March 8, 2021 |

A Crowning Achievement

If you asked me what is one of the most consistently spiritual experiences of my life, I would tell you that above all else, it is fatherhood. Acting like a father to my children, being involved in their life, studying Torah with them, teaching them how to daven, being their counselor in camp, being their baseball and football coach, and just sitting down with them every night and discussing their day. All these activities remind me that life is not about the “me”, but about the service to Hashem. All these activities are about service to another, educating the next generation, and ultimately about drawing closer to God.

So being an active father has enormous spiritual benefits. Every once in a while fatherhood brings along certain minor challenges, but that is to be expected.

What are the spiritual goals of fatherhood? What do we want spiritually from our children? This question is answered in two ways by this week’s Torah portion.

The opening verse of today’s portion begs for commentary.

The verse says, “Ve-eleh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzchak. This is the lineage of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac.”

First problem: We already know that Isaac is the son of Abraham? We have been hearing about this already for the previous two portions. So why does the text tell us yet again that Isaac is the son of Abraham?
And second, the text itself is redundant. Why the need to tell us Abraham begot Isaac, if it already mentioned this in the verse when it stated, “this is the lineage of Isaac son of Abraham.”

The Midrash Rabbah answers this question and at the same time introduces us to a powerful idea about raising children.

The Midrash quotes the verse from Proverbs (17:6), “Ateret Zekeinim, benei banim. Children’s children are the crown of elders.”

Explains the Midrash: We learn from this that children are the crown of their parents; a person is exalted via his progeny. A child or a grandchild or even a great-grandchild can act in a righteous manner and thus crown the life of his ancestors.

Thus, the verse in our portion is telling us that Isaac’s achievements crowned the life of his father, Abraham.

How did Isaac crown Abraham’s life?

In many ways, Isaac’s life was about continuing the holy work of his parents and thereby making a crown for his life. Isaac’s main task in life was to continue his father’s holy work.

This is why the Torah tells us seemingly uninteresting facts about the lives of Abraham and Isaac. It is to emphasize the parallel nature of their lives.

About Abraham we are told, vayitah eshel be-veer shavah, and he planted an orchard in Beer Shevah. This verse informs us that Abraham was taking ownership of the land of Canaan; literally laying roots down for future generations. Likewise, about Isaac we are told that he continued this tradition: “Vayizra Yitzchak ba-aretz, and Isaac sowed the land.”

We are told that Abraham gave a tithe to the kohein of the land, Malki Tzedek: vayiten lo maser mikol, and he gave him a tenth from everything.” With this act Abraham established in the world the principal of giving charity to religious institutions; he gave a tenth of his wealth to charity. So too, in reference to Isaac the verse says (26:12), that he found “meah shearim.” Rashi explains this to mean that he measured out a tithe to charity.

And finally a third example relates to the wells that Isaac dug. We are told that the Philistines plugged up all the wells that Abraham had dug. So Isaac went to those same wells and re-dug them (26:17). Vayashav Yitzchak vayachpor et beerot hamayim asher chafru bei-mei Avraham, And Isaac returned and re-dug the wells that his father had first dug.”

This paradigm of Abraham and Isaac is a model for parents and children. In these three examples, Isaac understands that his mission in life is to continue the important work—spiritual and physical--begun by his father.

Similarly in our own times, many parents want their children to understand that one of their purposes in life is to continue the important, spiritual work of their parents. Especially in the religious community, this idea is emphasized again and again. We can point to this week’s portion and tell children that if they continue their parents’ holy work, then they will be fulfilling the words of proverbs: they will become a crown to the life of their parents.

But what about children who don’t want to continue the work of their parents. First of all, maybe their parents were flawed and on a bad path and they don’t want to go down that path. Or maybe the children just want to do things on their own, a little bit differently. The father was a rabbi and the child wants to be an artist; or the mother is a doctor and the child wants to work in computers. Then what? Is it any less of a crowning achievement?

Of course not. There are ways for a child to be a crown for the life of his parents even if he does not continue their work and repeat their life story.

This is another lesson of the life of Isaac and Abraham.

The verse Ateret Zekeinim, benei banim can be an aspiration for all of us; it is something to strive for in our own lives. It can be an injunction to children to better the life of their parents. They can strive and overtake their parents. Children and grandchildren can live a purer life, a more holy life and thereby correct the flaws and mistakes of their parents and older generations.

When we look at the life of Isaac we notice that although his life was very similar to Abraham’s in reality he was refining and elevating many of the missteps of his father.

