November 18, 2023 / 5 Kislev 5784 Parashat Toldot

The name of this week’s Torah reading is Toldot  translated as  “generations.” There seems to be almost a generational obsession in our biblical stories. Will there be a generation after us? Perhaps this obsession is a logical communal focus, that we always are thinking about who will carry the Jewish tradition forward. Who are the people who will value and live and internalize and teach the core of what Judaism and being Jewish is all about?  Today, it feels like this obsession is a luxury.  Our Jewishness looms large as ours, our children’s and our Jewish community’s public identity is stigmatized and solidified, whether we want it to be, or not.

At the end of the parashah, there’s that moment where Isaac is blessing his son Jacob, who is once again involved in some trickery, covered in hairy animal skins and dressed up like his brother in order to falsely receive the blessing of the first born. And there’s an incredibly painful plea after Esau comes in and says to his father, is there no blessing for me? Honestly, of all the cries in the Bible, that’s one that just pierces the heart. Can we think of all the young people today who would cry out, is there no blessing for me? Is there no place for me?

These two questions used to be all about belonging.  Today, we may need to reframe the questions into:  Are we no longer a blessing in the world, or were we ever?  And, Is there no place safe for me?

Which leads us to the question of Isaac’s fear.  The text of verses 32-33 read: “His father Isaac said to him (and here the “him” is Johnny-come-lately Esau, after Isaac had already given the first-born blessing to Jacob in disguise), Who are you?  And he said, I am your son Esau, your first-born! Isaac was seized with very violent trembling.  Who was it then, he demanded, that hunted game and brought it to me?”

The midrash asserts that Isaac trembled twice in his life: first, when his father Abraham tied him to the altar on Mt. Moriah and prepared to sacrifice him, and now the description of Isaac’s visceral fear in Esau’s presence. Which trembling is more profound? Unanimously and surprisingly, the answer is that the story of the blessings is more traumatic. This emotional wave of fear causes Isaac to tremble “ad m’od.” These Hebrew words are translated as “exceedingly,” but “m’od,” the Hebrew word for “very,” refers specifically to our core humanity.

Humans can be “tov m’od,” “very good,” and in the “v’ahavta” prayer, we are called to love God “b’chol m’odecha,” “with all of our being.” Our most famous commentator, Rashi, evokes an even more powerful image. Rashi quotes the midrash Tanchuma, saying that Isaac saw hell (Geihinom) opening beneath him at that moment.

Both of these descriptions are shocking: How could Isaac find this moment even more painful than being bound on the altar by his own father? Judaism rarely invokes the image of hell, so why here? Perhaps the answers are found in the symbolism of Esau. In rabbinic literature, Esau represents Rome: the empire that conquered the Jewish people, desecrated our holy places, and destroyed the Temple. In this passage, Esau is not a symbol; he is a person who has a familial relationship to both Isaac and Jacob.  Ironically, even though Jacob is the deceiver here, and perhaps a pawn of divine design, it is Esau who evokes an uncontrollable and cataclysmic fear in Isaac.

Why is that?  What can we learn about our greatest fears at this moment in time from Isaac?  I may be making an assumption about the depth and breadth of how fear has taken over our Jewish lives?  But, I don’t think so.  Have you also been having heart palpatations for fear of having to confront reality and digest somber news each and every day since October 7, fearing that the post-Holocaust cry “never again” has defaulted, fearing our vulnerability and powerlessness, fearing uncertainty for the future, fearing being silent and being vocal against social media vitriol, fearing that Jews are being targeted everywhere, even amid our kind, supportive, empathic, and understanding allies in the greater community (and you are those very good people here with us this morning)?

Perhaps Isaac, the least formidable of our patriarchs can help us conquer our fears!

In a commentary called Pardes Yosef, the author Yosef Patzanovski offers, “Fear and trembling took hold of Isaac when, in a spirit of prophecy, he saw the results of hatred.” Patzanovski knew this lesson all too well; he was murdered by the Nazis in the Lodz Ghetto, four days after the death of his wife, leaving his Torah commentary uncompleted.

To this day, hatred continues to run rampant in our world, and we dare not grow accustomed to it. Perhaps, like Isaac, we should tremble a bit more at the possible outcomes of what is happening today in our world. Can we turn our anxiety and trembling into positives right now, into courage to stand against those who choose evil, into even more acts of loving kindness than we have ever engaged in.  If we are unable to stand up or engage in. . . then I am reminded of the image of Moses at the Sea of Reeds.  With the Egyptian army in pursuit, Moses took a deep breath, held out his arm over the sea, and a strong east wind blew all night and turned the sea to dry land.  Moses was mimicking the breath with which God gave humans life and with it the courage to begin life on earth.  Perhaps, we can just breathe, slowly and purposefully, to calm the fears that enwrap us.  We breathe in strength from each other.  We sing.  We pray.

Isaac was blind in his old age, and thus the ease of visual deception by Jacob.  Perhaps we are somewhat blind like Isaac.  Not visually, but perhaps blind to what we can do. We may not be able to control what happens geopolitically, but we can control whether we close down or open up.

Or, perhaps Isaac was intentionally closing his eyes to avoid a legacy that he knew in his heart would bring terror to his own descendants.  By this I mean that God had promised that Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael, son of Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, would be the progenitor of a great nation just as Isaac would be.  And these two discrete peoples, emerging from one family, are still warring over their place on that same piece of land where they dwelt so long ago.  Perhaps Isaac’s eyes dimmed because he was overcome by exhaustion, fear, and loneliness in his failure to see in time and prevent the outcome of the sibling struggles of his twin sons.

Perhaps, Isaac’s blindness, trembling, and emotional paralysis in the face of the deception had more to do with his confusion over what is the moral thing to do.  If he castigated Jacob and Jacob fessed up that he had been set up by Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, perhaps Isaac was afraid of Rebecca more than anything else.  If he had brought the two brothers together in the same room to seek some kind of restorative justice, some kind of teshuvah, perhaps he was afraid that he would not be a successful mediator and, instead, increase the enmity between the two youths, more trauma on top of trauma.  Perhaps, he just did not know that morality in times of fear and struggle and uncertainty of the outcome is never black and white.

David Blumenthal, professor emeritus of Emory University, and now resident of Israel, writes about moral injury in a recent article and in relationship to the Israel Hamas War:  He relays the moral ambiguity in navigating a wartime experience when soldiers literally face their enemy soldiers, who shield civilians in front of them.  Rabbi Ken Chasen concludes that morality actually is, in contrast to the moralizing that has devoured us all on social media, not right vs. wrong, but rather right vs. right or wrong vs. wrong.  Thus, Isaac’s fear of not making the right choice was ill-conceived as well as the silence in his sobbing.  Isaac did offer a secondary blessing to Esau, but only after Esau goaded him into it.

Like Isaac, we are paralyzed with fear on so many levels – not only the lack of moral clarity, but also fear of being victims of antisemitism, fear for the survival of the State of Israel, fear of losing our personal and precious relationships with those beyond the Jewish community, fear in our guts as we imagine what is going on in the lives of the 200 plus petrified Israeli souls who are being held hostage in Gaza, fear of not knowing what to say and what to do.   None of us have antidotes to these fears at this moment in time.  But all of us deserve to express them and to forgive ourselves for what we do not say and what we do not do.  Conversely, we can indeed share with each other information, and all the words and acts of kindness that do give us meaning and purpose as we pray for an outcome that can allay our fears, bring back the hostages, end the fighting, and spark our hope for peace, in that order.

Celebrations – a simcha is also an antidote to fear.  This coming week is American Thanksgiving.  How will we celebrate – will we celebrate?  I think yes, with perhaps a greater awareness of holding in our hearts both remembrance of those lost to us, and assuredly gratitude for the lives of our own families.  Modim anachnu lach – We thank you, God, for your rachamim, your compassion to keep us human and hopeful.

Kein yihiye ratzon – may this come to pass!