"Careful the things you say…children will listen. Careful things you do…children will see—and learn.
Children may not obey…but children will listen.
Children will look to you…for which way to turn, to learn what to be…"
These lyrics from the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods seem especially apt for both the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, but also this week’s parsha.
The parsha begins thus:
וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם
V’ele toledot Yitzhak ben Avraham
This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.
The word “toledot” from which the Torah portion (parsha) takes its name, doesn’t just translate to story—it can also mean—history, generations, consequences, outcome. You could say that this story is about the “ripple effect” our actions have on those around us, both intentionally and unintentionally.
In Judaism, we generally don’t dwell on the afterlife very much. While there are references to the world to come, most of the focus in our stories about life after death is in the legacy we leave behind for our children.
In the scheme of things, Isaac is sort of a placeholder of a patriarch—he’s not like Abraham, pioneer who first hears the call of G-d to leave his homeland to chart a new path, and he’s not Jacob, who wrestles with angels and whose numerous offspring make up the 12 tribes of Israel.
Still, on paper, in terms of life and legacy, Isaac’s life is a success—he inherits the mission from his father Abraham to fulfill G-d’s covenant, and fathers sons who end up continuing that legacy.
But if you look deeper at Isaac’s life and his family, we see the downsides of what happens when you are raised in a culture that is committed to a narrow version of what “success” means.
From Isaac’s birth, he is the center of a conflict that tears apart his family before he is able to speak. As a child, he witnessed his brother Ishmael being separated from him at the behest of his mother when she feared Ishmael would threaten her son’s birthright, and then was nearly killed by his own father as a human sacrifice, which caused his mother Sarah to separate from them. So he didn’t necessarily have the best models for marriage and child-rearing.
And Isaac’s unhealed trauma ends up infusing his own family with tension. As G-d tells Rebekah when she complains of pregnancy pains, two nations are at war in her belly, and the older one is fated to serve the younger one. There is never the sense that any sort of sharing power or cooperation is possible—someone has to be the winner, and someone else has to be a loser. As they grow, Isaac and Rebekah reinforce those divisions by each favoring a different child. Isaac favors the physically strong, hairy Esau, whereas Rebekah favors the physically slight Jacob. Jacob uses his cleverness to trick older twin out of his birthright, and then with the help of Rebekah, takes advantage of Isaac’s blindness into bestowing his blessing upon him instead of his favored son. In a sad sort of symmetry, I wonder if part of Isaac's despair over unintentionally hurting Esau brought back memories of his own father nearly killing him as part of "G-d's plan."
Most of the time when we read this story, Rebekah is the hero of this story—the wise, clever woman with insight to see which son would be more worthy, and who strategizes to make that happen. But when you look closely as to why Rebekah has a problem with Esau…her motivations get sort of uncomfortable. We learn that Esau ended up taking two wives from among the Hittites, women native to the land of Canaan, rather than marrying within the tribe the way his parents did, and that these wives were “a source of bitterness” for Isaac and Rebekah. Apparently their family was destined to possess the land of Canaan, but disregard the people living there.
This feels especially prescient in light of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday: the central myth is about the Pilgrims, a people who leave their homeland in Europe ostensibly in search of religious freedom, but who end up displacing and destroying the nations who had made the land fertile for them. When Esau threatens Jacob’s life after being cheated out of his father’s blessing and he is forced to flee, Rebekah’s immediate thought is “If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?”
I’ve heard many of the same fears and anxieties expressed in the Jewish world—the importance of marrying other Jews for the sake of the survival of the tribe. That sort of mindset can not only alienate people from their families—but also from Judaism itself, and as a result of this “cultural inbreeding” we as a people are less rich for it.
This all stems from a scarcity mentality—the belief that there is only a finite amount of land, a finite amount of wealth, a finite amount of love to share. It’s understandable for the Jewish people to be fearful and protective when we have continually faced threats to our very survival, but that kind of protectivism can also put a stranglehold on the very people we are trying to protect.
As we reflect on tensions within Isaac’s family and ponder our own family ties this Thanksgiving, let us try to move from a mentality of scarcity to one of abundance—and that we can not only survive, but thrive, together.