Home>Jewish Living

Torah Sparks

November 6, 2010 - 29 Heshvan 5771

Annual: Genesis 25:19-28:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 25:19-26:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 146; Hertz p. 93)
Haftarah: I Samuel 20:18 - 42 (Etz Hayim, p. 1216; Hertz p. 948)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

Isaac prays with compassion for his wife, Rebekah, who is childless. She conceives twins, whose rivalry begins in utero. The expectant matriarch is informed by God that the sons she is carrying are “two separate peoples, and the older will serve the younger.” The firstborn, Esau, is born ruddy and hairy; his twin brother, Jacob, emerges from the womb with a firm grip on his brother's heel. The names Esau and Jacob are linked to the words for “hair” and “heel,” respectively. Esau is favored by his father, while Jacob enjoys a special bond with Rebekah. Years later, Esau, now an accomplished hunter, returns from a day's work famished. His more sedentary and mild-mannered brother, Jacob, sells him some stew in exchange for his birthright. A famine impels Isaac to move to Gerar, where God appears to him and renews the covenantal blessings first granted to Abraham.

Repeating an unseemly experience of Abraham's, Isaac conceals his wife's identity, claiming she is his sister. Rebekah is taken by Abimelech, who returns her to her husband once their true relationship is revealed. Isaac is blessed with a hundredfold harvest (from which the ultra- Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood Meah She'arim takes its name). Abimelech urges the now prosperous Isaac to leave Gerar. Isaac reclaims wells that were dug by Abraham and stopped up by Philistines. Continued conflict causes Isaac to leave for Beersheba, where God renews His blessing and Isaac makes a covenant with Abimelech.

Esau marries two Hittite women, to the consternation of his parents. An aging Isaac, whose vision is failing, instructs Esau to bring him some meat in preparation for the patriarch's formal blessing of his firstborn. Rebekah, however, contrives to secure the blessing for Jacob, instructing her beloved son to disguise himself in pelts and Esau's clothing, and to bring his father food that she prepares. The conspiracy succeeds. Jacob bestows his blessing and status as patriarch and rightful heir to God's covenant on Jacob, whom he ostensibly has mistaken for Esau. When Esau returns, expecting his father's blessing, he learns of the deception and is disconsolate. His father, at first resistant, grants Esau a secondary blessing, which reinforces Jacob's superior if ill-gotten stature. Esau vows revenge on his brother, though, we learn only later, he never carries out his very understandable threat. Rebekah conspires to protect her favorite son by sending him to Paddan-Aram to find a wife, explaining to Isaac her disgust for Hittite women, such as Esau's wives. Isaac blesses Jacob again - calling into question the extent of his anger at the deception earlier perpetrated against him - and dispatches his son in accordance with Rebekah's plan. The parshah concludes with Esau, always the well-meaning and dutiful (if at times pathetic) son, attempting to please his parents by marrying Ishmael's daughter, Mahalath. His new wife is, of course, a granddaughter of Abraham, but like Esau she is from outside the “chosen” line.

Theme #1: “Here Comes the Son”

“This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac.” (Genesis 25:19)

Derash: Study

  1. “‘Abraham begot Isaac' - This note is hardly needed after the foregoing ‘Isaac son of Abraham.' Moreover, such a usage is never found in the other elleh toledot examples. Yet the Chronicler later followed the pattern of this verse in recording, in Chronicles 1:28, that the sons of Abraham were Isaac and Ishmael, and then stating, in verse 34, that ‘Abraham begot Isaac.' The redundancy, therefore, is not a gloss but a literary device for emphasizing Isaac's role as the sole successor to the patriarch.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
  2. “This is the old story: Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, and so on. The original capital of £10,000 brings in a surplus value of £2000, which is capitalized. The new capital of £2000 brings in a surplus-value of £400, and this, too, is capitalized, converted into a second additional capital, which, in its turn, produces a further surplus value of £80. And so the ball rolls on.” (Karl Marx, Capital)
  3. “The life stories of the righteous are their good deeds. That is the intent of ‘This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham,' i.e., ‘These are the causes of Isaac's good deeds: Abraham begot Isaac.' Isaac always remembered his origins, his father, that he was a son of Abraham.” (Rabbi Menachem of Amshinov)
  4. “Isaac always believed that he himself was nothing; rather he was ‘son of Abraham.' He based everything only on his father's merit. And Abraham in turn believed he had accomplished nothing in the service of the Creator, that he had no claim to personal merit other than having raised a worthy son: ‘Abraham begot Isaac.' This was their way in holiness: They considered themselves unworthy other than their respective claims to the merit of the fathers or the merit of the children.” (Rabbi Yechiel of Alexander)
  5. “A child's education begins several generations before its birth.” (Calvin Coolidge, Autobiography)

Questions for Discussion

Does Marx, perhaps inadvertently, actually pay tribute to Isaac? Is Isaac a figure of independent value, or merely a dividend, as it were, paid on Abraham's original investment? Or perhaps Marx's observation is still more instructive: Do Abraham and Isaac achieve a combined value that exceeds the sum of what they would have achieved independently? (It should be noted that Marx's biblical citation is from the opening of the Gospel according to Matthew, itself based in part on Parshat Toldot.)

