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We Are the Ancestors

  • We Are the Ancestors

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

Chaim Nachman Bialik (Hebrew poet, 1873-1934) was born and raised in Eastern Europe. A recurrent image in his poems is the krechtz, the "sigh" or groan. He linked its genesis to his earliest childhood memories of his widowed mother. Each night, exhausted, she'd return home from the marketplace and bake bread. As she did so, he'd hear her cries to God, her expressions of protest and frustration intermingled with deep sighs and groans. As he ate her freshly baked bread each morning, he felt that he was eating her suffering. Her pain and sighs became part of her legacy, part of his inheritance.

In contrast, Rabbi Hugo Gryn recalls a story about his father's actions and words while they were in a concentration camp together. "My father took me and some friends to a corner in the barracks. He announced that it was the eve of Hanukkah and produced a small clay bowl. Then he began to light a wick immersed in his precious but now melted margarine ration. Before he could recite the blessing, I protested at this waste of food. He looked at me, then the lamp, and finally said, 'You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope'" (quoted by David Wolpe, "What We Really Need to Live," in Floating Takes Faith: Anicient Wisdom in the Modern World [ Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 2004], p. 197)

As the many toladot, "genealogies," in Genesis remind us, we are the descendants of countless generations. Like those toladot, when we recall the ones from whom we are descended, sometimes we just know names, and sometimes we know stories that teach us something more about who we are and what has given meaning to our own lives and the lives of people we know.

Take a moment to imagine a section of our people's history beginning with Genesis 25:19, V ' eileh to'ldot, "This is the line" or "These are the generations," the listing of each of our names. It's rather weighty to think of ourselves as the ancestors from whom lines are traced. But as the many toladot in Genesis show us, whether we think of ourselves as linked to the Creation itself or to all humanity or just to our own family, someone in the future will trace themselves back to us. And time will tell whether we will be just a name or whether we will have a story attached to our name. Sooner than we'd all like to believe we will join the ranks of our ancestors, and the legacy we leave will be determined by what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we do tomorrow.

Herbert Zipper, while an inmate in Dachau, managed to create music for other inmates by creating instruments for an "orchestra," by wrapping boxes to varying degrees of tautness and tapping on them. After Dachau, he went on to compose, conduct, and organize musicians to play concerts for underprivileged children. A few months before his death, a journalist asked him, "What is your most important goal?" Zipper responded, "To be a good ancestor" (Harvey J. Fields, "On Being a Good Ancestor," in The World of the High Holy Days , vol. 3, ed. Jack Riemer, pp. 371?372).

Our descendants will learn from all of our examples, positive and negative. Stories can be told of us and our treachery and deceptions, like those in Parashat Tol'dot related to Jacob, Esau, Rebekah, and Isaac regarding the birthright and the blessing (Genesis 25:27?34, 27:1?40). Or stories can be told about our seeing through deceptions and traps like Abimelech, when he disbelieves Isaac's claim that Rebekah, his wife, is really his sister (Genesis 26:1?11).

This week's parashah begins with the toladot of Isaac, who is described as "son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac" (Genesis 25:19). In Mikraot G'dolot, David Kimchi ( Provence, 1160?1235) explains that this description conveys that Isaac "was righteous and trustworthy and followed a good path and loved Creation like his father. His inheritance was so clear that everyone said about him, 'Abraham fathered Isaac.'" It was not the bloodline, but the values and the behaviors of the older generation that were the inheritance.

For the past sixty years, German schoolchildren have turned to their parents, grandparents, and other relatives with questions such as: "Where were you during the war? What did you know? What did you do?" They have sought clarity about profound and fundamental questions: "What kind of people am I descended from? Which of your experiences might I be comfortable or proud to claim as my own? What would I be ashamed of or want to reject?"

These are the kind of questions that we rarely articulate but have all asked of those who came before us. Someday they will be asked about us-either during our lives or posthumously.

Fifty years from now, whether we are alive or dead, our descendants will want to know our answers to these questions:

The planet's ecology didn't change overnight! What did you know? When did you know? What did you do?

From 2001 to 2008 all the rules of justice were suspended: the guarantee of a fair and speedy trial, habeas corpus, sharing the charges with the accused. You were there. How did it change? Why did it change? What did you do when it was clear the system was changing?

Perhaps far sooner than fifty years from now, a grandchild or great-grandchild of ours will turn to his parent, wide-eyed and curious, and ask, "When you were a kid, when you'd miss a fly ball, did Grandpa get angry with you? Did Grandpa help you with your homework?" What will the response be? What will the truth be?

Countless things we can't even begin to imagine will occur during the remainder of our lifetimes. When we respond, we might consider that what we do may be included in v'eileh tol'dot when the listing is of our own names. Each of us is an ancestor whose own stories-and those of our children and our children's children-will become part of the ongoing story.

Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.

Jacob and Esau: One Person Combining Two Natures
Davar Acher By: 
John L. Rosove

The story of Jacob and Esau is a tale of two brothers whose appearance and natures are polar opposites and who grow up hating each other. Their parents' favoritism doesn't help much. In Genesis 25:28 we read, "Isaac favored Esau, because he [Esau] put game in his mouth, but Rebekah favored Jacob." Isaac apparently likes that his firstborn is a man of the outdoors and a hunter?unlike himself. No reason is given, however, for Rebekah's special love for Jacob. Perhaps she loves him because he is soft and impressionable or because he is the younger and more vulnerable son.

Rabbi Yochanan explains that Jacob, who dwells in tents, spends his days in the house of study. He understands the dignity of the birthright and the spiritual implications of the blessing and strives to protect the future of Judaism and Jewish life even if it means deceiving his brother and father (Rabbi Yochanan, cited in Torah T'mimah on Numbers 24:5).

Unlike Jacob, Esau despises the birthright that he should hold as sacred. His belly is his god, and his yearning lies in his fleshy appetite. Incapable of deferring his hunger when he comes in from an unsuccessful hunt, he is willing to sacrifice Eternity and sate himself with nothing more than a pot of stew.

Esau embodies the id, the primitive instinct, the lust hunger, the killer instinct that so often threatens civilization. Consequently, the Rabbis regard him as evil and hateful. Ironically, despite Jacob's questionable ethical behavior toward his brother Esau and his father Isaac, the Rabbis see Jacob as possessing moral and spiritual refinement cultivated through prayer and study that can assure the future of Judaism, Torah, and the Jewish people.

In essence, Jacob and Esau are prototypes of our lower and higher selves and strivings. As twins, we might think of them as one person combining two natures that do battle within us all. In this sense Jacob and Esau are emblematic of all the tensions with which we do battle in our own lives.

I like to think of the Hebrew Bible as a dreamscape of the Jewish people. As such, each biblica l character is a projection of a dimension of who we are as human beings and as Jews. The good news is that despite the deep tensions, misunderstandings, jealousies, betrayal, and resentments reflected in the Jacob and Esau story, this week's parashah is not the conclusion of their tale. Next week in Vayeitzei, the two brothers approach each other as older and wiser men, fall on each other's necks, forgive one another, and establish peace at last.

May Jacob's and Esau's lifetime of wrestling augur well for each of us with our siblings, close family, and dearest friends.

Rabbi John L. Rosove is senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.

11/20/2006
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