Sign In Forgot Password

Toldot 5780

12/03/2019 01:09:41 PM


Maharat Ruth Friedman

Last week Elishva Appelbaum taught a great Netziv on this week’s parsha that I want to revisit. He asks why Rivkah is afraid of Yitzchak, as evidenced by her reaction to him the first time that she seems him. This is much different than the dynamic of the marriages of Avraham his father, and Yaakov his son; only Yitzchak’s wife is afraid of him. The Netziv answers that Rikvah had to be afraid of Yitzchak to ensure that they would never work in partnership. Because if Rikvah wasn’t afraid of Yitzchak, she may try to approach him to talk about giving the bracha to Yaakov instead of Esav. This conversation could lead to a compromise or resolution that would interfere with the necessary outcome of Yaakov receiving the bracha instead of Esav. Rikvah knew that the reason that Yitzchak loved Eisav - because game was in his mouth - was superficial, and she would make things happen behind Yitzchak’s back so that Yaakov got the blessing he should really get. So she and Yitzchak couldn’t have a relationship of partnership.

I find this such a sad commentary on Yitzchak. What does it mean about a person to say that he needed to have a wife who was afraid of him so that she wouldn’t confront him to his face and instead would try to manipulate him behind his back because she knows that the son that he loves is just a hunter? To know that God sent you a wife who was afraid to confront you and had to go behind your back so there was no chance that your own feelings would be validated? What does this say about Yitzchak? How did he end up in a place of being so broken? 

There is a midrash that addresses this tragic scene. In the introduction to the story of the blessings, the text says ותכהן עניו מראות - Yitzchak’s eyes were “too dim to see.” The midrash offers 2 interpretations of this phrase. First, R. Eleazar ben Azariah teaches that Yitzchak’s eyes were too dim to see the wickedness of Esav (and therefore Yitzchak was preparing to give Esav the blessing.) The second opinion is that Yitzchak’s eyes were dim because at the moment of the akeidah, as Avraham stood over his son to slaughter him, the ministering angels cried and their tears dripped into Yitzchak’s eyes.

This midrash gets at what many of us talk about with Yitzchak, which is the trauma of the akeidah: the moment that his father prepared to slaughter him on a mountain, only to be stopped at the final moment by an angel of God. This midrash imagines that the fear is so palpable that even the מלאכי השרת were crying! But more significantly, it imagines that the trauma stuck with him his whole life. 

This itself is not really surprising - Yitzchak is a meek character throughout the Torah. After his mom dies he’s lost. When he’s with Rikvah in Gerar in this week’s parsha and there’s all the fighting with the wells he doesn’t engage is confrontation; he just moves around, avoiding it. We can’t know if this is his personality or the effects of the akeidah because the akeidah is the first thing we know about him. But we do know for the rest of his life he is quiet, and conflict avoidant.

And yet, the midrash imagines that the trauma only reappears by dimming his eyes much later in life, when his children are already grown. Why does the midrash wait until now to address it?

I believe that this is because the scene of the blessings is the first time that we see Yitzchak acting as a parent; in fact, it is the only time in the Torah that we see him interact with his children. That the midrash imagines that this is when the trauma of the akeidah roars to life connects Yitzchak’s trauma from the akeidah to the lasting impact it had on his relationship with Avraham.

Much ink has been spilled analyzing the lasting impact of the indisputable trauma that the akeidah inflicted on Yitzchak and Avraham’s relationship. Today I wanted to focus not on what happened during the akeidah itself, but what happened immediately afterward. God bestows blessings upon Avraham for having been prepared to sacrifice his son, and then we are told 

וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אַבְרָהָ֖ם בִּבְאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע׃ 

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

The obvious question is - where is Yitzchak? He and Avraham traveled there with the servants, but suddenly, Yitzchak seems to disappear from the story. The Breishit Rabbah offers us two answers. The first is that Avraham immediately sent him away to study at the yeshiva of shem v’ever - Avraham recognized how precious Torah was to him, and he wanted to ensure that Yitzchak got the same level of education that he did. The second explanation is that Avraham sent Yitzchak home at night separately because he was afraid of the ayin hara. There is a concept that those who have survived miracles are vulnerable to the evil eye, and because Yitzchak had just experienced a miracle by surviving the akeidah, Avraham wanted to protect him by sending him away secretly at night.

