"Avraham Begat Yitzchak"

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

PARASHAT TOLDOT

 

"Avraham Begat Yitzchak"

 

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            Last week, we read of Sarah's demise.  At the age of 127, the matriarch breathed her last, soon to be followed (textually, if not chronologically) by her husband Avraham.  Both of them found their eternal repose in the Cave of Machpela at Chevron, embraced by the red earth of the land to which they had faithfully journeyed at God's behest.  But even before Sarah's death, the Torah had already intimated that her legacy would be perpetuated, for the announcement of Rivka's birth introduced the passing:

 

After these things, it was told to Avraham: behold, Milka has also given birth to children for Nachor your brother.  [They are] Utz his firstborn and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the progenitor of Aram.  Also, Kessed and Chazo and Pildash and Yidlaf and Betuel.  AND BETUEL BEGAT RIVKA, so that these eight were born by Milka to Nachor, Avraham's brother.  As for his concubine whose name was Reumah, she also gave birth to Tevach, Gacham, Tachash, and Ma'achah.

 

Now this was the length of Sarah's life – one hundred and twenty seven years – these were the years of Sarah's life.  And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan, and Avraham arrived to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her…(Bereishit 22:20-23:2).

 

The inexorable cycles of death and birth, ends and beginnings, completion of a life's mission and the promise of new challenges as of yet unimagined thus came together in the transition from Parashat Vayera to Parashat Chayei Sarah, and as Parashat Chayei Sarah unfolded the theme was reinforced.  Thus, Avraham's preparations for his own imminent death precipitated the sending of his loyal servant eastwards to Padan Aram, in search of a wife for his precious progeny Yitzchak.  And Rivka's arrival in Canaan, bearing with her the promise of the future, aroused in Yitzchak powerful memories of his own mother and of her accomplishments:

 

The servant told Yitzchak all of the things that he had done.  Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivka as his wife and he loved her.  And Yitzchak was comforted after the death of his mother (24:66-67).

 

CONTINUING THE LEGACY

 

            Parashat Toldot opens, therefore, with the reader perhaps supposing that the continuity of the teachings and practices of Avraham and Sarah – their sorely tested but never overwhelmed steadfast trust in God, their single-minded devotion to the performance of acts of compassion and kindness, their vigorous championing of justice and righteousness and their condemnation of evil – is entirely secure.  After all, Yitzchak and Rivka have already shown themselves to be the aged couple's natural spiritual successors.  Didn't Yitzchak earn his stripes by submitting to the Divine will at Mount Moriah?  Didn't Rivka demonstrate her fidelity to the principle of loving kindness by enthusiastically giving the weary traveler and his many camels water to drink?  As the Parasha unfolds, however, it becomes increasingly clear that little if anything in life is certain. 

 

            After a tense period of barrenness, the couple is blessed with two children, fraternal twin boys of dissimilar appearance and markedly different dispositions, and they soon turn towards diametrically opposed interests and vocations.  Esav the elder, ruddy and covered with a coating of hair, takes up the hunt, spending his days in the field blissfully engrossed in the pursuit, capture and dispatch of game.  He is a man of vigor, impulsive and strong, and brooks no dissent from those around him.  Ya'akov the younger, smooth-skinned and fair, adopts the contemplative life of the shepherd.  The sheltering tent is his refuge and within its confines he quietly communes with his God.  His is a life of service and devotion, pensive study and reflection, and his mind is animated by a spirit of enquiry.

 

            The implied tension with which the Parasha opens becomes in the end a pitched battle of nerves, as both brothers vie for the coveted blessing and associated birthright soon to be bestowed by their aged and blind father.  At Yitzchak's seemingly inexplicable command, Esav embarks in search of game to savorily prepare, so that the old patriarch might bless him with a full heart, but Rivka wastes not a moment in confounding her old husband's will.  As soon as Esav has left for the hunt, she sacrifices herself by convincing beloved Ya'akov to don the mantle of his elder brother and to secure the blessings for himself! 

