Parshat Toldot

Torah Reading for Week of November 11-17, 2012


“Be Careful What You Wish For”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ‘03

Within this parsha, packed as it is with troubling and familiar stories, is a powerful cautionary tale, relevant to us every day.

Starting with an introduction promising a narrative story of the cycle of generations, we are almost immediately plunged into a familiar tale: a barren wife, her husband pleading to G-d on her behalf.  G-d responds apparently, although not verbally to Isaac’s pleading, and Rebekah becomes pregnant.  She seeks Divine help dealing with her difficult pregnancy, and G-d answers, in a poetic speech, telling her that she will bear two nations, two separate peoples, one of whom will be mightier than the other and that the older will serve the younger.  This rare occasion where G-d addresses a woman directly, foreshadows a struggle whose impact continues today across the Middle East.  The familiar story of the birth of Jacob and Esau and Esau’s sale of his birthright follows.

Isaac follows the pattern of his father Abraham’s life.  There is a famine, so, like his father, Isaac starts to head south.  He encounters a King, with the same name as the King encountered by Abraham more than 70 years earlier on his journey south escaping famine.  Like his father Abraham, Isaac introduces his wife Rebekah as his sister, just as Abraham did with his wife Sarah. Isaac even opens the same wells Abraham had dug many years before, giving these wells the same names.

Abraham’s immense influence in Isaac’s life almost overshadows Isaac as an individual.  G-d speaks directly to Isaac only twice in the entire Torah; both occur in this parsha. In the first instance, Breishit 26:2, G-d blesses Isaac in a kind of reverse ‘lech lecha’ moment, saying “Don’t go, stay in the land that I point out to you”.  The blessing places Isaac clearly in the role of generational bridge, promising the lands to Isaac and his heirs as a fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Abraham, a promise resulting from Isaac’s father’s commitment to keeping the commandments, laws and teachings, not as a result of any action or intention of Isaac’s.  In the second Divine appearance (verse 26:24) G-d is announced by personal introduction by reference to Isaac’s father, saying “I am the G-d of your father Abraham”, followed by the blessing ‘for the sake of your father Abraham’.  Isaac lives in his father’s shadow.

But Isaac’s personality is not completely obedient and passive, as might have been foreshadowed by his apparently complacent journey with Abraham up the mountain during the events of the akeidah, and repeated in so many aspects of Isaac’s life.  He, like many, loses sight of ‘the big picture’ in the face of personal desire.

We are told that he plays favorites among his children, preferring Esau not because he was the first born of the twins, but because he was a hunter, and Esau ‘had a taste for game’.  Not a mere culinary preference, this taste for the physical sets Isaac up for the events near the end of the parsha when he is tricked into blessing Jacob rather than Esau.

Near death, Isaac says “I am old.  I don’t know when I’ll die”.  Like most people near the end of life, Isaac has what we now might call a ‘bucket list’, a list of items he wants to accomplish, a wish list.  He calls for Esau and promises him a blessing, but one that is contingent on Esau’s appeasing Isaac’s personal craving.  Like Esau’s earlier desperate yearning for physical sustenance, resulting in the loss of his birthright, Isaac’s end-of-life lust for physical satisfaction results in him placing personal indulgence above spiritual legacy, blessing Jacob instead of Esau.

The lucky ones among us will become old.  None of us know when we will die.  Many of us have lists of what we would like to accomplish, experience or influence while we are still alive.  Learning from Isaac, I pray that we can recognize and honor the importance of our unique place among the generations, appreciate the blessings we are receiving every day, and bestow sincere, benevolent, non contingent blessings upon others, doing our part to increase holiness and peace in the world.

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