When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text.
[God] visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and the children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. – Exodus 34:7
The fathers shall not be put to death for the sins of the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the sins of the fathers. – Deuteronomy 24:16
Which is it? we ask. Are we fated to repeat the pattern of our fathers’ lives, or free to make our own destiny?
This week’s reading contains some of the best-known scenes in the Torah: Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage (25:27–33); Jacob covers himself with a sheep’s pelt (ch. 27), tricks Isaac, his blind father, into believing he is Esau, and steals the blessing of the firstborn. Framing these episodes, the text also raises deep questions about the fraught legacy of sons and their fathers. For good or for ill, a man’s identification with his father is inescapable. And it lasts a lifetime.
As men, we must recognize that our fathers reside at the core of our identity, whether we like it or not. For those of us who grew up with a strong father, that can mean adopting positive attributes and coping effectively with negative situations. For those of us who grew up with a weak or abusive father, it can mean a life mired in self-loathing and negativity, driving us to destroy others before finally destroying ourselves – though if we are blessed with the right mother, teachers, and friends, it can mean identifying negative influences and resolving never to allow such behavior, such uncontrollable urges, rages, or passions, to rule our lives.
For men who grow up without a father, the quest for identity is stymied by having no tangible point of departure, and many men spend their lives in a painful and frustrating search for a foothold. Moreover, the image of the absent father is in many ways more powerful than the presence of an actual father could ever be, haunting a son’s life, sometimes ruining it. Indeed, for most men, how we relate to the image of our fathers determines the quality of all our relationships. As successful and independent as we may become, we constantly return to the quest for our origins, whether inspired by the desire to live up to the example set by our fathers, or plagued by the fear that we may repeat their worst sins.
Isaac, the true son of Abraham
“And these are the generations of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac” (25:19). The Midrash says Isaac looked exactly like his father so that people recognized Isaac was unmistakably Abraham’s son and inheritor. But what did Isaac think? Was he pleased by the comparison? Ashamed? Devastated?
God repeatedly reassures Isaac by referring to Abraham. God blesses Isaac “…because Abraham heeded and obeyed My voice, and he kept My observances and My commandments and My statutes and My laws” (26:5). Likewise, “I am the God of Abraham, your father. Do not be afraid, because I am with you, and I shall bless you, and I shall multiply your seed for the sake of Abraham My servant” (26:24).
This is the same Abraham who held a knife to Isaac’s throat. If I am Isaac, I might question God on this point: “You say You will bless me for the sake of my father. But I was the one who laid my head on the altar; I was the one who stretched my neck to reveal my throat, making a clear path for the knife in my own father’s hand. It is no thanks to my father that I am still alive. Don’t I get any credit at all?” Isaac is a protagonist only briefly; the spotlight swings to his twin sons, Esau and Jacob – a replay of Cain and Abel. (Indeed, there is a Cain/Abel theme underlying the binding of Isaac itself, in the murderous tension between father and son.)
What does it mean to inherit a legacy? And why does God invoke Abraham instead of blessing Isaac on his own merit? While the rest of the world acknowledges Isaac as Abraham’s successor, perhaps – as with God’s seemingly harsh message to Cain – God is telling Isaac, “You’re not ready yet.” The rest of this portion deals with Isaac’s coming to terms with his relationship with the ghost of his father.
Digging the wells of the past
When famine breaks out, God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt, as his father had done (12:10ff) – and as his son and grandsons will do (26:1–3) as well. During the time of famine, Isaac is blessed with “flocks of sheep and goats, and herds of cattle, and many servants; and the Philistines were jealous of him” (26:14).
Reflecting the hostile relationship between those destined to share the land, the Torah tells us, “All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in Abraham’s time, the Philistines stopped them up and filled them in with earth” (26:15). Three verses later, Isaac digs anew the wells dug by his father, giving them the same names his father called them. Isaac’s servants continue digging where Abraham dug. When they find water, fights break out between them and the locals. Finally, Isaac relocates and digs a new well – his own, not one that his father had dug previously (26:22). There, Isaac is able to establish himself. He names the well Rehoboth, meaning “open spaces,” and encamps there. He has dug through his past, through all the dirt left behind by his father, blocking him from getting on with his life. Now Isaac is ready to move on and tap into his own source of water. Rehoboth – open spaces. He has freed himself from his past by confronting it head-on.
So much happens to Isaac in the time he spends on the stage. He is nearly murdered by his own father (and you thought you had problems…), tricked by his son – with the encouragement and connivance of his beloved wife. And yet he seems at peace. Why?
The answer is that Isaac courageously undertakes the therapeutic process of examining the past to see what it is made of. The process of digging anew the old wells dug by his father is a metaphor for introspection; for coming to an understanding of his past, in order to be free to move forward. Digging through the dirt: in modern terms, psychoanalysis. Note how this starts: “Isaac returned, and he dug up the wells that they had dug in the days of Abraham” (26:18). Unlike the surrounding verses, Isaac himself does the digging, not his servants. Isaac takes shovel in hand and courageously digs right into the mess that his father left him. The outcome is not guaranteed, but without forcing the confrontation, he will never advance in life.
We shall never be grown-up until we step out of our father’s shadow. When we live in another’s shadow, we can never cast our own, can never impose our imprint on the world. The fundamental definition of success is being in control of our environment and especially of how we interact with forces beyond our control. Our lives are dominated by images of our parents. But we are not they, and so we need to get out into the sunlight. We need to dig through our past, however difficult. Only then can we pitch our tent, only then can we establish our own identity. Thus, Isaac finally frees himself from his past by the only means available: he confronts it head-on. It will never go away, but now it no longer binds him. He carries it not as an open wound, but as a scar.
Our job in life is not to expel our fathers – whether memories of our actual father or the ghost of an “absent presence.” Our fathers are immutably part of who we are. Our job is rather to learn to live independently. To build around that core like reinforced concrete, making it a framework for the structure of our lives. Those of us who never come to terms with our fathers are like so many rickety, half-finished buildings: uninhabitable, with rusted, broken rods jutting aimlessly, poisoning their surroundings with ugliness. We are our fathers’ heirs. They form our core. It is up to us to build solidly around it.
I look just like my father? Isaac asks, looking at himself in the mirror. But, he says, I am not my father, and what my father did to me, I do not have to do to my children. What my father did to my mother, I do not have to do to my wife.
Isaac prays for his wife, Rebecca, to become pregnant (25:21). This is in contrast to Abraham, who never prays for Sarah to have children of her own, and to Jacob, who will react angrily when his beloved wife asks him to pray for her to have a child. The Hebrew word used here meaning “he prayed” comes from the root meaning to dig with a shovel. Isaac, who will refine his own life by digging wells, starts by digging deep for God’s mercy and grace on behalf of the woman he loves. And he receives it in double portion.
After Isaac confronts his inner conflict with his father, God appears again, promising to protect and guard Isaac, and to make him and his descendants prosperous “for the sake of your father, Abraham” (26:24). Again? But now Isaac’s response is to build an altar and worship God, because confronting the negative consequences of our fathers’ influence doesn’t mean they cease to exist. We often wish we could obliterate the past. But those who succeed in life are the ones who come to terms with their past. Who unearth the painful parts and continually work through them. Our past makes us who we are; through bravely delving into our past, we have the God-given power to make of ourselves who and what we shall become.
As Isaac teaches: it’s not what we inherit, but what we do with it that makes all the difference.
Yours for a better world.