It is customary that when Jews-by-Choice convert they are given the patronymic Bat (or Ben) Avraham Avinu v'Sarah Imeinu'- the daughter (or son) of the Patriarch Abraham and the Matriarch Sarah - virtually the same words that are used to identify Isaac here. What does this reveal about Jewish tradition's outlook on Jews-by-Choice, and about our responsibilities toward such fellow-Jews?

How are Jews-by-Choice to be understood as “successor to the patriarch” (as in Sarna), or as dependent exclusively on the spiritual merit of the Jewish people's founding fathers (as according to the Alexander rebbe)? How are newcomers to the Jewish community (or to Jewish learning) to make sense of Coolidge's adage, in respect to their religious education? Is it really ever possible - or desirable -to escape entirely the defining role of our parentage, our lineage, our genetic history? Do we under all circumstances remain the sons and daughters of those who conceived us? What implications does this question have for adoptive children and parents, for surrogacy and other new reproductive technologies? How are those who were abused or abandoned by parents to approach this question?

To what extent are we duty-bound to carry on our parent's wishes, efforts, and values?

Theme #2: “Well, Well, Well”

“And Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.' So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar, but when Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, and when they dug another well, they disputed over that also. He moved from there and dug yet another well.” (Genesis 26:16-22)

Derash: Study

  1. “Once Isaac saw how much hatred the Gerarites bore against him, he realized it was time to relocate. Even though they did not quarrel with him over the third well, he felt that it had become so dangerous for him that remaining there would involve relying on miracles for his safety. He opted to move to Beersheba, where he was assured that God would help him, since He had already shown him mercy when the Gerarites ceased quarreling with him.” (Rabbi Moses Schreiber, the Chatam Sofer)
  2. “‘Go from us, for you have become much mightier than us (26:16).' This seems difficult, for is that a reason to banish someone? However, if we interpret the words ki atzamta mimenu differently, it makes perfect sense. The Hebrew word mimenu can also mean ‘from us' (not only ‘than us,' as we translated it above). According to this, Avimelech was saying to Yitzchak, ‘Go away, for you have become mighty on our account. All of your newfound wealth came from us.'” (Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah)
  3. “A person should never think of himself as old. There is no such thing as an old tzadik or an old chasid. Being ‘old' is a deplorable state. Rather, one is duty-bound constantly to renew himself, to strive and to strive, to start over and over again.” (Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav)
  4. “Here you see the basis and the root of the nations' hatred of Israel. The reason for their jealousy and hatred is that we are powerful. ‘The people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us,' said Pharaoh, King of Egypt (Ex. 1:9). And as Abimelech said to Isaac: ‘You have become far too big for us.'” (Rabbi Israel Mayer Kagan, the Chafetz Chayim)
  5. “This enterprise of redigging his father's wells is the sum total of the work of Isaac's maturity; yet there is something important enough in it to earn him the place as the second patriarch. In his sonship some myth is being constructed that hallows and sanctifies his labor.” (Peter Pitzele, Our Fathers Wells)

Questions for Discussion

How do we account for Isaac's willing, serial displacement? He uproots himself repeatedly in response to perceived threats without any apparent resistance. Is he being passive or prudent? Does Isaac here provide a lamentable model for later Jewish responses to hostile neighbors and inhospitable societies, or do his actions foreshadow a critical technique for Jewish national survival?

Is the Chafetz Chayim (who died in 1933 at 95) being sarcastic or sincere in his discussion of Jewish power? Is his view more accurate today than when he first made this observation nearly a century ago? Or did he have a different sort of Jewish “power” in mind?

If, as Dr. Pitzele writes, Isaac's re-digging of his father's wells was sufficient to validate his role as successor to the first patriarch of Israel, then perhaps he achieved his goal and had every reason to move on when confronted by hostile forces. How is well-digging an apt (or as per Pitzele, a “mythic”) expression of our relationship to our forbears?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Firstborn sons today must be redeemed through the ritual of Pidyon Ha-Ben. Every firstborn son of a Jewish mother must be redeemed, even if he has an older brother born to his father in a previous marriage. A son who is firstborn to his father but not his mother does not have to be redeemed.

Historic Note

Parshat Toldot, in which we read both about Isaac's conflicts with neighboring peoples and about the competition, resentment, and recriminations between Jacob and his own twin brother Esau, is read on November 6, 2010. Fifteen years earlier, on November 6, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, assassinated by a fellow Jew, was laid to rest. He was eulogized by President Bill Clinton, who compared him to his biblical namesake, and by King Hussein of Jordan, who called Rabin his brother.

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016