Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Walk Article

Rabbi David Walk

This week we have the only Torah reading which contains all three of our nation's Patriarchs in action.  We begin the parsha by reminding ourselves that Avraham was the father of Yitzchak, and then six verses later Ya'akov is born.  I think that's why Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340), who always introduces the readings with an appropriate verse from Mishle, this week chose:  Children's children are the crown of elders; and the glory of the children belong to their fathers (Proverbs 17:6).  So, we're informed that grandparents feel like royalty. Thank God, I know that feeling, nine times over.  Offspring, hopefully, feel pride in their forebears.  Rabbeinu Bechaye informs us that the crown (Hebrew:  atar) is greater than the glory (Hebrew:  tiferet, sometimes translated as splendor).  We'll have to get back to this concept that children bestow greater benefits than their progenitor, because I'm not sure that this idea is self evident.  Don't we usually consider the ancestors superior to the descendants?
            Before we get back to this question, I want to discuss the famously problematic first verse in our parsha. And these are the offspring of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac (Genesis 25:19).  What exactly is the verse telling me when it states that Yitzchak was the son of Avraham?  And then it adds, oh, by the way, Avraham fathered Yitzchak.  So, Rashi (1040-1105) quotes the Midrash that:  the scorners of the generation were saying that Sarah had conceived from King Avimelech of the Philistines, for she had lived with Abraham for many years and had not conceived from him. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He shaped the features of Yitzchak's face to exactly resemble Avraham's, and everyone attested that Avraham had begotten Isaac. Okay, the repetition in the verse is to quiet the gossip of the cynics.  However, there are other ways to explain our redundancy.
           The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, second Gerer Rebbe, 1847-1905) suggests a novel approach to our problem.  He posits that the verse's format of beginning with the words 'and these' constitutes an addition to the previous material.  He believes that this means that Yitzchak was basically an add on to Avraham.  What does this mean?  Yitzchak was a very different personality than Avraham, introverted to his father's extrovert and, mystically, he represented awe of God to his father's love of God.  The Rebbe cleverly explains that the emphasis on the paternity of Avraham teaches us that Yitzchak's awe and reverence for God grew out of his father's love and kindness, not, as seen by others, in opposition to his father.  When the attribute of reverence develops from the starting point of love, it can discover ultimate and eternal truth, which is hidden at the interface of these disparate approaches to the world.  Lo and behold, the offspring and synthesis of these spiritual giants is Ya'akov, the man of truth (Micah 7:20).  I think it's interesting to note that in mystical jargon Avraham is called chesed, Yitzchak represents gevurah, but Ya'akov is tiferet.  Remember that's the word employed to describe the glory children receive from their parents.  Rabbeinu Bechaye wants us to associate that idea with the development of Ya'akov as the beloved grandson and product of his forebears.  He chose the verse carefully.
         The significance of the various personalities of the Patriarchs can be seen by another comment made by the Sfat Emet on a totally different issue.  Embedded in our reading is vignette about digging wells in the arid climate of Eretz Yisrael.  Here's the story:  Yitzchak reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Avraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Avraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.  Yitzchak's servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Yitzchak's herdsmen and said, "The water is ours!" So he named the well Esek (contention), because they disputed with him.  Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah (hatred). He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth (wide spaces, Genesis 26:18-22).  Since most of us can't get too excited about well excavation, the more original commentaries come up with ingenious interpretations of this incident.  The Gerer Rebbe teaches that digging wells is a metaphor for removing the superficial and external material of this world to uncover the inner treasure of spirituality hidden within.  It's important to realize that these buried hoards of holiness can be found everywhere.  More significant is that each well represented the unique strength of each of our three beloved Patriarchs.  Yitzchak first uncovers the well of his father, which had been filled in with Avraham's demise.  His own well is next, but that is the cause of friction, because he's not accepted as heir to his father's legacy and influence in society.  It's the third well, symbolic of his son, Ya'akov, which has the strength and stability to be unchallenged.  It's Ya'akov's family which produces children uniformly loyal to the covenant.

            The ancestors are pretty wonderful, because they saw things that went unnoticed by others.  However, since the new generations add on to their vision with new formulations of the basic concepts, that's also amazing.  But which is greater?  The verse in Proverbs seems to suggest that the children are superior, because they represent a crown which is a cut above glory or tiferet.  But I think the important thing is for children to carefully scrutinize their parents to discover those treasures in their personalities worthy of emulation.  Maybe the parents get the crown, because they have an even harder job.  They have to pass along their strongest talents while encouraging their offspring to develop their own independent personality.  We can't allow our children to become clones. To follow in the footsteps of our progenitors while remaining uniquely ourselves is not so easy, but is necessary for the evolution of our people and, perhaps, our species.                                


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