November 26, 2011 | 29 Cheshvan 5772 | Genesis 25:19-28:9
My mother, of blessed memory, was a homemaker. She never worked a day outside the home after she married my father. When my father returned from the Navy after World War II, he entered the wholesale record, jukebox and amusements business. For many years, along with his older brother, of blessed memory, he owned a family company. I spent summers working at Sandler Vending Company. But neither Mom nor Dad ever encouraged me to get involved in the family business so that one day I might take it over. Explicitly, they encouraged my directions with these instructions – “Zai a mensch,” “Be a good boy” and “Nothing is more important than your education.” Implicitly, primarily through their example, they encouraged me to be an engaged Jew. I was free to choose my professional pursuits yet encouraged to take several life directions.
Parshat Toldot is Isaac’s parasha. To the extent that we learn anything about him, it is primarily from this parasha. Isaac is not Abraham. He lacks Abraham’s willingness to go off into the unknown where faith takes him. He lacks Abraham’s readiness to “speak truth to power.” Isaac is simply Isaac, a man who loves his wife and wishes to live a modest life that recognizes the God of Israel.
However our parasha opens with a puzzling verse:
This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. (Genesis 25:19)
Something seems amiss here. We expect Isaac’s story, but we get a statement about Abraham. According to Rashi, perhaps Abraham sought to make Isaac just like him.
…the cynics of the time said, “See how many years Sarah lived with Abraham without getting pregnant. What did the Holy One do? God shaped Isaac’s facial features exactly as those of Abraham’s so that everyone had to admit that Abraham fathered Isaac. (Rashi)
Rashi’s comment can certainly be understood literally. Isaac looked exactly like Abraham so that there could be no mistaking the identity of his father. But I also understand the reference to the facial similarity between father and son symbolically. By shaping Isaac’s facial features to match those of his father, God and Abraham sought to shape Isaac to mirror his father in deed. But Isaac wasn’t Abraham. He was not infused with Abraham’s zeal or even with much initiative.
Isaac was likely traumatized by what had occurred on Mount Moriah, the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) story. Yet he did not react by rejecting the directions in which his father sought to steer him. He was just lest passionate, less assertive and less creative. He was a relatively passive individual who wanted to live a simple “Jewish” life. However, when the Philistines challenged Isaac by stopping of the wells dug in his father’s day, he digs the wells anew and renews the names Abraham had given them (Genesis 26:18). Many commentators have noted the metaphorical dimension of this portion of Isaac’s story. He was committed to perpetuating the “yiddishkeit” of his father.
I sometimes wonder if Abraham was disappointed in Isaac’s chosen directions. Was he disappointed that Isaac didn’t “enter the family business” of robust and fervent spiritual leadership? Was Abraham disappointed that, unlike his grandson Jacob, Isaac never wrestled anyone or anything including God? The silence of the Torah and the absence of dialogue between father and son following the Akedah lead me to believe there were unspoken and unresolved disappointments and difficulty between father and son.
All of us have hopes and dreams for our children. We raise them in particular ways and hope their adult lives will reflect some of the priorities with which we sought to inculcate them. But their “features” (even when they resemble ours) are distinctly theirs. The likelihood that children and even grandchildren with whom we have had significant interaction will incorporate some of those priorities we sought to establish is high. But in the end, the directions, both professional and personal, their lives reflect are their choice and responsibility. Whenever possible, let us support and celebrate them.