Growing Today (Edited Transcript)
“These are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham. Abraham gave birth to Yitzchak”. The commentators grapple with the apparent repetition that seems to have no purpose. Why does it have to repeat the fact that Abraham gave birth to Isaac?
Rashi, one of our classic commentators, refers to the Talmud where the Midrash says that there were scoffers of the generation who said that Isaac was actually not the son of Abraham. Abraham and Sarah were unable to have children for many years and Sarah only gave birth to Isaac when she was 90 and Abraham was 100. They were well beyond child-bearing age which was a great miracle. The scoffers of the generation said that Isaac was born soon after Sarah was captured by Avimelech. In the parsha two weeks ago we read that Abraham and Sarah went to the land of the Philistines because of the famine and King Avimelech kidnapped Sarah. Eventually he was forced to release her because of G-d’s Intervention, and soon after that Sarah gives birth to Isaac. So the scoffers of the generation said that for all the years Abraham and Sarah were together they couldn’t have a child but suddenly she gives birth soon after being captured by Avimelech. The real father of Isaac was Avimelech and not Abraham. So in order to refute that, it repeats: and Abraham gave birth to Isaac. But according to the Talmud, G-d went one step even further and made Isaac the exact image of Abraham so anyone who looked at Isaac would be able to see the distinguishing features of his father Abraham on his face. It would be clear to all to reject the scoffers of that generation.
Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the Telz Rosh Yeshiva and one of the great Talmudic scholars of the 20th century, says that from here we see how seriously G-d regards scoffers. He could have just ignored the rumours but G-d had to refute them because they were deflating and detracting from the importance of the concept of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founding fathers of the Jewish people. They were mocking Abraham, Sarah and Isaac and that had to be dealt with because it’s a serious thing when humour is used to undermine important things.
Mesilat Yesharim, one of the great works of Jewish practice and thought written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto of Italy in the 1600s, says that scoffing is a very powerful weapon. In his book he sets out a step-by-step programme of action on how to become great. The first rung on the ladder to success is what he calls the concept of zehirut, care and caution. Before one can even begin to get involved in action a person needs to be aware of their duties in the world – that’s zehirut. He says that awareness of one’s duties and the ultimate purpose of life is the starting point of any discussion about service of G-d. That broad perspective and awareness is undermined by scoffing. He says the scoffer rejects any kind of rebuke and is immune to it. A person who has gone off the path of truth can be rebuked, corrected and brought back. But the scoffer can never be brought back because he uses scoffing and mocking as a shield. The Rabbi says it’s like firing arrows at a shield that is covered in oil. They hit the shield and are deflected because of the oil. He says scoffing makes a person’s heart impenetrable which is why we have to take it very seriously. There are certain things in life which are important and sacred, and cannot be mocked, because when we scoff at these things we deflate their importance. It then becomes an issue of how the perception becomes the reality because the way that we perceive things is the reality for us.
Another classic example of this is in this week’s portion when Esau and Jacob are debating the birthright which Jacob wants so he can continue the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. Esau comes in from the field and is hot and tired and trades the birthright for a pot of lentils. We are told that Esau despised his birthright, meaning that in his eyes it was worth nothing. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the great Mirr Rosh Yeshiva, asks how the sale was valid because the birthright was much more valuable than a pot of soup:in entitled the right to continue and inherit the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. There is a concept in Halacha, in Jewish Law, that if you sell something way below its market value it’s regarded as a distortion and therefore an invalid sale. But, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz answers that in Esau’s mind that’s all that his birthright was worth. Esau attributed so little significance to being the inheritor of the legacy of Abraham and Isaac and to being one of the founding fathers of the Jewish people, that to him it wasn’t worth more than a bowl of soup. He saw it subjectively.
The way that we view things can become a reality. When we regard parents, elders, Torah scholars and every human being as important, they are raised in importance. When we regard the Torah and the values that G-d has given us as important, they become elevated in importance. But when we look at the Torah and try to undermine it through scoffing and mocking we reduce its importance. That’s why we have to be so careful of cynicism. In a world which is often very cynical we have to realise that our reality is created by our perceptions. And Torah is all about reality. It’s about the pursuit of reality. That’s why Mesilat Yesharim tells us that the foundation of the service of G-d in Torah is zehirut – the concept of watchfulness, carefulness and of understanding our duties and obligations in the world and the absolute clarity of what is important and what is not and then for us to prioritise accordingly.
The light of Torah
That is why Torah is so often associated with the concept of light. As the Book of Proverbs says, “The commandment is a flame and the Torah is light”. The Torah sheds light in the world because it gives clarity, enabling us to see things the way they are, and to accord them their correct importance in terms of the truthful worth that G-d has given them. The concept of light is also found in this week’s portion. Jacob is described in the portion as yoshev ohalim, the one who dwelt in tents. Our Sages understand “dwelt in tents” to mean that he studied Torah. G-d had revealed certain laws to Noah and his descendants and it was part of a tradition. According to the Talmud there were actually academies of learning, of Shem and Ever, descendants of Noah, who had set up places of learning and Jacob had learned there and at home. The Talmud says that our forefathers kept certain of the commandments of the Torah.
