Parasha Toldot: Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons
In my little town
I never meant nothin'
I was just my fathers son
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun 

As Paul Simon writes, 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.  Other sons seem to rebel against their famous fathers –Ronald Reagan Jr, the son of the Republican president is 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 sex symbol of the counter-culture which opposed that war. They did not speak much.

So our parasha begins, “This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac.”  Yes, we get it! – Abraham is Isaac’s father.  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 illustrious dad.  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 has to pass down the Jewish tradition that he learned from his mother and father to his own children.     How successful are Rivkah and Isaac 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 this causes despair to his Isaac and Rivka.  Later on, 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 …..” Apparently, communication was very poor in this family. 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! Then there is 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 was he the unremarkable son of an accomplished father, but he endured a great trauma in his life. After all, His father tried to kill him in the name of G-d.  Would you blame him, and Rivka, if he was at best ambivalent about passing the religion of his father on to his 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. They had mixed feelings about passing the burdens of being a Jew to their children. On a more prosaic note, many parents in our own time may be ambivalent about sending their children for religious education because of their own negative experiences in the Hebrew School of their youths.  Surely we can identify with the challenge of Isaac and Rivka to pass their Judaism on to their children.   Like Isaac and Rivka, we all do this imperfectly.  Ultimately, with all of their flaws, they succeeded in passing their Judaism on to Jacob. May we, with all our flaws, succeed in this endeavor as well. Shabbat Shalom