 

THE INTERVENING EPISODES

 

            But in between these two charged scenes, that of the boys' childhood interests and that of their clash for the blessings as grown men, events separated in time (according to tradition) by five decades or more, a most unusual series of minor episodes unfolds:

 

There was a famine in the land, in addition to the famine that had occurred during the days of Avraham, and Yitzchak went to Avimelekh the king of the Philistines at Gerar.  God appeared to him and He said: "do not go down to Egypt, rather dwell in the land that I will tell you.  Live in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you, for to you and to your descendents shall I give all of these lands, and I will fulfill the pledge that I swore to Avraham your father.  I will increase your descendents as the stars of the sky and I will give your descendents all of these lands, and all of the nations of the earth will be blessed on account of your descendents.  This is because Avraham hearkened to My voice, and he kept My observances, My commands, My decrees and My teachings".  Yitzchak dwelt at Gerar…(26:1-6).

 

In Gerar, Avimelekh almost takes Rivka for himself, thinking that Yitzchak is her brother and not her husband, but Providence stays his hand.  Though he upbraids Yitzchak for his pretense, Avimelekh acknowledges his indiscretion and allows the patriarch and his family to dwell in his land unmolested.  But when Yitzchak plants and harvests a hundred-fold, the envy and enmity of the Philistines is suddenly aroused.  Soon, the wells that had been dug by Avraham (and that had been acknowledged as his in an earlier treaty with Avimelekh – see Bereishit 21:22-34) are filled with debris, and Yitzchak is unceremoniously asked to depart.  Relocating to the wadi of Gerar, Yitzchak re-digs the wells, but not without causing conflict:

 

Yitzchak's servants dug in the wadi and they found a well of living waters.  But the shepherds of Gerar strove with Yitzchak's shepherds saying "the water is ours," so he called that well "Esek" (strife) for they had fought with him.  They dug another well and fought over it as well, so they called it "Sitna" (enmity).  He relocated from there and dug another well, and they did not fight over it, so he called it "Rechovot" (expanses) for he said "now God has granted us expanse and we shall increase in the land" (26:19-22).

 

In the end, Yitzchak moves in a southerly direction and more inland to Be'er Sheva and that night God reassures him in a dream with soothing words.  He builds an altar to God and his servants busy themselves with the digging of another well (26:25).  Soon, Avimelekh and his chief of staff come from Gerar to secure a pact with Yitzchak, even as they claim that they have shown him "only kindness" and have sent him forth "in peace" (26:29).  Yitzchak agrees to strike a treaty with them and they depart amicably.  The section concludes with the report of a well dug by Yitzchak's servants – presumably the very same one mentioned above in verse 25 – and he calls it Be'er Sheva in commemoration of the oath (26:33).

 

A PERIOD OF OBSCURITY

 

            The sojourn at Gerar and relocation to Be'er Sheva is thus quite obscure.  The preoccupation of the text with the digging and naming of the wells seems excessive and it is also not clear why the Torah records the tense interaction between Yitzchak and his servants on the one hand and Avimelekh and the Philistines on the other.  In broad outline, the narrative may be regarded as an emphatic statement that Yitzchak has indeed succeeded and even come to embody his deceased father Avraham, for a similar series of episodes occurred during the lifetime of the latter. 

 

            Avraham also had journeyed with his household to Gerar and there Avimelekh had attempted to seize Sarah (20:1-7).  In consequence of a disquieting night vision, Avimelekh released her, but not before criticizing Avraham for his duplicity.  Avimelekh then provided the patriarch with gifts and Sarah with silver money, and allowed them to settle wheresoever they pleased.  Later on, he and his chief of staff visited Avraham in order to conclude a treaty of non-aggression, and Avraham readily agreed (21:22-24).  But Avraham also took the opportunity to point out the theft of a well by Avimelekh's servants, before the two strike their agreement at Be'er Sheva (21:25-34).  In the end, Avraham planted a terebinth tree and cried out in God's name, in a scene unmistakably reminiscent of Yitzchak's own altar-building activities at Be'er Sheva some time later (26:23-25).

 

            There is, of course, one glaring difference between the two sets of events, for concerning Avraham the conflict with the shepherds of Gerar is minor and understated.  Avraham informs Avimelekh that the latter's servants have unlawfully seized a well, and the monarch promises to investigate.  But there seems to be no ongoing quarrel with the shepherds of Gerar, as there is during Yitzchak's lifetime.  In fact, strife and struggle form the axis of rotation insofar as the narratives of Yitzchak at Gerar are concerned, for at every step there is another round of hostilities.  Three times Yitzchak's servants dig a new well and twice they are confronted by the shepherds of Avimelekh.  The digging of the fourth and final well serves as the occasion for a mutual pact of non-aggression.  What are we then to make of all of the discord?

