Toledot: A Father’s Defence

Esau spurned his birthright.
He married wives who were
a source of bitterness to me.
He plotted to kill his brother.
And yet I loved him.
One day, when You come
to judge Your people for their sins,
I will rise to defend them!
For I will say to You,
“I had a wayward child
and I loved him.
Can You not do the same?”

The JPS commentary, the Etz Hayim, says that the sages envision Isaac demanding that God will suspend harsh judgement on His people out of love for them, even if they have strayed, just as Isaac bestowed such love on Esau. Isaac is considered to be uniquely placed to defend his descendants. Firstly, because he loved Esau unconditionally despite Esau’s very different lifestyle which was not conducive to transmitting Abraham’s spiritual legacy. Moreover, Elie Wiesel comments in his book, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, that Isaac is entitled to ask anything of God. He asks, “Because he suffered? No. Suffering, in Jewish tradition, confers no privileges. It all depends on what one makes of that suffering. Isaac knew how to transform it into prayer and love rather than into rancour and malediction. This is what gives him rights and powers no other man possesses.”


Toledot: Who Are You?

He came to his father, and said, “Father?”
And he said, “Yes, who are you, my son?” (Bereishit 27:18)

I answered my father
that I was…
Esau his first-born.
Really I wanted to say
that I was Jacob the good son
who listened to his mother.
Gentle and studious,
I valued my heritage.
Yet I was also the trickster
who deceived my father
and cheated my brother
reducing him
to wild and bitter tears.
I earned Esau’s hatred
and fled lest he kill me.
When my father asked,
“Who are you, my son?”
I wonder what he really meant.
I wonder who I really am.

Isaac asks, “Who are you my son?” and Jacob replies, “Anochi Esav bechorecha…” which translates as, “I am Esau your first-born”. However, by pausing after “Anochi “, the reply could be construed as, “I am …, Esau is your first-born.” Rashi interpolates, “I am (he who brings food to you), Esau is your first-born.” This reflects Jacob’s undoubted reluctance to lie to his father even though his mother has forcefully persuaded him to carry out the deception. Ibn Ezra* comments that having acceded to his mother’s command, Jacob is compelled to play his part to the end. Even so, later, when Isaac’s suspicions are aroused, and he says, “Are you really my son Esau, or not?” Jacob again replies, “It is I,” and Rashi notes that here too, he does not say, “I am Esau.”
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that the question, “Who are you?” can also mean, “What sort of a person are you?” Jacob will spend many years pondering that question. Over time, Jacob acquires some of Esau’s positive qualities, becoming a more whole person by finding a better synergy between his sedentary, sheltered life and the outdoor life as a shepherd. As he undergoes many vicissitudes, including being the victim of other deceptions, he learns a different way of being.

*Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) was one of the most distinguished Jewish men of letters and writers of the Middle Ages. Ibn Ezra excelled in philosophy, astronomy/astrology, mathematics, poetry, linguistics, and exegesis. He wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, of which, however, the Books of Chronicles have been lost. His reputation as an intelligent and acute expounder of the Bible was founded on his commentary on the Pentateuch – and numerous commentaries have been written on his commentary.
Ibn Ezra’s exegesis concentrates on the simple sense of the text, the Peshat, by grammatical principles. Although he derives much of his exegetical material from his predecessors, his original perspective is evidenced in the witty and lively language of his commentaries.

Toledot: The Less-Loved Child

Isaac favoured Esau …
but Rebekka favoured Jacob. (Bereishit 25:28).

I see the light in your eyes
that never shines for me.
When he enters
your gaze softens.
He tells you of his day:
your face is aglow
as you listen intently.
Your heads are close together,
your voices murmur gently.
I would like to partake
of the affinity you share.
I wish, one time, your eyes
would shine for me.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch* points out the inevitable pernicious effect on the twins caused by each parent favoring one child. It can be explained that Esau was beloved of Isaac because the latter could perhaps vicariously enjoy Esau’s energetic, active personality so contrasted to his own introverted, passive nature. Rebekka (who had been told by God that Jacob was destined for spiritual greatness) favoured her younger, meditative son. However, R’ Hirsh castigates both parents for letting their sympathies show.
In her book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt says that no matter how attentive parents are, we never get all the approval we crave. Esau’s anguished cry, “Have you but one blessing, my father?” resounds in the heart of every child who has ever felt displaced in his parent’s heart by a brother or sister.

