Live a life of compasion
Parashat Va-yetzei Hanukkah/Thanksgiving (Genesis 28:10 – 32:3)
Only a few weeks ago the Torah described how Isaac will be born to a man who would be 100 years old and a woman who would be 90. There can be no question as to the identity of Isaac’s parents. Last week’s Torah portion went out of its way to tell us twice in one verse that Isaac was the son of Abraham.
One cannot help but wonder what the Torah was trying to teach us about the lives of the patriarchs when it told us: “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac.” (Genesis 25:19)
Family, of course, can be a source of support and comfort; but it can also be a source of terrible jealousy and hatred. As we have already seen with Cain and Abel, this is as true with the families in the Torah as it is for too many of us and our families today. I cannot tell you how many times I have stood at the grave of a parent, watching the deceased’s children crying genuine tears of mourning, but who will not speak to each other. Even while sharing the loss of a beloved father or mother, they still could not be civil with each other!
With this sad fact in mind, perhaps last week’s Torah portion began the way it did because it wanted us to know that both Esau and Jacob will be descendants of Isaac, son of Abraham. But we also know, since these brothers were so detached from each other, that would never be. The relationship of these brothers was so bad that the Torah tells us they even began fighting with each other in their mother’s womb. With this sibling rivalry in mind, how could the Torah be telling us that these two brothers would be “the descendants” of Isaac (who is the source of the expression l’dor va-dor – from one generation to the next) of Abraham?
We have to ask ourselves why sibling rivalry remains such a problem for all the descendants of Abraham. Perhaps we get a hint when the verse says: “Abraham begot Isaac.” Wow! Amazing! What about Ishmael? Do we remember what the Torah said about his birth? It said (in Genesis 16:15): “Hagar bore a son to Abram, and Abram gave the son that Hagar bore him the name Ishmael.” See the difference? The key is Hagar, the mother, whereas in the case of Isaac, the key is Abraham, the father. That alone was enough to set off some type of sibling rivalry.
Consider, for a minute, who Abraham was. Abraham was a world leader of great stature. He was a successful businessman with plenty of land and livestock and a fearless warrior. He pioneered the notion of philosophy and founded ethical monotheism. Most important of all, Abraham was the one chosen by God to bring blessing to the entire world.
Isaac had to believe that his father was the more important parent, and that, because of his father’s stature, he was born into royalty – whereas his brother Ishmael was not. Isaac also knew that he was the only son of Sarah, and that his birth had been prophesied by angelic messengers from God. In his mind, there was no question that he would be Abraham’s heir; but he also knew this was a heavy responsibility and would be most challenging.
This could have forced Isaac to feel that he was the one who must emulate his father, but the sad reality is that he could not. Nobody could be like Abraham, so Isaac could do nothing but be a very passive person. He must have questioned how he could presume to compete with the most creative and determined father who ever lived!
To make matters worse, his half-brother was very aggressive. As the Torah puts it, Ishmael was “a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.” (Genesis 16:12) Not only was Isaac intimidated by believing he had to model himself after his father, he must have thought that Abraham favored his strong and popular brother Ishmael.
And what about Akedat Yitzhak (the binding of Isaac) – the scene when Abraham brought Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed? How could that have helped Isaac’s self-image? Imagine what the young Isaac must have been thinking as he was being bound and readied for his death. He must have been thinking that getting him out of the way was Abraham’s way of making sure that his legacy would go to his first son, Ishmael.
Perhaps this is what led to the apparent estrangement between father and son right after the Akedah ended the way it did. Isaac must have known that Abraham would have gone through with the sacrifice, had divine intervention not stopped him. Perhaps that is why Isaac is not even recorded as being present at his mother’s funeral.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to the life of Jacob. He, like his father, is also passive at the outset. But later, we shall see that the three generations of ancestors finally end with Jacob becoming Israel. We shall read about this next week. We shall see that it happens when Jacob finally understands that the truest and most worthy heir to Abraham requires not physical strength but compassion, righteousness, morality, justice and obedience to God’s laws, the mitzvot. That was something his father never understood.
It was only when Jacob became Israel that the problems caused by his father’s lack of self-esteem finally ended. Unlike the meek and mild Jacob we encountered last week and this week, next Shabbat, when his name is changed to “Israel,” Jacob will be a new man; he will become such an important leader of our Great Nation that ever since then we have been known as B’nei Yisra’el, the Children of Israel.
Ironically, history and theology are much kinder to Jacob’s father Isaac than he seems to have been to himself. Those of us who have managed and maintained successful businesses know that it takes a very different set of skills than the entrepreneurial spirit required to start a business. Entrepreneurs can take far more risks in starting a business than managers can in maintaining and growing the enterprise.
Religious movements are no different. For Judaism to grow, Abraham’s entrepreneurial spirit could not be followed by another entrepreneur. In building on what the entrepreneur began, his successor needed to be far more consistent. That is why Isaac reopened the very same wells that his father had dug and Abimelech had stopped up. That is why Isaac tilled and worked the same sacred ground his father had received from God.
What do we learn from all this? That parents should never try to clone their children in their own image; and – just as important – children should never try to be clones of their parents. However, the added value of building on what we learn from our parents is immeasurable. It is only by valuing the differences each new generation brings that we can appreciate the beautiful and wonderful contributions that we pass down.
The key to the legacy passed down to us from Abraham is clear and simple. As Jews, we have one central mission: to live a life of compassion, righteousness, morality, justice and obedience to the mitzvot. By choosing this way, we add value to the great mission that was handed to us. It is up to us to ensure that it remains thus for all time, not by being clones of the generation before us, but by adding value l’dor va-dor, from one generation to the next, in new ways as well.
This year, as we celebrate Hanukkah on Thanksgiving, let us also give thanks that we can share our faith and our lives as one large family. Let us act as a true “light unto the nations,” by earning respect through our deeds and by living together with people of all faiths and ethnicities b’shalom.
Rabbi Richard Perlman (Rabbiperlman@cox.net) is the rabbi of Temple Am David in Warwick.