Parashat Toldot / Thanksgiving
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Who is Isaac? “These are the stories of Isaac,” our text begins, seeming to promise to answer this question. But the information we are given seems flimsy in comparison with what the Torah tells us about Isaac’s father, Abraham, or his son, Jacob. As has been pointed out many times, Isaac is the least dynamic and least impactful of the three Patriarchs. I believe that, unfortunately, this feeds a tendency among modern readers to downplay his stature. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we can appreciate that the paucity of Biblical information about Isaac should not preclude a fuller appreciation of who he is.
Who is Isaac? Isaac is the child – the heir – of parents who stand out as the First Couple of the world. Sarah and Abraham’s religious courage and devotion changed the entire world. Their destiny was dependent on their leaving behind their families and the cultures they grew up in. They undertook that difficult and lonely project on behalf of the future of the entire world – so that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:3) Their gigantic – and original – accomplishment is perpetuated in the Biblical record.
Isaac follows in their footsteps. What should we expect from the heir to a revolution? Should we complain that the son does not shake the world’s foundations like his parents did? Or should we respect and wonder at the huge accomplishment it is to sustain that revolution, to keep it going without being compromised or corrupted? For that was Isaac’s challenge and his unique achievement.
Who is Isaac? Come to think of it, we are Isaac. We are the heirs of an amazing and still earth-shaking tradition. More directly, we are the heirs of parents who lived through the most devastating and the most exhilarating moments of Jewish history, the Shoah and the establishment of a new sovereign Jewish homeland, Israel. Those parents are the contemporaries of the people called, in American history, “The Greatest Generation.” What they achieved is almost incomprehensible. Yet, they did it. And we are their heirs.
When we read the biblical text and think about how much smaller Isaac seems in relation to the other Patriarchs, perhaps we should reflect about our own place in the chain of tradition – Jewish and American. We are Isaac. Are we thankful for the great gifts we have received? Have we been faithful custodians of those achievements? Have we done everything we could – how much have we sacrificed – to perpetuate those gifts? How devoted are we to keep those traditions meaningful and uncompromised?
Not every generation is called to revolutionize the world. But every generation has its own role to play in sustaining their traditions of blessing and, then, transmitting them forward. Isaac was called to preserve the blessing and then to keep it going. He inherited a huge and unprecedented job, for he had no models to show him how it is done. But our inheritance is more complex, for we have inherited the benefits of his successful discharge of his obligation. With the intervention of his beloved Rebecca, Isaac succeeded in keeping the blessing alive and pure, and passed it on.
Now, we are Isaac. Are we up to this underappreciated role?
Rabbi David Greenstein
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