 

THE CHALLENGE OF SUCCESSION

 

            Earlier, we noted how the entire thrust of these parashiyot is to highlight the theme of succession.  Sarah dies but Rivka takes her place; Avraham passes on but Yitzchak is there to perpetuate his legacy.  As Yitzchak and Rivka age in turn, Ya'akov will secure the blessings and continue the legacy of his grandparents.  Now we might have imagined that this task of continuity is easily fulfilled, as if all that is required is to faithfully transmit that which already exists to the next generation.  After all, we might have thought, it was Avraham and Sarah whose trial was the most difficult, for as trailblazers they had to introduce their absolute and moral God to a skeptical world steeped in idolatry and submerged in ignorance.  Did they not have their fair share of opposition along the way, mercurial menacing monarchs and vulgar men who sought their harm?

 

            Yitzchak and Rivka, in contrast, had no need to innovate but only to perpetuate, no necessity to start a revolution in human thought but only to ensure that all that had been introduced would not be forgotten.  Was not their task infinitely easier?  Our Parasha therefore comes to indicate that Yitzchak's challenges were just as real and his mission just as hazard-strewn and uncertain as that of his father.  Every well of his father's had been filled with stones and forgotten, every source of water stopped up.  And while there is of course a natural tendency to approach the matter of the wells in metaphorical terms, one can well understand the import of the matter from a purely literal standpoint.  The Torah wants to make one point crystal clear: ALL OF AVRAHAM'S AND SARAH'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS WERE IN DANGER OF BEING ERASED, if not for the indomitable devotion of Yitzchak and Rivka.  How painstakingly they re-dug those wells, how lovingly they cleared them of debris, and how tellingly they gave them names that spoke of the struggle to perpetuate the legacy!  The deliberate casting of Yitzchak in the image of his father, made obvious by the string of similar events that befalls the son, is not only about succession but about success.  Yitzchak succeeds in his life goal even though his objective differs markedly from that of his father.  BUT YITZCHAK'S ROLE IS NO LESS IMPORTANT AND HIS CONTRIBUTION NO LESS PIVOTAL than that of Avraham, and that is the matter of the wells.

 

THE CONCLUDING SECTION OF THE PARASHA

 

            The concluding section of the Parasha – the conflict of Esav and Ya'akov concerning the birthright and the blessings – is now more comprehensible.  Parashat Toldot began with the struggle between the boys, it being clearly understood that only one of them would carry the teachings of Avraham and Sarah forward.  The episodes concerning Avimelekh and the wells intervened in order to underscore the urgency of the matter, to indicate that Yitzchak and Rivka labored mightily in their attempt to preserve the traditions and to transmit them.  But ultimately their success would be accurately gauged in one manner only: by the receptiveness of the next generation to the call and by the acceptance by the children of the covenant that God had struck with their grandparents.  Would they be up to the challenge?

 

            Enter the struggle over the blessings, the event that ends the Parasha.  Finally, matters come to a head.  While Esav early on feigns interest in the Avrahamic legacy, his true desire in securing it is the domination over others that he is sure it will confer.  The birthright truly means nothing to him, and how eagerly he was prepared to surrender it for a belly-full of soup!  But with Esav as the guardian of the legacy, surely it would be neglected and lost, discarded upon the ash heap of human history as one more bold attempt to transform the world and to make it a better place, but so easily relinquished once no longer fashionable or convenient.  But Ya'akov was made of sterner stuff, for he would perpetuate the teachings of his ancestors and ensure that their deeds would live on.  However, if not for the tenacity of his own parents Yitzchak and Rivka in preserving that heritage, there would be nothing for him to receive or to transmit to his children in turn. 

 

            Yitzchak and Rivka, therefore, are like a critical link in the chain (and what link is not critical?), ensuring that the generations remain connected to the teachings of their parents, and thus guaranteeing that the teachings remain alive.  Some men and women truly are innovators, but most of us are not.  That sobering recognition, however, in no way ought to minimize the importance of our contribution to the cause of Jewish survival and Jewish growth.  We are all links in the chain, a chain that extends back far, far into the past while simultaneously pointing towards the future, connecting us with ideas, principles and deeds that continue to exert a powerful influence on human lives.  Like Yitzchak and Rivka of old, who fulfilled their destiny by faithfully following in the footsteps of their forebears, we must endeavor to do at least as much.