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In The Shadow Of Abraham

In The Shadow Of Abraham

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:30 p.m.
Torah reading: Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Machar Chodesh; I Samuel 20:18-42
Shabbat ends: 6:30 p.m.

Family can be a source of support and comfort, but it can also be a source of terrible jealousy, fostering a lifetime of enmity. This is as true of the biblical families as it is of our own. Perhaps we get an indication of that from the opening verse of this week’s portion describing Esau and Jacob as “the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham.”

These boys will battle against each other from their mother’s womb and “the events of the patriarchs will foreshadow the experiences of their descendants,” leading to an ongoing conflict between their descendants throughout the generations. But what is the source of this sibling enmity? Perhaps the end of our verse hints that the answer lies in the complex relationship between Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham is a leader of great stature. He is a successful businessman with plenty of land and livestock, a fearless warrior. He is a pioneering philosopher and the founder of ethical monotheism. Most important of all, he is chosen by God to bring blessing to all the nations of the world.

Isaac is born into this household of awe-inspiring royalty. He knows that his birth was foretold by the angels. He is Divinely destined to be Abraham’s heir. This is a heavy responsibility and a difficult role. So perhaps Isaac felt overwhelmed by the duty to replicate his father’s accomplishments, which may explain why he was sometimes passive. Isaac also lives in the shadow of his elder half-brother Ishmael, a much more aggressive “wild ass of a man, whose hands are on everything and everyone” [Gen 16:12].

Isaac is deeply troubled by Ishmael, whom Abraham had wished to maintain as part of his household, requesting of God that “Ishmael live before Him,” even at the expense of Sarah’s miraculous conception. Isaac may even have feared that Ishmael was the more likely heir, suspecting that their father had subconsciously interpreted God’s Akeida instructions to mean “sacrifice” your son rather than “dedicate” him. Isaac might have thought that perhaps his father had wished to remove him from the family, leaving Ishmael ascendant.

Perhaps this is what led to the apparent estrangement between father and son after the Akeida. You will note that Isaac is missing from his mother’s funeral and from the familial home, constantly wandering to and from Be’er Lehai Roi. Apparently Isaac is obsessed by the place in which God revealed himself to Ishmael and bestowed upon Ishmael great blessings.

Perhaps this also explains why, when Isaac becomes a father and bestows the mantle of the first born, he favors the more aggressive hunter Esau to the more passive “dweller of tents” Jacob. Maybe this is what led Jacob to imitate the more extroverted and aggressive characteristics of his brother Esau, deceptively masquerading as his older brother in order to gain Isaac’s love and acceptance, so that the next heir apparent will resemble the initial path-breaker Abraham rather than the more passive Isaac.

At the end of this three-generational sequence, Jacob’s name is changed and he finally becomes “Israel.” He understands that the truest and most worthy heir to Abraham’s legacy must express compassionate righteousness and moral justice rather than duplicitous deceptiveness and aggressive entrapment. [Gen 18:19]. This marks his victory over the “spirit” of Esau, enabling him to return to his brother the blessing that he gained by deception [Gen 33:11].

Moreover, history and theology is much kinder to Isaac than he may have been to himself. Managing and maintaining a successful company requires very different skills to the risk-taking and often impetuous conduct necessary to originally found the company. So it is with religious movements as well. For Judaism to take root, Isaac could not be a carbon copy of his father; he had to be skilled at continuing rather than originating. Thus Isaac opened the very same wells that Abraham had dug (but Avimelech stopped up), and he worked and tilled the same sacred soil that Abraham received from God.

Isaac became the symbol of a tradition, a handing down from generation to generation without which Abraham’s traditions could never have endured.

Parents should not attempt to clone their children in their image, and children should not strive to be clones of their parents. Each must have their own identity, taste and texture. In the differences between the generations lie the unique contributions of each. Ultimately, so long as one’s central mission remains one of compassionate righteousness, moral justice and obedience to God’s laws, “to thine own self be true.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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