Both explanations offer the same argument - Avraham wanted to do what he thought was best for Yitzchak, so he sent him away. But tragically, both achieve the same outcome - right after Yitzchak experiences a deep trauma with his father, a time when children need their parents the most, his parents disappear. His father sends him away, and his mother dies, leaving him to wander around alone. 

This midrash really resonated with me this year, with the release of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” this week. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Mr. Rogers and the lasting impact he had on society. He had a painful and lonely childhood, and chose to dedicate his life to giving children the adult connection and support that he himself lacked. Mr. Rogers used his show to address deeply painful topics with children - everything from political assassinations to 911 to divorce. He had a special gift for understanding children and how to communicate with them.

One of the most special parts about Mr. Rogers is that he approached adults with the same love and care that he showed for children. Below is a quote from Tom Junod, the journalist who serves as the basis of the journalist character in the new film. He writes:

When I first visited the Neighborhood 21 years ago, one of his in-house writers, Hedda Sharapan, told me what had happened when he’d enlisted her to write a manual intended to teach doctors how to talk to children. She worked hard on it, using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: “You were a child once too.

And that’s it, really—his message to doctors was his message to politicians, CEOs, celebrities, educators, writers, students, everyone. It was also the basis of his strange superpowers. He wanted us to remember what it was like to be a child so that he could talk to us; he wanted to talk to us so that we could remember what it was like to be a child. And he could talk to anyone, believing that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God.

Mr. Rogers’ generosity and patience for both children and adults was rooted in his understanding that many of the challenging characteristics we all exhibit are rooted in struggles from our childhood. He knew we were all once children, many of whom were raised in a society that did not allow them to express anger and didn’t acknowledge their emotional pain. His gaze was like an x-ray, peeling away the layers until he reached - and embraced - every person’s core.

If Mr. Rogers had the opportunity to meet Yitzchak, I would like to think that he would have seen a man who had experienced a trauma early in his life and was left alone to process it. A man whose pain was so great that it tainted his ability to serve as a parent. And most importantly, a man whose life may have looked a lot different if he had received the love and care that he desperately needed from his father. 

I do not blame Avraham for sending Yitzchak away; though he was misguided, Avraham seemed to think that this was the best thing for his son. But we cannot deny that this decision caused additional lasting pain for Yitzchak, and this story arouses enormous gratitude for people like Mr. Rogers, who used their own brokenness in childhood to alter the course of future generations. 

I wanted to conclude with a teaching from the Peninei Halacha. As we said, many commentators see the fact that Yitzchak loved Esav כי ציד בפיו as a flaw, as compared to Rivkah who had the clarity of mind to understand that Yaakov was the more upstanding son worthy of the blessing. But the Peniniei Halacha does not see Yitzchak’s love for Eisav not as a failing. Rather, he argues, Yitzchak realized that Esav was different than him, and therefore sought to connect with him. Yitzchak easily identified with Yaakov, a timid guy who stayed at home. He had a harder time connecting with Esav, his opposite, and so he davka strove to love the parts of Esav that he didn’t connect with as easily. This elevates Yitzchak over Rikvah as the healthier parent in the story, and redeems his character. It reminds us that we all struggle with challenges we have faced in our lives. Sometimes those challenges leave permanent scars that compromise our ability to function in the present. But other times they can serve as tremendous growth opportunities for us to redeem the flaws in our own upbringings and improve the experience for future generations. Shabbat shalom. 

