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Parashat Toledot 5780 — 11/30/2019

Parashat Toledot 5780 — 11/30/2019

Bereishit 25:19-28:9

Fathers and Sons

And these are the offspring of Yitzchak the son of Avraham – Avraham fathered Yitzchak (25:19)

If Yitzchak is identified as the “son of Avraham” why do we need to be told that “Avraham fathered Yitzchak”? Furthermore, if we’re going to talk about Yitzchak’s offspring, why do we have to backtrack and talk about the prior generation? Or haChaim gives seven approaches, of which we will focus on two that appear to contradict one another:

Another thing that [the verse] alludes to with its statement Avraham fathered Yitzchak is as follows: Although the verse compares the good deeds of Yitzchak to those of Avraham … nevertheless, his [spiritual] level was not the same as that of Avraham, because his father caused him to merit [attaining such great heights]. This is the meaning of Avraham fathered Yitzchak: the aspect of good within him came from Avraham the one who fathered him. This is as opposed to Avraham, whose father, Terach, was an idolater, yet Avraham exerted himself to recognize his Creator. … This was not the case with Yitzchak, for Avraham imbued in him a love of the true good…

Compare this to the next approach:

… the deeds of Yitzchak were in one sense superior to the deeds of Avraham, for [the deeds] of a righteous person who is the son of a righteous person cannot be compared to [i.e. they are superior to] the deeds of a righteous person who is the son of a wicked person, such as Avraham who was the son of Terach [who was an idolator]… and the actions of a wicked father “dim the light” of the son’s soul to some extent.

We find the same situation a bit later in our parashah when both Yitzchak and Rivka were praying for a child. The verse states that Gd allowed Himself to be entreated “by him,” i.e. by Yitzchak and not by Rivka. The Rabbis comment that the prayer of a righteous person who is the son or daughter of a righteous person [i.e. Yitzchak] cannot be compared to the prayers of a righteous person who is the son or daughter of a wicked person [i.e. Rivka, daughter of the idolater Betuel].

We also find this dichotomy in the Talmud. R. Yehoshua’s mother is praised for bringing his cradle to the study hall every day so that he would grow up from the earliest age with the sounds of Torah study – he grew up to be one of the greatest Sages of the Mishnah. Elisha ben Abuya’s father also exposed his son to Torah study from early on, but it was for honor and glory, and not for the sake of heaven. Elisha ben Abuya did grow into a great Torah scholar, but he eventually became an apostate and is known in the Talmud simply as “Other.”

I think this contradiction is fairly easy to resolve. “Greatness” can be measured in two ways, one absolute and the other relative. The absolute scale is a measure of the extent to which an action is in accord with the positive, life-supporting direction – that is, to the extent that the action furthers Gd’s plan for creation. The other standard is a relative standard, where an action is judged on the basis of how hard the person had to work to choose that course of action. For example, when I first began to keep kosher, the juicy BLT’s in my friend Marie’s frig were a mighty temptation. Now, it wouldn’t even occur to me to take a bite. The relative value of my abstention then is much greater than the relative value of my abstention now. And for someone who grew up in an observant household and remained observant all his life, the relative value of not eating a BLT might be even less, even though objectively the value is the same in all 3 cases. In the words of Pirke Avot (5:23), l’fum tzar agra / According to the effort is the reward.

On the issue of prayer it seems that the issue is more clear-cut. Gd apparently responded to Yitzchak’s prayers rather than Rivka’s. But why? Didn’t Rivka put in the extra effort needed to first wean herself away from the idolatry of her father’s house and then turn to Gd? Yitzchak had it easy – he grew up under Avraham and Sarah’s tutelage and prayed to the Master of the Universe from day 1. When it comes to prayer, is it only absolute quality that counts?

I think perhaps in this case the answer is that absolute values do matter. In prayer we are putting an impulse of desire into the transcendent with the hope that it will blossom into the concrete result we are praying for. Clearly, this will happen best if our minds and hearts are pure and clear, so that the impulse itself is pure and the path to its realization, through our mind and then outward, is also pure. If, in our case, Rivka has absorbed some of the sinful, impure influence of her father’s house, then that will affect her prayers and their outcomes, until and unless she gets rid of those impurities. Yitzchak, on the other hand, grew up in a pure environment, and so absorbed much less in the way of impurities. His prayers were clearer and more able to carry his desires into fruition, at least at that point in the couple’s history.

Is this fair? I don’t know, but it’s the reality. There are those who are born into purer environments and those who have to struggle against the proverbial “sea of troubles” just to keep their heads above water. Each of us is given specific challenges to overcome, and specific jobs to carry out, and we are each given the tools to accomplish our tasks. If we all do the best job we can at being ourselves, the world will function in a harmonious way, and Gd and Gd’s perfection will no longer be hidden.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Toledot

“Toldot” means “generations, descendants.”  The parshah begins with “and these are the generations of Isaac” and tells the story of Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau from whom generations will be born, and of Gd’s promise to Isaac that if Isaac will follow Gd, as did Isaac’s father Abraham, then his descendants will be multiplied “like the stars of the heavens” and the land and all nations will be blessed by Isaac’s descendants.

On the surface of this parshah, we see competition, deception, favoritism: Isaac and Rebecca do not seem to have been good parents, skilled and effective in raising two sons to be whole, complete.

It’s common to say that Esau, “a man of the fields,” symbolizes the outer field of life, the physical, while Jacob, “a quiet person, sitting in tents,” symbolizes the inner field of life, the spiritual.

Often people see a battle taking place between these two people and these two aspects of life, but life, to be Life, needs to have both physical and spiritual and they need to be integrated.

A great blessing came to me in understanding a step in how this integration takes place when I heard Dr. Doug Birx, well-known to many in our congregation, giving a quote from Maharishi, also well-known to many in our congregation.

Maharishi commented that Ananda, Total Joy, is everyone’s birthright.

Looking at the story of Jacob asking Esau to sell him his birthright for some porridge he was making, it occurred to me that Jacob, symbolizing the Spiritual aspect of Life, was asking Esau, symbolizing the Physical aspect of Life, to end his famished state by surrendering his commitment to the Physical Alone, and opening himself to the spiritual porridge Jacob was cooking.

Porridge seems to have a bubbly quality to it and cooking it seemed to me to be equivalent to revealing that Ananda/Joy?Consciousness/Unified Field/Gd, has a texture: it is not just flat, it has a bubbly quality.

So rather than Jacob cheating Esau, acting cruelly, Jacob was actually enlivening the Joy in Esau, ending his famishment, by taking from him his false birthright in the Physical, and giving him his real birthright, in Ananda, Gd.

And for us, Toledot reminds us that we need to live balanced lives, making sure that our material needs are nourished by our spiritual development.

Reading, reciting, hearing, discussing Torah, the Siddur (prayer book) and their supplements and commentaries is an excellent way to do this.

Baruch HaShem