This week we are in Toldot – a word we use for generations – and we learn about the struggles between Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rivka. Again, we read of the intimate details of this Abrahamic family; Rivka’s struggle to become pregnant, her difficulties when finally becoming pregnant, the struggles between her two sons and the jealousy and deception that informs decisions made and action taken. All such struggles resonate with many of us.
We are left with many questions after dipping into Toldot – one question involves Isaac’s capacity – or not – for sight. For all that we know today about family systems, it seems Isaac must live the rest of his days in the shadow of the Akedah, and the subsequent death of his parents Sarah, and then Avraham. How did this experience colour his capacity to parent his own two boys, so different as they are from each other?
Isaac is the one Patriarch who never left the Land; he stayed within, a reflection perhaps of his relationship to boundary, to potential consequence in leaving home. I thought of his choice to stay when I listened to Rabbi Sacks in a short speech. See: https://rabbisacks.org/why-i-am-a-jew/
The phrase from this anecdote – aval zeh shelanu – “but this is ours” – has been reverberating within me as I picture the brown, hot and dusty hills studding the countryside south of Jerusalem. We read last week about Isaac wandering in the fields as Rivka’s caravan approached. Tradition understands his being in the fields as Isaac establishing time for evening prayers – but what if…
What if Isaac was reinforcing his own place in the world by saying to himself – aval, zeh shelanu. This is mine. This is my heritage. I hold this place. I belong here. And then, as his children were born, Isaac would know with dreadful certitude that he would have to choose one of his sons to carry the heritage he held forward. Would it be Esau – the eldest – or would it be Ya’akov?
It is another Cain and Havel moment. Lentils or wild meat – what would be his decision? God told Rivka which of her sons should inherit the Blessing, those words of lineage and promise – but not Isaac. But Isaac would know which of his boys would truly feel that possession of aval zeh shelanu in his bones. He would know which of his sons could carry that depth of feeling between person, family, tribe, people into that dry and dusty land. He knew his choice mattered terribly.
And so, Isaac sent his elder son away to hunt – and the family entered into the tableau prepared by Rivka and Ya’akov. A terrible, lonely and necessary decision was being made. All played their parts, because the blessing required them to enter into a pact of continuity. Isaac, nearly sacrificed by his own father Abraham, had to sacrifice the future of one of his sons in favour of the other. As we read this story, we are struck by the cries that come off the page, the cries of bitter abandonment, of fear and of the necessity of sometimes standing alone in our lives. Sometimes we too wander in those empty fields. And then we hear words of return of belonging: Aval, zeh shelanu. Isaac may have been blinded with age, with sadness, but perhaps he could see into the future when this once-barren land would no longer require he sacrifice a son. We are still waiting for that day to come. May that day of peace come to our land soon. With peace.
Love to all,