Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Isaac's Legacy

Isaac’s Legacy – A Multi-Dimensional Puzzle
Sermon for Parshat Toldot – November 5, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie, MD

I love the Book of Genesis. It can be read and understood on so many different levels. It is the closest thing that the Jewish tradition has to mythology. But it also contains clear tidbits of actual historicity – details that allow the historians and archaeologists to connect these stories to actual places and eras.

It is a series of epic sagas – each one with a hero and a message, each one progressively written in more modern style. But they are also stories of our ancestors, who are all too real and all too archetypical – even for us post-modern folks – faults and all.

It is a moral text, teaching us powerful lessons. It is a quasi-historical text – creating the linkages that connect us still as a people. It is a religious text – teaching us how to relate to our God. It is all these things and more.

Tonight, as we read Toldot, we need to bear ALL these things in mind in order to get the full value and message out of a text that at time amuses us, at times troubles us greatly. We need to approach the text without bias – for our preconceived notions may very well overwhelm the evidence of the text, coloring events and characters in differing ways. Because, more than anything else, our text on this Shabbat presents us with a mystery to resolve.

Look at the VERY well known story with which our portion ends. An aged Isaac, his eyes dimmed by age, recognizes his mortality, and wishes to pass on the family blessing to his son. The text has told us that he favors Esau over Isaac, and now he sends out Esau to prepare a meal to give him strength so he can bestow his blessing upon his beloved son. From all indications, Isaac plans to pass THE family blessing to Esau.

But is this really true? Maybe – but maybe not! And to fully understand the depths of the difficulty of what seemed, just a moment ago, to be a clear-cut answer, we need to look at the BEGINNING of the story. Rebekah is pregnant, and the pregnancy is NOT easy. She, herself, goes to inquire of God as to what is going on inside of her. This act of going to God is not uncommon – but Rebekah is the first woman to seek out God herself! And, even more remarkable, God answers her directly!
And the answer is clear – Not only does Rebekah learn that she is having twins, but she learns from God that their fate is for the older to serve the younger. She, their mother, and we, the reader/listener, are now privy to the secret of how the story must end – Jacob, it seems, is the one who should end up receiving the unique blessing that marks this family’s relationship with God.

And all we need to do is connect the dots from the beginning of the story to the end. However, this is the part that is NOT so clear-cut. For example – WE know what God has foretold about the boys. We know that Rebekah knows. However, can we be 100% sure that Isaac knew? On the one hand, how could he NOT know? But, on the other hand, it is never made explicitly clear that he does!

Whether he knows what has to be IS significant, especially when it appears to contradict what his natural personal preference would be. The text CLEARLY tells us that Isaac favored Esau, while Rebekah favored Jacob. In the latter case, the rationale seems clear – Rebekah favors the one who she KNOWS is due to carry on the family legacy. Furthermore, the text clearly tells us that Jacob spent his days hanging around the tents, where he would have become the more familiar of the twins to his mother.

More subject to interpretation, and difficult to nail down, is the question of WHY Isaac favored Jacob. If Isaac KNEW the truth from Rebekah, such a decision would only make sense if Isaac was going deliberately out of his way to favor the son who would NOT get the legacy. While that seems possible, given his own history of almost being killed by his father, and how it could lead him to draw closer to the “forgotten” son, it means that he would be deliberately choosing to ignore God’s prophecy AND going against his beloved Rebekah, who appears at almost all points in the story to be the stronger partner.

Only if he DIDN’T know the truth from Rebekah does it appear that we could reach this set-up. In that case, being free to favor the son of his choice, we find Isaac, usually the weak one, the victim, asserting himself. He stands up to Rebekah, by favoring Esau while she favors Jacob. But furthermore, he favors the son who is EVERYTHING that he is not -- a he-man, a man of the field, someone who can take care of himself. Freud would have a field day!

So, if Isaac really DOESN’T know what God has foretold, if Rebekah really HASN’T shared this with him, then it is entirely possible that, left to his own devices at this critical moment near the end of our portion, Isaac really is about to pass the legacy of the family blessing on to Esau. And THIS, I believe, allows most of the rest of the story to fall neatly into place.