Rav Mecklenburg, a great commentator of the 19th century asks how the Sages can be sure that’s what “dwelt in tents” meant? He refers to some of the commentators that learn it literally, and say that it refers to the tents that were used to house livestock. But he says the words can’t be referring to that because, if so, what is the significance of the verse? He says it’s talking about the tents of Torah. He says within the Hebrew word tent, ohel, is the word ‘or’ which is light. He says that light is the real connection because light helps us to distinguish. In the darkness you can’t tell one thing from another but light helps you to distinguish, and that is what the Torah is there for. It’s to provide G-d’s Light in the world so that we understand our duties, tell right from wrong and know what to honour and what not to honour. He also says that light helps things to live and to grow. In the world physical light is needed by plants, animals and human beings. Adverse mental and physical conditions can develop in human beings who are shut off from light. There are certain places on earth when there are times of the year – like the extremities of the Poles – where there is almost no light. And that has a direct impact on psychological and physical well-being. People need light in order to survive and thrive as do plants and animals. And we need the light of Torah in order to live and in order to survive and thrive and give us clarity.
He also says that the word ‘tent’ refers to something which is fixed because when it says that he dwelt in tents it’s conveying that he was fixed and completely rooted there with tenacity and commitment. Jacob didn’t just go into the tents sometimes; he dwelt there and that’s also part of what we strive for –a sense of permanence. To dwell completely in the tents of G-d with a commitment and tenacity – that is permanent. And this related to Jacob’s name, Yaakov. Breishit (25:26) tells us that Jacob was born after his twin brother Esau and that his hand was holding onto the heel of Esau. He was called Yaakov from the Hebrew word akev which is heel. According to the Talmud his name was given to him by G-d and not by his parents. But what is the significance of the heel of Jacob?
Commitment and growth
Rav Mecklenburg explains that holding onto the heel showed his tenacity. Esau and Jacob represented the clash between the philosophy of Israel and that of paganism. Esau represented the nations of the world which clung to paganism and which sometimes oppressed and attacked Jacob and his descendants. It often seemed overwhelmingly possible that Jacob and his descendants would be destroyed but they held on by the heel with tenacity. Jacob’s name, Yaakov, represents holding on with tenacity and it’s also connected to dwelling in tents and being committed. That reveals the tenacity and the indestructibility of Jacob and his descendants.
Rav Mecklenburg provides an additional interpretation : the heel represents movement and walking. It symbolizes not only holding on but being dynamic and growing all the time as well. We also see this in Jacob’s name change. Abraham was born Avram and Sarah started off as Sarai. Both only had one letter changed in their names. But Jacob, Yaakov, gets his name changed to Yisrael, Israel which is very different. Rav Mecklenburg says that Yaakov represents the walking, the progress while Yisrael is the walking, the constant moving towards perfection. On the one hand his name Yaakov is fixed and permanent representing the values of commitment and tenacious holding on. On the other hand his name Israel represents growth and constant development to become greater.
Clearly human beings have the capacity to rise above animals. Animals are static and rooted in the physical world. According to our Sages angels are spiritual but they are static. They refer to the angels as the ones who stand and to people as the ones who walk. Walkers are constantly moving forward, growing and striving to become better all the time. That’s why Jewish Law is called Halachah from the root holech, walking, since it conveys that we are always trying to improve and become better. Life is a process of growth which is why the human being is called Adam. Adam means taken from the land, the adama because, as the Maharal explains, the earth is pure potential. If you place things into the earth and tend to it, it will grow. But if not, the land will become barren. It all depends on what effort you put into it. Like the earth, humans are pure potential whose purpose in life is to grow and strive for greatness, constantly walking and moving. Jacob represents this constant motion of improvement and betterment.
In a few parshas time in the portion of Vayeshev Jacob clashes with his brother and is forced to leave home. Next week we read about his travails and how he tries to set up a new life with his mother’s brother, Lavan, and eventually returns home. After all his travails and many years away from home we are told, “And Jacob dwelt”. Our Sages comment that he wanted then to dwell in peace and to stop growing. But at that point he was confronted with a terrible crisis when his son Joseph was taken away from him for many years and which pushed him into a constant phase of growth. In this world we are constantly moving and being so challenged that there is no time to rest. There will be time to rest in the next world. The Talmud says to Jacob : you want to rest in this world but G-d says you have plenty of time to rest in the next. For the righteous great reward is stored up in the next world. There is peace of mind there, tranquility and complete rest. The world in which we live is turbulent and dynamic, where we are constantly growing and striving to become better at everything so that we are ever on the move. In doing so we live up to the name of Jacob and to being the children of Jacob. That means upholding these two qualities : to be fixed, tenacious and to hold on and secondly to walk and to progress, to be dynamic and to grow and to improve all the time.