*R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) was a German Rabbi best known for being one of the founders of modern Orthodox Judaism. Between 1867-78 he wrote an innovative and influential commentary on the Pentateuch.

Chayei Sarah: The Meeting

The Meeting

At the end of Parashat Vayeira, after the binding of Isaac, the story concludes, “Then Abraham returned to his servants …” and no mention is made of Isaac! The father and son arrived together and then only Abraham returned. The sages, of course, question this and wonder whether Isaac was estranged from his father. The Kotzker Rebbe (R’ Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk (1787–1859)) taught that although it was hard for Abraham to bind his son on the altar, it was also hard for him to release him because he knew that Isaac would always remember that his father had come close to killing him.

In his book Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz describes both Isaac and Rebekka, who came from such contrasting backgrounds.
Isaac, he points out, was nurtured and prepared for his task of continuing Abraham’s spiritual legacy by his mother and father. (Sarah, for example, sent Ishmael away to shield Isaac from what she perceived to be his negative influence and Abraham complied. ) Isaac was a passive personality: he did not go to find a wife – she was brought to him; he did not go to war – the fighting was all done for him; and even when he prayed for his sons and for the future, it was Rebekka who engineered it.
In contrast, Rebekka’s outstanding quality was her resoluteness: her certainty and her commitment to whatever she believed to be right. She is also portrayed as generous and open-hearted in her encounter with Eliezer at the well.
In her book, Wrestling with Angels, Naomi Rosenblatt speculates why Rebekka was so unhesitating when asked whether she would go with Eliezer and wed Isaac: maybe like Abraham and Sarah she was willing to be a pioneer and go out into the desert; maybe she was tired of her scheming materialistic brother and sought a more meaningful existence; or perhaps she was simply a young girl happy for the chance to leave her father’s house and spread her own wings. In any event, Rebekka was as proactive as Isaac was passive.
Rabbi Steinsaltz says that the two were actually complementary. For all her determination, Rebekka made no effort to dominate Isaac. It was clear to her that he was saintly and righteous, but that his blindness was not only physical. She tried, therefore to ensure that the right son received Isaac’s blessing. Whereas Isaac grew up as the child of righteous parents, Rebekka was raised in an unsavory family and she was thus a far better character judge than Isaac.
Rabbi Steinsaltz concludes, “Isaac knew evil only from afar, Rebekka from close up. Her life was a personal victory over her environment…she who knew the pain and ugliness of evil would have to be the one to manifest her own personal victory of light shining through the darkness.”

The Torah describes the meeting: Isaac had gone out to walk in the fields in the afternoon. The Talmud (Ber. 26a-b) interprets “walking” as “praying”. Rebekka approached on a camel. The text, using identical phrases for both Isaac and Rebekka, conveys an impression of simultaneity: each looking up and “recognising” the other. In Rebekka’s case, the account is expanded: that she slipped down from her camel and covered herself with her veil. The Midrash asks how she perceived him and answers that she was in awe when she saw him praying to his invisible God, which was very different from her idol-worshipping family. In her book The Beginning of Desire, Avivah Zornberg suggests that Rebekka was suddenly aware of Isaac’s suffering and donned a veil as if to shield herself from it.

The Torah tells us that Isaac brought Rebekka into his mother’s tent and he loved her and found comfort after his mother’s death (Bereishit 24:67). This is the first reference in the Torah to love between spouses. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:16) tells of a light shining over Sarah’s tent throughout her lifetime, which disappeared after death, but returned when Rebekka arrived.

Chayei Sarah – Sarah’s Dream

And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba. (Bereishit 23:2).

Tossing uneasily
in the depths of a dream,
Sarah heard an echo,
“Abraham… take your son…
Isaac…and offer him…
as a burnt offering
on one of the mountains
that I will show you.”

First light played gently
on her closed eyelids.
Sarah sat up startled,
Abraham had slipped
from her side.
The cool breeze
of early morning
caressed her face
as vainly
she sought her son.

