Sunday, December 23, 2007

Parashas Toldos

When Hashem informed Avraham about the impending birth of Yitzchak, He also instructed him regarding the name that the child was to be given. As regards Avraham himself, it would appear that either Terach or his wife [Amsalai according to the Talmud in Bava Basra 91a] chose the name. Avram has significance for it stems from the words av and ram [great father symbolizing Avraham’s role in spreading monotheism throughout the world]. Terach’s or his wife’s choice must have been prescient, for Hashem, when He later changes Avraham’s name does not choose a completely new appellation, but rather adds a single letter indicating that the parents had accurately chosen. This is consistent with the view of many of the commentators who point to the choosing of a name as a minor form of prophecy. [See the discussion in Shmuel I regarding Avigail’s statement that her husband’s name was Naval and her additional comment that kishmo kein hu – his behavior befits the name].

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that when Adam ha-rishon gave names to the animals [and when he first called his wife Ishah and subsequently renamed her Chava], he was describing their essence. In other words, Adam did not choose random letters or sounds to combine into words; rather, he studied each animal and after seeing what it did and determining its inherent and genetic characteristics, he gave it a name that captured those qualities. In a similar vein, Netziv explains that Hevel was called that name [which means something worthless] because he did not initiate anything new in the world. It would thus seem that names are primarily a reflection of what the child brings to the table rather an indication of potential or aspirations.

Interestingly, in this week’s parashah, we find a change in the naming procedure. When Esav is born, the Torah writes: vayikr’u shmo Esav – and they [probably Yitzchak and Rivkah] called him Esav. Rashi explains that the name Esav was given to him because he was fully formed [osui]; i.e., he looked like a developed child even at birth. On the other hand, in reference to Yaakov, the Torah states: vayikra – he was called – using the singular. The Midrash comments that Yaakov was named by Hashem.

The Torah does not explain why he was given the name Yaakov. One would assume that it is connected to the fact that he was born holding onto the ekev –ankle – of Esav. Indeed, this would probably be true had he been named by either his parents or by the midwives who delivered Rivkah. Siforno, however, writes that he was given this name because he was destined to play a significant role until the end of days – the word ekev used in the sense of being a prime cause as in parashat Ekev in Sefer Devarim - a role that only Hashem could discern.

Many of the commentaries question how it is possible that two children – Esav and Yaakov – could grow up with the same parents, in the same household, with the same role models, yet turn out so diametrically different. One could easily reach the conclusion that raising children is a matter of luck and little that one does will change what is inevitable - not one of the most encouraging propositions to say the least. Rav Hirsch maintains that the difference between Yaakov and Esav had to do with the parenting skills of Yitzchak and Rivkah, but that is the subject for another article.

I would like to suggest that the personality differences between Esav and Yaakov may be a result of the names they were given. Esav was completely formed, he was not going to grow or change. He was what he was and would remain at that moral level. Yaakov, on the other hand, was a mover, destined to be a significant player throughout his existence. From the very beginning he was attempting to change situations, grabbing hold of Esav’s ankle to try to prevent him from being born as the bechor and when that failed, creating a situation wherein Esav would relinquish his birthright. Even Esav understood this, exclaiming va’ya’akveini zeh pa’amayim – twice he has held me back – using the root ekev to indicate that this was the essence of Yaakov’s essence.

As parents we can decide that our children are what they are, destined to follow a certain path that we can do little to influence, change or direct. The older that they get, the more difficult the task, for they, like all of us, are subject to the laws of inertia and reluctant to change. “Mom, Dad, Abba, Ima, why can’t you just accept me for what I am?” they cry out to us. We have to answer that Hashem named them as descendents of Yaakov. Like their forefather, they are capable of incredible change, of being able to influence their own lives as well as the world around them. Even when they fail, as did Yaakov when he first grabbed Esav’s ankle, that does not mean that they should give up. They can be raised as tamim and yoshvei ohalim yet nevertheless persevere in the most difficult circumstances.

Parashas Chayei Sarah

Avraham’s dilemma in finding a suitable match for Yitzchak does not sound all that unfamiliar; he had a son who was unique and a dearth of options. On the one hand he could choose a local girl, on the other hand he could go back to the old country and look for a worthy young lady there. The former option had a drawback in that middot were not, to put it mildly, particularly well-developed in the Land of Canaan while the latter option, albeit the presence of his family, meant selecting a candidate from a society where idolatry was still rampant. Given the choices, Avraham instructs Eliezer to go back to Charan and Ur Kasdim, which would seem to indicate that he held that avodah zarah was less of a threat to personal development than moral corruption. However, Avraham adds a condition that under no circumstances is Eliezer to take Yitzchak back to Charan/Ur Kasdim. If the girl refuses to leave her home and move to Canaan, forget about the shidduch.

The reasoning here seems to be a little bit difficult to understand. What would have happened if Rivkah had told Eliezer that she did not want to go back to Canaan because she was afraid of the influence that the local populace would have on her children. [Interestingly, when she subsequently sends Yaakov back to Charan to look for his own shidduch, she tells Yitzchak specifically that she is doing so for this reason – katzti b’chayai m’bnot Chet.] Eliezer, by virtue of the terms of his mission, would have had to inform her that the deal was off. Yet, Avraham, in sending Eliezer to Charan, had made his decision precisely on those grounds.

