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Predestined to Fail

  • Predestined to Fail

    Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19−28:9
D'var Torah By: 

Our children will be guarantors. According to a midrash, that is the promise God exacted for giving the Torah to the Jewish people. God seemingly wanted to safeguard Jewish continuity through the fulfillment of decreed destiny. What a lovely concept!

But it's not easy to be a guarantor. Ask any child programmed for success by lovingly ambitious parents. Ask Jacob and Esau, born not to fulfill their own dreams but to be star-crossed symbols of sibling and nationalistic rivalries.

When Rebekah feels the internal movement of active fetuses in this week's parashah, Tol'dot, God tells her: "Two nations are in your womb, and two separate peoples shall issue from your loins. One people shall be stronger than the other. And the older shall serve the younger." (Genesis 25:23)

And the twins had not been born yet! Even if we conceded that Rebekah and Jacob wanted to do their part to insure the fulfillment of God's covenantal promise through the line of Abraham, what about the depth of feeling all parents possess for their newborns, particularly those parents who have struggled with infertility?

Doesn't Rebekah want to hold her babies in her arms, feel the bond of maternal love, and put her protective arms around them before surrendering them to their inevitable strife-filled roles?

Rashi piles it on further: "Already from the womb they are separated, one to his wickedness and the other to his righteousness." Commentating further on the verse "Two nations are in your womb" (Genesis 25:23), a midrashstates: "Two [peoples] hated by the nations are in your [Rebekah's] womb: All heathens hate Esau [Rome] and all heathens hate Israel." (Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, New York: Soncino Press, 1983, third edition, vol. 2, p. 561)

And they haven't even gotten their Apgar scores yet! I can imagine Rebekah and Jacob's yearning to have the classic nature/nurture debate in their own home. But superimposed on their genetic imprint is the burden of history and destiny, seemingly too heavy to be brushed aside by a parent's kiss on the soft forehead of the nursing infants.

I remember a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown kept dropping fly balls hit into the outfield. When Lucy, the manager, went out to blast him, he sheepishly explained, "When I get under the ball to catch it, I remember all the other balls I have dropped. The past got into my eyes." In this week's parashah the future gets into everybody's eyes. It happens. Often.

Parents enter into relationships with their newborns with predetermined notions of who their children are and where they are headed. Psychiatrist Aaron Stern writes: "From the time the child is very little, we are programming him, not for his sake alone, but for ours. The shift in the family has been the movement towards narcissism — the loss of the capacity for love."

Of course, kids don't always cooperate. Toddlers can look at you with those large, adorable eyes and simply say, "No!" No reason, no excuses, just no! And later on, children will have their own ideas about how involved they want you to be in their lives. Dr. Anthony Wolf has written a book titled Get Out of My Life, But First Can You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? Of course, this happens, but parental narcissism is also a strong force in family relationships. It would have been nice if Jacob and Esau could have gotten to know each other away from the urgent expectations foisted upon them from above. Middle Eastern peace may very well depend on today's Jacobs and Esaus seeing one another not as symbols but as real people with similar yearnings and flaws.

I was quite heartened to read the comment of chief Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, who said that for the first time ever, he could view the situation through the eyes of the Israelis. I've never before read such a comment from an Arab negotiator. Israelis have to do the exact same thing.

That seems to be what God had in mind when informing Abraham that all the other nations will be blessed through him. God's covenant with Abraham was meant to enhance their collective lives as well.

It's not easy being a guarantor. But if that's your role, you should have some say about the terms and make sure that others can come along for the ride.

I read that in the Torah. And I drank it in my mother's milk.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. The rabbis taught the concept of z'chut avot, the merit of our forefathers. Even if subsequent generations were not worthy of God's compassion, the people of Israel were because of the merit of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. Do you think that we ought to question the notion ofz'chut avot today?
  2. Do you feel that we are sometimes predestined for a certain course of action, or do you think that we always have free will?

Suggested Reading

Messengers of God , Elie Wiesel (New York: Summit Books, 1985). Understanding Genesis, Nahum Sarna (New York: Schocken, 1970).

Rabbi Robert N. Levine is the senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY.

Digging Wells and Planting Seeds
Davar Acher By: 
Josh Davidson

The Torah devotes only one short chapter to Isaac's adult years, and in many ways the highlights of Genesis 26 are but a "digging up" of stories we already know from Abraham's lifetime. Just as Abraham misled Abimelech (and Pharaoh), identifying Sarah as his sister, so Isaac misleads the Philistines about Rebekah. Abraham dug wells in Gerar and Isaac re-digs them. A quick read suggests no new contributions by Isaac and that he merely links Abraham to Jacob. But we must dig deeply because there is more to Isaac.

Isaac inherits his father's mission - a difficult burden to shoulder. Abraham's zeal for the One God of heaven and earth is the stuff of legends. From his youth he felt it. Gathering souls came easily to him. He was a mighty warrior and a brilliant military strategist. If Isaac possesses any of these qualities, the Bible does not mention them. Perhaps they are lacking or perhaps Isaac's greatest contributions lie elsewhere.

Abraham was a surveyor. God charged him to leave home and stake claim to a new land: "Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth." (Genesis 13:17) Abraham pitched tents everywhere. (Rashi on Genesis 19:17) He lived on the move. Isaac, on the other hand, is a settler and a skilled farmer. He sows hard ground in a dry year (Rashi on Genesis 26:12) and harvests a remarkable yield. Contrast Isaac's actions with those of Abraham, who never attempted farming and left when famine hit! (In Genesis 12:10-20 famine strikes and Abraham went down to Egypt, where he lies for the first time about Sarah's identity.)

And Isaac sows seeds of Torah. We learn this from the midrash (Sefer Ha'agadah, H. N. Bialik and Y. Ravnitzky, eds., W. Braude, trans., 111:39) that teaches that famine for bread results from famine for Torah. According to Nehama Leibowitz, Isaac combines the "reclamation of the soil" with the "dissemination of the true faith." (New Studies in Bereshit, p. 260) As Isaac plants the land, he nourishes his father's religious insights, watering them from the wells his father once dug as a source of physical sustenance and spiritual enlightenment. (Abraham had named each well after God so that whoever approached to draw water would turn away from idolatry [Haketav Vehakabala, cited in Leibowitz, p. 259].) In Isaac's lifetime, these ideas take root.

So Abraham may have smashed idols, but Isaac plants seeds! "Isaac is not simply a negative character," writes Morris Adler. "In a world of constant change ... in a world that never stops for a moment in its fluctuations ... [Isaac] remains loyal, and in all of his actions a tradition is preserved." (The Voice Still Speaks, p. 105) Abraham's contribution may be more dramatic, but only through Isaac does it endure.

Rabbi Josh Davidson is the senior rabbit at Temple Emanu-El in New York, NY.

11/13/1999
Reference Materials: 

Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156