Monday, November 05, 2007

Parashat Toldot Ain't Nothin but a Family Thing

By Jonathan Adam Ross

Verse Per Verse
The Torah may be our communal journal, our ancestors’ diary. And if so, what an exhilarating invasion of privacy have we committed; for we break open the book each week to read of their adventures and secrets, and we’ve made quite a few copies as well to share around with each other. But it is exciting as well to read the Torah as a piece of literature. And as in any good storybook, one can find such literary devices as foreshadowing, repetition, and reappearing marginal characters. We have a great example of all three this week in Parshat Toldot. In Toldot, God instructs Isaac to spend time in the land of Gerar in order to survive a famine. Isaac, fearing that the Phillistines of Gerar will think his wife Rebecca is hot and might kill him to get her for themselves, informs Abimelech, King of the Phillistines that Rebecca is his sister. (Breishit 26:7) וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲחֹתִי הִוא" " Sound familiar? That’s because just a few weeks ago in shul, we read: (Bereishit 20:2)

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר, וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-שָׂרָה.

Here we have Abraham (Isaac’s father) telling the same Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. Abimelech, in this first instance, takes Sarah for himself until God plants a dream in his head that reveals Abraham and Sarah’s true relationship and Abimelech releases Sarah back to her rightful husband. But Abimelech tells Abraham there is no need to lie to him or his people. Yet Isaac makes the same choice years later, and lies to the same king! This time, Abimelech is not so forgiving. Whereas for Abraham, Abimelech asked for forgiveness from Abraham. In Isaac’s case, Abimelech and his people drove Isaac and Rebecca from their land with repeated sabotage to their wells, flocks, and property. It seems that just as Isaac has not learned from his father’s mistakes, Abimelech has not learned from his own. Eventually, Abimelech redeems himself and his people and makes amends and apology to Isaac and Rebekah. But Isaac’s decision to deceive the Phillistines of his true relationship with Rebekah seems to presage the deceit near the end of Toldot, when blind Isaac is fooled by Jacob pretending to be his brother Esau, in an example of what I like to call Torah Karma. Sibling rivalry is not a new theme for the Torah (see: Cain and Abel) nor is this the last we see of it (see: Leah and Rachel). But what is amazing is the choice of language used in this story. When Isaac calls Esau to him, Esau says “הִנֵּנִי.” And when Jacob reports to Isaac as Esau he calls to his father, who answers “הִנֵּנִי.” And in Bereishit 37:13, when Jacob calls to his son Joseph, he is answered with the same word.

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, הֲלוֹא אַחֶיךָ רֹעִים בִּשְׁכֶם--לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנֵּנִי.

The language repetition is no mistake. Just as וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲחֹתִי הִוא repeated from Abraham to Isaac, so is הִנֵּנִי repeated from Isaac to Jacob. From generation to generation all the way down to us. So the next time you catch yourself introducing your spouse as your sibling, or answering to your identity with the word הִנֵּנִי you can chuckle with the self-satisfaction of knowing: it ain’t nothing but a family thing.

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