December 2, 2016
D’var Torah for Parashat Toldot
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Sally and I were fortunate this year to celebrate Thanksgiving with our children as well as with several members of our extended family. Not everybody was there, but considering the hectic schedules, distances and other challenges associated with travel at this season, we were all counting our blessings to be together, to sit around the table and enjoy this wonderful holiday as one loving family.
As the younger generation concluded the sumptuous meal, they left the table, leaving us grownups to reminisce over the past and to shake our heads at the sad state of the world today. We had promised in advance not to talk politics, so the conversation remained civil and cordial. But that, of course, left little to talk about except the kids!
We, the adult members of the clan, have known each other for many years now, so we didn’t have to exaggerate. We didn’t have to rhapsodize about how well our children have turned out, how successful and happy they are, and what a bright future still awaits them. Instead, we shared some bits about their lives—those bits that they allow us to know and to share with others. We talked about the past, when the kids were little; and we laughed at some of the escapades they were involved in as teenagers.
Our children are in a different phase of their lives today. No longer little, no longer teens, they have embarked on their own independent paths, each only a few paces ahead or behind the others.
The common saying goes, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems.” It’s true. When the kids were little, we were concerned with issues that in retrospect seem tiny and unimportant. Today, we worry about the larger picture: How close are they to settling down? Where is the next stage of life going to take them? Who will be there for them when we are too old and weary?
As the Good Book says however, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I imagine these same discussions took place long before us, and will be repeated long after, too.
I imagine that Abraham, too, worried in the same way about his son, Isaac.
Perhaps, lying awake late into the night, Abraham wondered if he had done right by Isaac when he almost sacrificed the boy to God. There were few words exchanged between them as they climbed up the Mountain of God, and afterwards each went his own way, each lost in his own thoughts. There weren’t many occasions to talk after that horrifying experience: Isaac was often away from home, and when he came back, he tended to be silent and sullen.
Isaac preferred the wilderness and open fields to his father’s sheltering tent. Abraham, on the other hand, was worried by the lonely search for meaning that Isaac was on.
But Isaac, unlike his father, Abraham, actually enjoyed the solitude. Also unlike Abraham, Isaac enjoyed keeping company with the Philistines, a Greek people who lived on the edge of the desert, along the Mediterranean coast. To tell the truth, however, even when he was with them, Isaac always felt himself different. He sensed their jealousy, their lack of understanding of his ways. At times Isaac felt ostracized, perhaps even disliked by the Philistines. Business projects he started with them were often scuttled at the last minute, so that he had to move away and start all over again.
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot (Genesis 25:19—28:9) we learn how Isaac nevertheless succeeded in all his ventures—which made the Philistines dislike him even more. Time after time he would dig wells to water his flocks, only to have the Philistine shepherds fill them with sand again. And yet, despite the setbacks, he only grew richer and stronger.
But Abraham still worried, even after Isaac married Rebecca. Their twin boys—Jacob and Esau—were as different as could be from one another, both in character and appearance. With each parent clearly preferring one or the other of the two, there was little peace in the household.
Yet Abraham did not lose hope.
First of all, he had God’s promise that Isaac would be blessed by God just as he was. Abraham had faith in this promise.
Additionally, Abraham had faith in his son, Isaac. Despite Isaac’s sorrows, he was a good man. He also had Rebecca, an able keeper of the tents and household.
Abraham knew he had done everything he could to bring his son, Isaac, up right. He may have made mistakes, but he always tried to atone for them. He taught Isaac about God and about what God wanted of us—to pursue justice, to seek righteousness, to show compassion to all living things.
Though many years had passed since Abraham left his family and moved to Canaan, he held on to many of his family’s traditions, and he passed these on to Isaac.
Tradition, faith and hope sustained Abraham throughout his life, and now he hoped they would be there for Isaac as well.
In our own day, we too often find ourselves stressing over similar worries and concerns. We worry about the future; we worry about our children. We worry about our faith and our people. We see our children straying from familiar paths, and we worry that they might lose their way and consequently be lost to us and to our people. A mere 71 years after the Shoah, the Holocaust, we worry about the Promised Land and about the future of our people. We see the assimilation and the loss of pride in our Jewish identity. And we also see the ongoing hatred—today we have a word for it: anti-Semitism—and we worry about its tenacity, its viciousness, and its ferocity.
Yet the very truths that sustained Abraham still hold true for us today: We have God’s promise, which, 3600 years later, has withstood all tests, including the test of time. Furthermore, we know our children and grandchildren to be good people. We have done our best to educate them, to set them on the right path, to teach them our traditions and give them the spiritual nourishment we know will keep and sustain them in the future. They, in return, have shown us time and again that they have lost nothing of what we’ve taught them. No matter how far they seem to wander, they will return, just as Isaac returned, just as we ourselves have returned. This is the faith Abraham held on to, the faith that guided all our ancestors. And this is the faith that will also sustain us, our families, our Land and our people for as long as humankind exists.
May the glow of these Shabbat candles remind us that even the darkest and longest night is but a bridge toward the light. May our faith and traditions keep us safe and warm along all our journeys. And may hope always be at our side to ward off all anxiety, fear and apprehension.
Kein y’hi ratzon.
© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman