaac opened the same wells which his father had dug and Abimelech had stopped up, and he worked and tilled the same sacred soil. Isaac became the symbol of a tradition, a handing down from generation to generation without which Abraham's inspiration could never have endured. Parents must not attempt to mold their children in their image, and children must not be clones of their parents. In the differences between the generations lie the unique contributions of each. So long as one's central mission remains compassionate righteousness, moral justice and obedience to God's laws; "to thine own self be true." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.