ותקח הצעיף ותתכס. מרוב פחד ובושה כמו שמבינה שאינה ראויה להיות לו לאשה ומאז והלאה נקבע בלבה פחד. ולא היתה עם יצחק כמו שרה עם אברהם. ורחל עם יעקב. אשר בהיות להם איזה קפידא עליהם לא בושו לדבר רתת לפניהם. משא״כ רבקה. וכ״ז הקדמה להסיפור שיבוא בפ׳ תולדות שהיו יצחק ורבקה מחולקים בדעות. ומכ״מ לא מצאה רבקה לב להעמיד את יצחק על דעתה בדברים נכוחים כי היא יודעת האמת כי עשו רק ציד בפיו. וכן בשעת הברכות. וכ״ז הי׳ סיבה מהקב״ה שיגיעו הברכות ליעקב דוקא באופן כזה וכאשר יבואר במקומו. ואלו הית׳ רבקה עם אישה כמו שרה ורחל עם אנשיהן לא הי׳ מגיע בזה האופן. והכל בהשגחה פרטית מראש שתגיע רבקה ליצחק בשעה שתבהל ממנו ויצא אחרית דבר כפי רצונו ית׳:

Netziv, Haamek Davar

[Rivkah] said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” The servant said, “He is my master.” She then took the veil and covered herself.

She covered herself out of fear and shame, as though she understood that she was not appropriate to be his wife. From this moment on, her fear of him became embedded in her heart.

Rivka was not with Yitzchak the way that Sarah was with Avraham, and Rachel with Yaakov, for those couples had a relationship with each out and didn’t speak to each other from a place of shame or fear. But this was not the case for Rivkah.

All of this is a prelude to the story in Parashat Toldot, when Yitzchak and Rivka disagree. And even though they disagreed, Rikva did not find it in her heart to convince Yitzchak of her position, even though it was fairly obvious that she knew the truth - that Esav was only a hunter. 

All of this [the relationship dynamic] was designed by God so that the brachot would ultimately be given to Yaakov. For if Rivka had been with her husband the way that Sarah and Rachel were with theirs, the brachot would not be given to Yaakov in this way. Therefore, their relationship began in this manner at the outset as a function of Divine Providence, that she would feel panicked by him and therefore things could proceed according to God’s plan.

ותכהין עיניו מראות א״ר אלעזר בן עזריה מראות ברע מראות ברעתו של רשע

ד״א מראות מכח אותה ראיה שבשעה שעקד אברהם אבינו את בנו על גבי המזבח בכו מלאכי השרת הה״ד (ישעיה לג) הן אראלם צעקו חוצה וגו׳ ונשרו דמעות מעיניהם לתוך עיניו והיו רשומות בתוך עיניו וכיון שהזקין כהו עיניו הה״ד ויהי כי זקן יצחק וגו

[When Isaac was old] and his eyes went dim from seeing . . . 1. (Gen. 27:1). R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: from seeing the evil of that wicked man (his son Esau) . . . 2. Another interpretation of from seeing: from the shock of that spectacle when our father Abraham bound his son Isaac upon the altar. The ministering angels wept . . . and tears dropped from their eyes into his and were imprinted upon his eyes so that, when he aged, his eyes dimmed, as it is written, When Isaac was old . . .

He just needs Sarah, his mother. See that in וינחם אחרי אמו. Avraham has no idea that he’s traumatized, and can’t see it at all. That’s why Avraham wants to send him away at night, separately - to protect him from the ayin hara. But maybe it’s the trauma that invited it in the first place! Sarah feels it so strongly that acc to the midrash, she dies. She feels Yitzchak’s pain. It’s not like oh if she had heard the last line she wouldn’t have died - maybe it’s not the fact that Yitzchak is alive that would have comforted her, but the fact that he went through it in the first place that is enough to have killed her.

What are ghosts that haunt the people in front of us? That’s what this mr rogers stuff is really all about - he discouraged us from treating others like avraham did - of just seeing what’s in front of us and not digging deeper.


Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783