Shadows lengthened
amid rising disquiet.
Sarah murmured, “Oh God,
I’ve lived my life:
Isaac has his dreams;
take my life, not his!”

Agonized, she gazed
at the star-splashed sky.
“Lord of the world,
You promised that
through Isaac,
Abraham’s descendants
would be countless as the stars.
Take my life, not his!”

Three days elapsed
in mounting terror.
The angel called to Abraham,
“Do not raise your hand
against the boy.
Do not do anything to him.”

Abraham offered a ram for his son.

Sarah’s heart, unknowing,
brimmed over with love and dread.

Although the Torah never explicitly makes the connection, many commentators attribute Sarah’s death to the near-tragedy of the Akeida. One Midrash (Pirkei d’R’ Eliezer 32) recounts that Satan reported to Sarah what had occurred and she died on the spot. Another Midrash (Tanchuma Vayeira 23) says that Isaac himself told Sarah that his father had almost sacrificed him and she died from shock at the destruction of her belief in God that he would demand such a sacrifice, and in Abraham that he would comply (stopped only by an angel).
Phyllis Trible, a contemporary biblical scholar and feminist, imagines Sarah pleading with God to take her instead of Isaac. (Beginning Anew: Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days.)
Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira (1889-1943), in his book Sacred Fire (written in the Warsaw Ghetto) writes, “Sarah died in order to show God that a Jew should not be expected to suffer unlimited levels of anguish. Even though a person, with God’s mercy, survives and escapes death, nevertheless…his mind and spirit are forever broken…”

Vayeira – Abraham at the Altar

Abraham at the Altar
When he heard God’s call
to spare his son,
Abraham cried, “I swear,
I will not leave this altar
save I say what’s in my heart!”
And God adjured him, “Speak!”

And Abraham demanded,
“Did You not pledge
that Isaac’s seed
would fill the world?”
And God replied, “I did!”

Then Abraham said,
“I could have reproached You,
Lord of the world,
for yesterday’s pledge
You revoked today –
and yet I spoke no word.”

“So promise me now,
when my children and theirs
act counter to Your will,
You too will hold Your peace
and pardon them their sins!”

And the Lord of the world proclaimed,
“Your children will stray
in time to come
and I will sit in judgment.
Let them retell this tale,
sound the ram’s horn
and I must then forgive.”

The profoundly disturbing questions which arise out of the episode of the Binding of Isaac have provoked passionate discussions over the centuries. In the Midrash, the theme of the Akeda occupies as important a place as the Creation and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Midrash on the Akeda brings many scenarios attempting to imagine and explain the enigmatic actions of the protagonists. Abraham at the Altar is a rendering of one such Midrash.

Vayeira – The Test

I. The Test 
You told me to sacrifice my son,
my beloved child
on whom our dreams and hopes,
both Yours and mine,
are centered.
I overrode my immutable love
for this long-awaited child,
to do Your will.
I will go through with this
to the end.
But will You remain silent
while Your son is sacrificed?
For he is Your son too.

In his book, Messengers of God, Biblical Portraits and Legends, Elie Wiesel describes the Akeida as a double-edged test. He says, ” God subjected Abraham to it, yet at the same time Abraham forced it on God. As though Abraham had said: I defy You, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end…”

However, in Avraham Burg’s commentary, Very Near to You: Human readings of the Torah, Burg considers the possibility that the test was indeed Abraham’s test, but that he failed it. He interprets the fact that, only a few lines previously, God confides in Abraham (about Sodom, about Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael) and then, at the critical moment of the sacrifice, a messenger, an angel, is sent to stop Abraham. From the moment Isaac is bound, God never speaks to Abraham again. Burg construes God’s silence as anger at Abraham’s blind, uncritical willingness to slaughter his son. So here is the poem again, reflecting that test.

II. The Test 
I told you to sacrifice your son,
your beloved child
on whom our dreams and hopes,
both yours and Mine,
are centered.
You overrode your immutable love
for this long-awaited child:
could this be My will?
Will you go through with this
to the end?
Will you remain silent
and sacrifice your son?
For he is My son too.