Thursday, November 15, 2012

Miss Independent?

3 Kislev 5773 / Nov. 16-17, 2012

In this week’s portion, Toldot, we find the bulk of Isaac’s life.  From his wife Rebecca being barren for almost 20 years, to the birth of his twin sons, to pretending Rebecca was his sister to save his life, to amassing great wealth, to being upset at his son Esau’s intermarriage, and to eventually being tricked in his old (vision-impaired) age into blessing his younger twin Jacob with the blessing he intended to give to his older twin Esau before passing away.

Why would Isaac need to amass great wealth if, as the Torah says, he was the primary inheritor of Abraham’s extensive wealth? 

How could both Isaac and his father Abraham have encountered so similar a situation that they would each react by pretending his wife was his sister?

It is these kinds of questions that have driven the research efforts of Torah commentators for millennia. 

There are some who actually believe that Abraham and Isaac may have been the same person, rather than father and son, due to the intense similarity of their respective lives.  From marrying within the extended family, to having a spouse who struggled to bear children, to pretending his wife was his sister to save his life, to amassing great wealth, Isaac’s life in many ways mirrored that of his father Abraham’s.

But, you might ask, how could Abraham and Isaac possibly have been the same person, given the story of the Akeidah – where Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac (implying there are at least 2 people involved in that situation)? Many of our Muslim brethren actually believe that it was not Isaac, but rather his older brother Ishmael, whom Abraham was prepared to sacrifice.

I’m not in any way trying to make a case for events having taken place one way vs. another (and even that statement makes an arguably unfair assumption that the Torah is a factual telling of history as opposed to our collected cultural mythology).  Rather, what I find to be the interesting takeaway piece here, given the discomfort many feel with suggesting Abraham and Isaac might have been the same person due to their similar life experiences, is the value that we today place on living individual lives.

Individuality is something that most of us strive to attain.  We don’t want to be lemmings, simply following a path put before us without having the ability to question and/or divert from it.  And yet, many of us strive to be just like our parents.  Historically, it fell on the father to teach his son a trade, and often times, it was the trade the father had been engaged in.  Even today, it is not uncommon to see grown children learning from and subsequently taking over their parents’ businesses.

Some prime examples from the private sector:

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the current publisher of the New York Times, who followed his father Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, grandfather Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and great-grandfather Adolph Ochs.  

Prince Fielder, son of Cecil Fielder (both professional baseball players).

Mickey Arison, the head of Carnival Cruise Lines, inherited the business from his father, Ted Arison.

We find examples in the public sector as well:

George W. Bush, the former President of the United States, and his father George H. W. Bush, the former President of the United States.

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and his father George, the former governor of Michigan.

John Dingell Jr., who took his father John Dingell Sr.’s seat in Congress, representing parts of Detroit.

The Kennedy family.  Enough said.

While the examples provided above are all males, I’m sure there are a number of (and that there will be a growing number of) female examples as well.

Despite these examples (which often occur on a much more local, small business level), a large number of grown children are reluctant to step into their parents’ shoes, given their fears of being perceived as being “just like their parents,” or as having benefitted from the hard work of their parents without having to work hard on their own. Suggesting that Abraham and Isaac were the same person offends the sensibilities of those who seek to emulate their parents while still trying to live a life that is authentically and distinguishably theirs.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher from the late 1800s, stated: You have your way.  I have my way.  As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

This Shabbat, reflect on what it means to you to be an individual. 

Think of the ways in which you emulate your parents, both for better and for worse.

Recognize that we each, in our own way, have the ability to live lives that are distinct, full of meaning, and full of love.

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