Now, it goes without saying that Abraham was a holy tzaddik, his righteousness goes beyond anything we can comprehend. His accomplishments are unbelievable.

But the greater one is the more their sins are magnified and Abraham committed some mistakes.

One way to think about Abraham is to imagine him as an immigrant to the United States after World War 2. We all know people who immigrated with nothing in their pockets. They became entrepreneurs; hard workers, survivors who built incredible businesses and empires.

From a spiritual perspective, sometimes these people took short cuts. Sometimes they had to work on Shabbat because they just felt that they had no choice. Sometimes they felt the need to assimilate into American culture. Sometimes they set up Jewish organizations that were devoid of religion and observance. Deep down they knew better; but they didn’t focus on the spiritual because they were more focused on survival.

To a certain degree that was Abraham. He was the ultimate entrepreneur. He started monotheism. He moved to Canaan. He fought the battles with the local Kings. He took enormous risks. He willingly sacrificed himself and his son. We all know people like Abraham. They are tough beyond our own imagination.

But in climbing the ladder he took some shortcuts and made some mistakes. Nachmanides says Abraham committed a great sin (chataah gedolah) in going down to Egypt when famine hit the land of Canaan. He should have never left the land. And when he was in Egypt, Abraham passed off his wife, Sarah, as his sister. He took money for her and in return handed her to Pharaoh. This too, was a great sin.

So too, Sarah herself, rebukes Abraham for another mistake. After Sarah is unable to conceive a child, Abraham prays to God so that he can have a child. Rashi points out that Sarah rebukes Abraham for only praying for himself and not for Sarah. And thus, Abraham has a child from Hagar before he has one from Sarah.

One generation later, at least in these specific areas, Isaac is able to live a purer life. He is able to look back at the life of his father and correct these three flaws.

Isaac is pure; purer than Abraham. He didn’t have to fight Abraham’s wars; he didn’t have to move to the land of Canaan. He was able to move at a slower pace. The rabbis call Isaac an olah temimah, a pure sacrifice.

When Isaac faces a hunger in the land he doesn’t go down to Egypt. Hashem says, “al teired mitzraymah, do not go down to Egypt.” You, Isaac, are pure, you can’t leave the land.

When Isaac goes to the land of Philistines he also says that Rebecca is his sister. But while at first glance this action looks like it is the same as Abraham saying Sarah was his sister, in reality it was very different.

Abraham had willingly volunteered the “Sarah is my sister” line to both the Egyptians and the Philistines. He told them this even before they asked about Sarah. In contrast, Isaac waited for them to ask about Rebecca before saying she was his sister. Abraham became rich as a result of passing along Sarah. In contrast, Isaac received no gifts from the Philistines when he said Rebecca was his sister. And in fact, most telling of all, Isaac continued to live with Rebecca as his wife. This is why Avimelekh looked out of his window and noticed Isaac and Rebecca living as husband and wife.

So Abraham passed along Sarah to the Egyptians and Philistines in return for money, while Isaac remained with Rebecca and expressed his love for her even in the face of great danger.

And when Rebecca was barren, Isaac prayed for her to have a child—le-nochach ishto—on behalf of his wife. Abraham prayed for himself and he takes another woman as a concubine. Abraham couldn’t risk not having a child. For Isaac it is different, perhaps because less is at stake or perhaps he has a better relationship with his wife, but Isaac prays for Rebecca to have a child and he does not take a concubine.

In many ways, Isaac’s life is about correcting and refining the spiritual imperfections of his father.

Isaac crowns his father’s achievements, not by imitating them, but by fixing them. And the same way Isaac does this for Abraham, Jacob will do this for Isaac, and Judah will do this for Jacob. The ultimate crown is when a child refines the flaws of his or her parents.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once taught the reason we are told the stories of the patriarchs is to learn from their life stories how to experience God.

From the Abraham and Isaac story we are learning that it is the responsibility of a child to either continue the work of their elders or else to polish the imperfections of their parents, however small or great they may be.

Fixing the work of our elders can literally mean repairing their sins or it can mean seeing an area of the world that was neglected by their parents and working to fill in that area.

Every person’s life story is incomplete. All of us are the next generation. We are the Isaac’s of the world. Our job is to look at our previous generations—our parents, our teachers—and ask ourselves each and every day: how can we be an ateret zekeinim, a crown for our elders? And our job is then to turn to the next generation each and every day and tell them that what we hope for from them: We should turn to our children on a regular basis and say: “We love you. We have high hopes for you. We know what you are capable of doing. We know how talented you are and how you can be a crown to all the work of our ancestors. We want you to be our ateret zekeinim.”


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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