Toldot – Sermon by Irwin Scharf (11/21/20)
The text today tells of the 20 childless years of Isaac and Rebekah ending when she conceives and gives birth to Esau and Jacob. Esau is described as a hunter while Jacob as a wholesome man.
It tells next how Esau sold his birth rite for a bowl of soup, and continues as Esau marries two women. The Torah continues the narrative telling how the blessing of a nearly blind Isaac is given to Jacob through deception on the part of Rebekah and Jacob. When Esau discovers the deception, bitterness between Jacob and Esau is the result. Jacob leaves to escape his brothers anger and the parasha concludes as Esau marries his third wife.
Abraham Mendelssohn was a very successful banker and philanthropist in Germany in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He had a distinguished financial career, yet few thought of him solely in terms of his financial success. For his father was the famous Jewish Philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, and his son, the renowned composer, Felix Mendelssohn. In his old age, Abraham Mendelssohn lamented that “In the first half of my life I was the son of my Father and in the second half of my life, I was the Father of my son.”
Isaac suffers from the same condition. He is the son of Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, and he is also the Father of Jacob, the dreamer who gives his name to the people Israel, Isaac cuts a small sorry figure. His place in the bible is determined by two famous tales: the story of the Akedah, in which his Father threatens his life, and the story of the birthright, in which his son deceives him with the help of his own wife Rebekah
So what distinguishes Isaac? Is he only the bridge between Abraham and Jacob? Why is he important? In the scheme of Torah teaching, Isaac embodies a crucial value, one that is much discussed in the Jewish world today, and that is continuity. In the parasha today on line 18, it reads that “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his Father, Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up and made unusable after Abraham’s death. And he gave them the names that his Father had given them.” So Isaac renewed the achievements of the previous generation. He tended to and repaired what had been done before, and handed it on to those who followed.
Such a task is not nearly as flashy as the monumental struggles of Abraham, or the charismatic life of Jacob. Isaac was not fit for this kind of drama. However, Isaac reveives praise by the Rabbis for unique distinguishing characteristics among the three patriarchs; He is the only one who never leaves the land of Israel, and in fact, the Torah warns Isaac twice that he must not leave the land .
The next characteristic is that he has only one wife and only fathers children with one woman. Isaac does not have a child with his wife’s concubine as does Abraham, which is remarkable in a culture that encouraged men to have multiple wives and increase their offspring at any cost. He sets an example for couples who stay together even when they are unable to have children and for couples to stay together even in the case of extreme challenges.
And finally, he alone, of the patriarchs is unique because his name is not changed. Whereas Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel, Isaac remains Isaac. His name is not changed because he is given his name by God.
The Torah says that God told Abram that” Sarah will bear you a son whom you shall call Isaac.” Isaac retaining his name indicates a stability of character. In keeping with what I mentioned earlier.
He was not fit for ceaseless wandering as were Abraham and Jacob, nor was he fit for unpredictable adventures. He is determined to build a permanent place and to hand on something solid to future generations. Isaac takes the promise and makes it real.
The three patriarchs are regarding by the Rabbis who interpret the Torah as symbolizing life. Abraham and Jacob represent the realities of life. Wandering with no place to call home and the need to constantly reinvent oneself because of challenges; a life that becomes difficult when faced with the realities of existence— in essence the challenges we face in life as individuals and as a people.
Isaac represents the ideal; the world we strive to become; a person or people with a place to call home; the ability to be true to ourselves and not reinvent ourselves due to circumstances beyond our control, and finally the ability to remain faithful to one person. Isaac is how the Torah represents what life will be like when we have mastered the challenges we face and to be able to live where we want and be true to who we are.
Lives are rarely determined by a single grand event. The patient accumulation of actions together forms the true fabric of human life. In Isaac, we find the hero of the everyday, a man prepared to take on what he was given, renew it, and hand it onto the generation to follow.