Kli Yakar adds another question. Lavan, Rivkah’s brother and the broker in this shidduch, is one of the most nefarious liars and thieves we know [see the Netziv’s essay, Sh’ar Yisrael, where he refers to Lavan as the archetype of anti-Semites throughout history]. Aside from being an idolator like the other members of his community [remember that his daughter Rachel steals his terafim when she leaves his home and he chases Yaakov and his entourage to retrieve them], he is a cheat and a liar who attempts to destroy Yaakov. If there was ever a family to be avoided, it would seem that it was Lavan’s! Yet it is here that Eliezer ends up in what seems to be a clear case of Hashgachah p’ratis [as Lavan himself admits when he agrees to the match]. Why would circumstances create a situation that would point Eliezer specifically in this direction?

Kli Yakar answers that there is a difference between the influence that one’s upbringing has and that society has. As difficult as it is not to be swept into a situation where one worships idolatry, one must keep in mind that idol worship is an intellectual failing and can be logically overcome – as was true of Avraham himself. Despite growing up in the home of Terach, a purveyor of idols, Avraham was able to reject their worship. A mind that respects truth will ultimately prevail and understand that worshipping the creation of one’s own hands is ridiculous. On the other hand, lack of middot creates a peer pressure that is virtually impossible to resist, for it is ta’avah driven and once allowed to fester uncontrolled, it is almost impossible to defeat. Thus, the fact that Rivkah had been brought up in the home of idolators like Lavan was transcendable, as long as she did not remain in that home and as long as Yitzchak was not brought into that home. If she possessed the proper middot, as determined by the test created by Eliezer, one could assume that she could be a proper wife for Yitzchak and had not been contaminated by the influences of her birthplace. According to Kli Yakar, it is more difficult to reject the influences of the place where one lives than it is to transcend the shortcomings of one’s background.

Perhaps this might help us understand why it was so important for Avraham to leave Charan, despite the fact that he had been so successful in his kiruv work there. Ultimately, Charan and Ur Kasdim would have influenced Avraham’s descendents whereas by moving to Canaan, they would always be considered as outsiders and thus less amenable to the peer pressures of that society.

I would only add that there is a great deal of mussar that we can take from this parashah – even if we are not yet in the parashah of shidduchim. Our children are clearly susceptible to the influences of the society in which they live, and it is our job to make sure that they understand through our words and example that we consider ourselves to be separate. Yitzchak was not to be allowed to assimilate culturally into Canaan by taking a local girl, for doing so would have spelled the end of the promise made to Avraham. We too must look for the ways to make it clear to our kids that we reject the middot and other outward manifestations of the culture in which we find ourselves, seeking instead to link ourselves to our past – even if it is Charan!

Children - who needs them?
Parashas Vayera

Vayomer Avrom, Hashem Elokim, mah titein li? … And Avrom said: Hashem Elokim, what will You give me? … [Bereishis 15:2]

Hashem appears to Avrom after he has successfully intervened in the war between the nation/states of Canaan. Avram has been blessed by MalkiTzedek and now Hashem adds His blessing, assuring Avrom that 1] he will be Divinely protected from his enemies [anochi magen lach] and 2] his reward will be exceedingly great [scharcha harbei m'od]. Avram's reaction to this unprecedented Divine promise is not, chas veshalom, disbelief; it is dissatisfaction! Hashem, Avrom seems to be complaining, Your promises are not meaningful [mah titein li] nor are they what I seek. I have no children and this is the area of my need. Hashem responds and tells Avram that he will have children. Avram accepts the promise without comment and this is considered to be an indication of Avram's righteousness [vayachsheveha lo tzedaka].

The entire dialogue is somewhat disconcerting. If Hashem promises Avraham a reward that is exceedingly great in Hashem's eyes, why would Avrom complain, at this point, about the fact that he has no children? If anything, it seems like lousy timing. Moreover, why does it seem that Hashem remembers to tell Avram that he will have children only as a result of Avram’s complaint?

We really should be asking ourselves why Avram felt so cheated by his lack of children? Why do people want kids so badly? If we want them because we trust that they will take care of us when we reach the age that we can no longer care for ourselves; well, I hate to inform you but it's probably the worst investment that you will ever make. If you figure the tuition bills, the food bills, the doctor bills, the added cost of car insurance et. al.; had you never had kids think how much money you would now have to hire really decent and professional help rather than having to rely on the good intentions of your sons or daughters!

Undoubtedly, the primary drive for having children is because they give us a sense of fulfillment of purpose that we would otherwise be lacking. My rebbi used to tell us that children are nitzchiyus, a connection to the eternal for which we all strive. Through our children and our children's children we feel that we continue to make an impact on the world around us. Without this feeling, we might easily become depressed contending that nothing that we do has any meaning beyond the present. This negativity would crush any creativity and purpose, permitting all types of deviant behavior based on the premise that no-one really cares what we do.

Chazakah ein adam m’kaneh livno – it is a given [or normal] that no man is jealous of his son’s accomplishments. On the contrary, our greatest source of satisfaction is having our children be more successful than we are. Each generation adds another level or story in the edifice of l’taken olam b’malchus Shakai and it is only when that building will be complete that our human mission will have been met.

Avram had successfully stood up in battle against the mightiest warriors and kings, he was wealthy and famous, the leader of his generation [as attested to by the berachah of Malki Tzedek], a man of unchallenged influence in every society. If all he sought was eternal fame, a name that would be known forever, then he did not need children. Hashem was testing him by withholding children, examining if Avram was content to rest on his own laurels or sought to continue to build.

Too often we find people using their children as a means to cover up their own shortcomings, demanding that the sons and daughters achieve things that they could not. For many parents kids are their bragging rights at kiddush in shul, a means of one upping everyone else by relating Yossi or Rivkie’s latest achievement. But if we share with our children the sense of nitzchius that they represent, it will provide them with a sense of purpose that can keep them on the derech to kirvat Elokim.

No comments: