“It is Hard to be a Jew” (Parasha Toldot 11/06/21)



It can be tough to be the son of a well-known father.  Sometimes sons follow in their famous fathers’ footsteps – Michael Douglas and Kirk Douglas, George W. Bush and George HW Bush, Peyton Manning and Archie Manning, are three examples that come to mind. At times some sons seem to rebel against their famous fathers. For example, Ronald Reagan Jr, the son of the Republican President, Ronald Reagan, became a noted liberal commentator in America. Jim Morrison, the Doors singer, was the son of Admiral George Stephen Morrison. Admiral Morrison was the head of American naval forces during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to US involvement in the Vietnam war. His son, however, became a global rock star and   a symbol of the counterculture which opposed that war. They did not speak much.


This week our parasha begins, “This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac.”  Yes, we get it! No sooner does the parasha promise to tell us the story of Isaac, we hear about his father! Isaac will always be known as his father’s son. We were informed last week, when Abraham purchased a gravesite for his wife Sarah, that he was known as a mighty prince of G-d.  This opening verse of this parasha all but announces that Isaac grew up in the shadow of his revered Dad, the first of the Hebrew patriarchs.   Make no mistake about it, before this point it was all Abraham’s story.  How Abraham rejoiced at the birth of his son, Isaac. How he almost slaughtered his son. How he sent his servant to find a wife for his son. How he bequeathed to his son “all that was his”.  How he protected his son by sending all of his other children away.  Throughout it all, Isaac is a passive participant in the drama that is Abraham’s life.


Yet Isaac has a difficult and unprecedented task before him – one not faced by his own father, Abraham.  Isaac is the first person in Jewish history who must pass down the Jewish tradition that he learned from his mother and father to his own children.    


How successful are Isaac and his wife Rivkah in passing on the tradition of Abraham and Sarah to their children, Jacob and Esau?  Consider this: Esau is 40 years old when he marries for the first time. He marries two Canaanite women. The Torah tells us that Isaac and Rivka were quite unhappy with their son’s marital choices. Later, we have the following account in scriptures:


“When Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Padan-aram, there to take a wife for himself, blessing him and instructing him: “Do not take a wife from among the daughters of Canaan …. Esau understood that his father Isaac looked with disfavor on the daughters of Canaan …..”


 It was not until after his own marriage to two Canaanite women, when he overheard Isaac blessing Jacob telling him not to take a wife from among the Canaanites, did he understand that he had displeased his parents!  How is poor Esau supposed to know not to marry a Canaanite woman if his parents never teach him that! Apparently, communication was very poor in this family.


Then there is the story of Isaac and Rivkas second son, Jacob. On his way to Padan-aram, he has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Upon awakening he makes a vow, “If G-d is with me and watches over me on the path that I am taking … and if I return safely to my father’s house, then Adonai will be my G-d!”  “IF!?”  Clearly, Jacob also has not yet accepted the G-d of his father.


What accounts for this difficulty of Isaac and Rivka in passing along the Jewish tradition to their sons?  I think it has to do with Isaac’s history. Not only did he carry the burden of being the unremarkable son of an accomplished father, but he endured  the trauma of the Akedah, where his father Abraham took him to Mount Moriah with the intention of sacrificing him to G-d!  Could we blame him if he was at best ambivalent about passing the religion of his father, a religion where he suffered mightily, down to his own children? 


In a sense, Isaac represents the untold numbers of Jews throughout history who struggled to pass Judaism on to their children. Sometimes they struggled because of the suffering and persecution they themselves endured because they were Jews. “Schver zu sein a yid”, “It’s hard to be a Jew” laments the character Ivanov in a Sholem Aleichem play of the same name. Ivanov, a Russian gentile, has switched identities with his Jewish friend and finds it difficult to contend with the oppression, pogroms and prejudices that are part of the everyday life of a Russian Jew. 


Surely, we can identify with the challenge of Isaac and Rivka faced to pass their Judaism on to their children.   Like Isaac and Rivka, we all do this imperfectly.  Ultimately, despite many of their flaws, they succeeded in passing their Judaism on to one of their sons, to Jacob. May we, with all our flaws, succeed with our children as well.


Shabbat Shalom