Scoffers Then, Scoffers Now
Toldot, this week’s parsha, begins with a seemingly redundant statement. “And these are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Abraham, Abraham begot Yitzchak.” If Yitzchak is the son of Avraham, then obviously Avraham begot him! Rashi immediately takes up this issue. He tells us that the “scoffers of that time” were saying that Sarah had become pregnant after the one night encounter she had with Avimelech, King of Gerar.” What ostensibly was behind their remark? When Avraham and Sarah travelled to Gerar, due to a famine in Canaan, Avimelech took Sarah captive. He held her overnight but was prevented by God from intimacy with Sarah. However, shortly thereafter, Sarah appears pregnant. The “scoffers of that time” launched the above mentioned accusation. After all, Sarah had been married to Avraham for decades without becoming pregnant. Now after one encounter with Avimelech she is with child. So Rashi continues, “What did God do? He made Yitzchak’s face to look identical to Avraham’s. His facial features would testify to all the Avraham was his father.”
Why was this event important for us to know about? Who cares what “the scoffers” say? Are we to worry about or concern ourselves with every ridiculous charge launched against us? Given today’s social media, any individual or group can anonymously post a negative comment about another person. What is he or she to do? Furthermore, why does the Midrash quoted by Rashi invoke God’s involvement? The laws of genetics, heredity and DNA make it a daily occurrence that children look like their parents. We hear people say all the time, “He/she is the spitting image of his father/mother.”
The overarching goal or purpose of the Torah is to reveal to us how the design or will of the Creator, to create a specific nation dedicated to the true ideas of God, came about. It was not a direct or smooth path. Great people had to make difficult yet crucial and courageous decisions at various points along the way. Many if not most of the people alive at the time of Avraham were skeptical of his philosophy of life. Add to that many denigrated him. Some even sought his demise. And even if his philosophy of life was better than the rest, no one was dedicated to its continuance. His philosophy would not take hold in the world beyond his own life time. Certainly, he had no proof that God was supporting his teachings and mission. Avraham never invoked to people a miraculous event done by God on his behalf. When he died, the wells Avraham dug were stopped up. People sacrificed their own wellbeing, put themselves and others in harm’s way, in an attempt to refute Avraham and his life’s work.
Who would carry on after Avraham? Who would be heir to his legacy, continue his mission and advance God’s will. The Torah tells us earlier in Lech Lecha that God established a covenant with Avraham and his descendant after him, to establish his way of life in the land of Canaan. In parshat Vayeira, God tells Avraham to listen to Sarah and not to worry about Sarah’s advice to send Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, out of the house. Ishmael is not the one to inherit your legacy. Rather, the Torah directly tells us in Vayeira, “Yitzchak alone will be called your descendant.” Yitzchak’s facial features being identical to Avraham’s was certainly caused by the laws of nature. But that it happened precisely when Avraham’s detractors were smearing and defaming him and his philosophy of life. The scoffers, through their slurs and insults were hoping to turn people against Avraham and Sarah. At this critical stage in the development of Judaism, any taint to its inception or continuation would doom it to failure. Yitzchak’s identical facial appearance to his father would remove any doubt and refute any slander used by the world to reject Avraham’s way of life and message.
Later, Yitzchak achieves financial success. In acts of jealousy that turn to acts of hate, Avimelech throws him out of his land. His people stop up the wells of Avraham until Yitzchak reopens them. At these wells were also located inns that had been built by Avraham. He used them as a way to have positive interactions with travelers and to teach them his philosophy of life. Yitzchak’s success in reopening them and using them in the same way as his father had, was another indication of God’s will being brought to fruition by the next generation.
The reopening of the wells served as another refutation to the scoffer of that time. Avraham’s philosophy is continuing after his death. In recognition of this truth, Avimelech comes with his general and ministerial entourage, begging Yitzchak for a peace treaty. When were they at war? They were not. It was a one sided attach in an attempt to destroy Avraham’s philosophy from making a resurgence in the world.
The Torah takes the time to point these events out because the “scoffers of the generation” are also alive and well today. First are the Christians who claim to be the rightful heirs of Avraham’s philosophy of life. Next are the Muslims who claim to be the rightful heirs of Avraham. The current BDS movement (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) entrenched at many of the leading colleges and universities in America, is but one modern form of Avimelech and his ilk. Jealousy has become hatred. Jewish people have developed a small but highly successful modern country called Israel. Formal recognition of the State of Israel by the Vatican did not occur until December 30, 1993. What took them so long? Like Avimelech of old, the Vatican could deny the success of the Jewish people’s existence no longer. We pray for the time when the Muslim world will do the same.
The story of man’s role in bringing about God’s will continues and is mentioned at the end of Toldot as well. Rivka, the mother of Yaakov and Esau, devises a plan to save Yaakov from the murderous designs of his twin brother, Esau. She tells her husband Yitzchak to send Yaakov back to her family in Padan Aram and from there to find a wife for himself. Before leaving home, Yitzchak blesses his son Yaakov, “May God give you the blessing of Avraham, to you and your descendants with you, that you may inherit the land which God gave to Avraham.” (Genesis 28:4) Here the Torah clearly reveals that it was always Yitzchak’s intention to vouchsafe with Yaakov the blessings and covenant God had with him through Avraham. The heritage and legacy of Avraham’s philosophy and way of life was never going to be bestowed upon Esau. Only Yaakov and his descendants are the true heirs of Avraham.
We, Jews living today and those Jewish people that will forever come after us, are the only rightful heirs to the philosophy of Avraham. While that fact is uplifting and makes us feel good, that same fact brings with it and places upon us a great responsibility. We don’t have to defend ourselves, or the nation of Israel against every ridiculous assault or defamation. We do though need to stand up and defend against those actions and false notions that strike against our turn to advance God’s will, to create the people of Israel living in the land of Israel.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan