Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 30 November 2019 / 2 Kislev 5780

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Exile and Envy

Yitzchak is instructed to remain in the land of Canaan, and he dwells in Gerar. After the trial with Avimelech — bearing striking resemblance to his parents’ ordeal with Avimelech — he settles in the land and becomes fabulously wealthy.

Avraham also had vast wealth, but something changes for Yitzchak. So many of the circumstances are eerily familiar — he dwells in the same land, reclaims his wife from the same local king and re-digs the same wells. But his experience, or rather the experience of him, is different. Avraham was known by his neighbors as “a prince of G-d among us,” and is treated with utmost respect. But now, the Philistines are envious of Yitzchak, and they chase him away on account of their envy.

The change marks the beginning of exile. The prophecy to Avraham that “your offspring will be strangers” begins with Yitzchak. The status of Avraham’s family will yet decline further in the lifetime of Yaakov, who was swindled and violated by those around him and described himself as a servant of his gentile brother.

Here, the lives of the three patriarchs tell more than their individual stories. They represent historical archetypes of the position of Jewry in the world throughout its exile. There are three distinct positions to be assumed by the House of Avraham as strangers in the midst of the nations: as servants, as great figures but objects of envy, and as honored noblemen. In each of these three turns of destiny, the Divine covenant has protected and will continue to protect the Jewish People. As G-d promised, He remembers “My ‘covenant Yaakov’ and also My ‘covenant Yitzchak’ and also My ‘covenant Avraham.’” (Vayikra 26:42)

History has and will continue to unfold from the Yaakov position to the Yitzchak position, and ultimately to the Avraham position. The years of trial and servitude, poverty and persecution, will define Jewish destiny for many long centuries. But when the years of suffering and blood will have transformed the Jewish heart, the Jew will no longer be an object of hatred. Instead he will become a light unto the nations.

But on the way from servant to nobleman, from object of hate to prince among us, the nation will pass through the Yitzchak position — the object of envy. In the midst of growing prosperity, living among nations wavering between humaneness and envy, the Jew will be challenged to preserve his unique character, just as Yitzchak did. This test is not the test of keeping our chin up in the face of unrelenting blows, but the test of walking free and independent, undeterred by envy and with the courage to remain different.

Only then can we look forward to the last stage of exile, a state in which we will win the respect and recognition of the nations, not although we are Jews, but because we are Jews. Like Avraham, we will then walk with pride among the nations.

  • Source: Commentary, Genesis 26:15

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