Rebekah overhears the conversation between her husband and older son, and feels the need not merely to spring into action, but to try to deceive Isaac. CLEARLY, she is afraid of what Isaac is about to do. CLEARLY, Rebekah has not prepared Jacob in advance for what might be necessary. So clearly, whatever follows has NOT been premeditated between the parents to bring about the necessary ending.

Unless, of course, the whole scene of the dinners is a charade to let Isaac off the hook with Esau! While that seems plausible – after all, Isaac does enjoy the taste of flesh between his teeth, provided by his hunter-son, and would be expected to seek to reward him in the long term – who more than Isaac would be aware of the danger of sacrificing his son or sons for the sake of what God wants? Who should be least comfortable setting Jacob up as the fall guy for Esau’s anger, to avoid facing it himself, if not Isaac?

Unless Isaac was too weak for any other alternative to be viable! In which case, what goes around has come around, and Isaac now finds himself as helpless as his father was on the night that God called upon him to sacrifice Isaac! Abraham KNEW that Isaac could not be sacrificed, for then God’s promise to him could not come true. But here was God asking for Isaac! Now, Isaac KNEW that he was potentially sacrificing Jacob to Esau’s anger and disappointment, even as he accepted that his favorite was NOT the one chosen to receive the legacy. He was risking losing the one destined to carry on the family Covenant with God.

In other words, this moment, in which we start out seeing Isaac as feeble and weakened, and ends with him apparently deceived and indecisive, turns out to actually be the moment when he gets to demonstrate his FAITH that God will make happen what must happen and make it good! In the face of a difficult situation! From apparent weakness comes unimagined strength!

From this far-more-complicated scenario than we first recognized, we learn a couple of powerful lessons. First, not to rush to accept the obvious as the truth. But second, and even more important, that it does NOT take strength or position to demonstrate faith. Isaac, the closest thing we have to an every-person in Genesis, rises out of the shadow of the characters around him, rises out of his apparently weakened state, and matches Abraham’s example of faith in God in time of turmoil! It doesn’t take an Abraham! Isaac did it too!

And so, what is Isaac’s legacy? Is it, as the text implies, that in 8 verses, he moves from being Abraham’s son and legacy, to Rebekah’s husband, to Jacob and Esau’s father? And that in the rest of the story, he is either repeating the actions of his father, or being deceived by his wife and son, or otherwise being a non-factor in his own family story?

Or is it that, in spite of all that, in the end, he manages to pass the tradition on to the proper son, not his favorite, and in the process finds a way to affirm that he himself is every bit as strong in his faith and partnership in the covenant that is the family legacy as his father was?

I believe the coda of our portion confirms the answer to this question. When the confusion and deception have cleared, and everyone is seeing clearly again, after Isaac has given 2 very similar, rather neutral, blessings to his 2 sons, not 100% sure as to which is who, he calls Jacob back to see him. Now, CERTAIN as to whom he is addressing, he gives Jacob a very different blessing, one that sounds much more like the one HE received in his own youth, one that sounds a lot like the blessing God will give directly to Jacob in next Shabbat’s portion (it pays sometimes to be the father of the next Bar Mitzvah – you know what happens next!).

There is no confusion at this moment, no possibility of mistaken identity. At the ONLY moment in the entire portion when Isaac is pro-active, he passes on the blessing to Jacob clearly. And then, he acknowledges the rest of the reality. He acknowledges Esau’s disappointment and anger at being passed over, and encourages Jacob to head out on his own. He sends him back to his mother’s family in Haran – the same journey Abraham had NOT trusted Isaac to make for himself, preferring to send the servant to find Rebekah for him.

Isaac acknowledges both the reality of the family dynamic that this whole unfortunate circumstance has created – perhaps even better than his father acknowledged the impact of his actions and near action in trying to sacrifice Isaac! Isaac acknowledges that Jacob is stronger than he was himself, and able to take care of himself. And, he sends away the only son who he could count on to take care of him in his old age – hardly the action of a needy victim!

And, it turns out, Isaac isn’t even really on his deathbed, either! He will live long enough for Jacob to return from his self-imposed exile, live to see his sons reconcile after years apart, so that they can come together and bury him when he finally DOES die.

In other words, not only does he pass on the family legacy to the right son, Jacob, but he also passes on a powerful lesson from his own experience and model to all of us. A pretty good legacy, indeed!

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