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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Toldot                            November 21, 2020 - 5 Kislev 5781

11/20/2020 09:33:41 AM


Well it’s happened. Not that Toronto is entering yet another lockdown, no. Jamie and I have somehow managed to keep it together pretty well up until now, but we’ve reached a turning point… at 2:02 am, we realized that we’ve come to the end of Netflix… and Amazon Prime… and Disney+. And it’s not as though the shul hasn’t been keeping us busy. In a strange way, our synagogue has never been more active with at least one community program going on just about every day, and plans in the works for a Toronto-wide Kabbalat Shabbat program, a virtual chanukah unity concert coming with 9 synagogues already on board, and more are signing up. Regular virtual shabbat morning services are coming back as of next week, I’m making my way through the new book we’re doing for the Beth Radom book club, and a virtual community talent show is coming in January… I’ll be playing the spoons. It’s just that there’s so much time, and absolutely nowhere to go. And even the news is boring again, which I’m admittedly grateful for, as they say, no news is good news. We know that there are two effective vaccines that will eventually be available, it’s just a matter of waiting… without Netflix. But I have to believe that I’m not the only one to realize that even when I’m being as productive as I can be, just how much I miss engaging with the world, getting out there and making the most out of life.

It’s for this reason that in this week’s parsha, Toldot, I’ve been thinking more about the Biblical character, Yitzhak. What comes to mind when we think of Yitzhak, the second of the three great forefathers (did you catch that? Second of the three great forefathers?). At least for me, it’s the story of the Binding of Isaac, which I suspect is probably what most people think of. But really how many other stories are there? There’s the story of the news that Sarah would conceive Yitzhak, there’s the story in our parsha this week when Yitzhak is tricked by Yaakov and Rivka into giving Yaakov the greater blessing, and that’s about it. Even in the story of Yitzhak marrying Rivka, Yitzhak’s character is entirely uninvolved. Now compare that to Abraham, who left his home, who met three angels, who tried to save the city of Sodom, who had audiences with kings. And Jacob? Who plots with his mother to trick his father who runs away from his brother who threatens to kill him, who had the dream about the ladder, who worked 7 years for his uncle’s promise that he could marry Rachel, only to be tricked and forced to work another 7 years, who raised twelve sons and a daughter, and even wrestled with an angel after which he is given the name Yisra’el? Now there’s a forefather!

When we explore the ancient aggadic literature, the first story teaches that Yitzhak was the counterpart to his father Avraham in body and soul, that he resembled him in every way, in beauty, wisdom, strength, wealth and noble deeds, and it was therefore as great an honour for Yitzhak to be called the son of his father as for Avraham to be called the father of his son. Of course, the Conservative movement has no difficulty embracing biblical criticism, and so when we read rabbinic texts like this, it’s hard not to think “the rabbis doth protest too much”. That’s Shakespeare, he liked to protest the rabbis. And why not? Yitzhak seems to be an ancillary character at best, and at worst, at 37 years old, he couldn’t be bothered to find a wife for himself, the servant Eliezer went and did it for him, and he doted on his brutish older son, Esau while apparently ignoring his younger son, Yaakov. And let’s not forget, it’s not as though Yitzhak was stuck in quarantine for years out of his life.

Despite these apparent shortcomings, however, it seems that Yitzhak still manages to do whatever job it seems that God had intended for him. When a famine strikes, and Yitzhak makes plans to move his clan to Egypt, God appears to him saying, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you; Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you, and to your seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Avraham your father; And I will make your seed multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these countries; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 26:2-5)

The rabbis ask, why is it that God allowed both Abraham and Jacob to go to Egypt when the need arose, but Yitzchak was prohibited?

To answer that, the rabbis begin with another question. What must Yitzhak have been like as a person? We certainly can’t tell much from the things that Yitzchak says, since he doesn’t speak much in the Torah at all. Perhaps he’s the strong and silent type. But then we remember Yitzhak’s traumatic childhood – his father was ready to sacrifice him on God’s instruction, but still it doesn’t seem that Yitzhak even protested. The Akeidah may have even been the reason that his mother Sarah died, but how did it affect Yitzchak? The Rabbis say that Yitzchak was an “Olah Temimah – a perfect, pure offering”, making him a person of unique holiness. Perhaps he didn’t have the gift of the gab like his father, perhaps he wasn’t the warrior that his son, Jacob would grow up to be, but a simple, quiet man of piety and contemplation. The rabbis suggest that his holiness gave him a special connection to the Promised Land, and that going to live in Egypt would be beneath him. Unlike his father and his son who were merchants and shepherds, Yitchak focused his clan on agriculture, using his connection to the land to amass enormous wealth “for he had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and great store of servants; and the P’lisht’im envied him” (Gen. 26:12-14).

In the story where Jacob disguises himself as his brother, Esau, in order to trick an infirmed Yitzchak into giving him the greater blessing, we note the peculiar wording as the Torah describes the scene, “And he came near, and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garment, and blessed him and said, See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which God has blessed” (Gen. 27:27).

We often wonder why it is that people who live in urban areas typically have very different personalities, ideologies and political leanings than those who live in rural areas. Many urbanites fail to understand why rural folks can often be very defensive when it comes to their territory, and there is a historical reason for this. Merchants and tradesmen are portable. When a threat is perceived, a clan of merchants can relatively easily pack up and relocate, but a farmer’s livelihood has always relied on staying put and having the skills to defend their territory. It is no wonder why Yitzchak may have valued Esau’s skills more than Jacob’s, as he probably saw in Esau much of himself, despite Esau’s brutishness.

Yitzchak, it seems, was a man who knew how to hunker down, who knew how to stick it out for the long haul. Strong and silent, Yitzhak knew how to bide his time, and even prosper while doing so. And his legacy is of course very much a part of the Jewish people, who have proven time and again, that when we need to, we can hunker down and wait out a storm, Netflix, or no Netflix.

Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782