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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Toldos 5775 "Generation to Generation"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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This past Shabbos I experienced a moment of wistful nostalgia. The chazzan who was leading the Musaf services had yahrtzeit[1] for his mother. During the kedusha prayer when it is customary to sing part of the prayer,[2] the chazzan sang a tune uncommonly used for those words. It was the tune of the melody, “Oyfn pripetchik”.[3]

It struck me because that was the song my Zeide – whose yahrtzeit was two days later – would often sing to me.[4] For a moment I was again a seven year old boy sitting on the bed in my grandparent’s apartment with my Zeide sitting next to me singing those very words to me.

“And these are the offspring of Yitzchak, son of Avrohom; Avrohom begot Yitzchak”[5]. Rashi explains why the Torah reiterates that Avrohom was the father of Yitzchak. The cynics of the generation claimed that Yitzchak could not have possibly been the son of Avrohom and Sarah, who had not borne a son for so many decades and now were well past their childbearing years. They therefore countered that when Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, abducted Sarah she became pregnant from him, and Yitzchok was his son. In order to disprove them, G-d made Avrohom and Yitzchak’s physical features identical so that even the scoffers had to admit that they were wrong.

The assertion of the scoffers seems completely preposterous. The truth was that Avrohom already had a child, i.e. Yishmael, which made it clear that Sarah’s barrenness was not due to a deficiency in him. In fact, Chazal[6] say that Sarah was an “aylanus”, i.e. her body was physically unable to bear a child. If so, even if she had conceived from Avimelech it would not be much less of a miracle than if she conceived from Avrohom. If so, what were the cynics trying to accomplish with their derisive claim?

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky zt’l explained that the scoffers had no qualms about admitting to miracles and supernatural occurrences. Their goal was to hinder the perpetuation of the legacy of Avrohom.

The Mishna[7] states: “There were ten generations from Adam until Noach – to show the degree of His (G-d’s) patience; for all those generations increasingly angered Him until he brought upon them the waters of the flood. There were ten generations from Noach until Avrohom – to show the degree of His patience; for all those generations angered Him increasingly, until our forefather Avrohom came and received reward corresponding to all of them.”

How can the Mishna assert that all of the generations between Noach and Avrohom were wicked, if there were righteous men such as Shem, Ever, Mesushelach, and Chanoch?

The answer is that despite the fact that there were sparks of greatness, there was no continuation. Those righteous individuals were unable to transmit their beliefs and righteous lifestyles to their children and, therefore, their saintliness ended with them.

Avrohom Avinu however, ensured that his legacy would live on by imparting his beliefs to his children: “Avrohom begot Yitzchok”. There was a perpetuation that ensured that the spark of Avrohom would continue to flourish after his passing.

It was that continuity that made the scoffers apprehensive. They asserted that although Sarah may have indeed become miraculously pregnant, the child was not Avrohom’s but Avimelech’s. In so doing, they hoped to sever the legacy of holiness and divinity that Avrohom had promulgated and taught.

Rabbi Galinsky concluded that in every generation there have been (and are) scoffers with the same goal in mind of hindering the transmission of the Torah and its values. The only thing that changes is their title, e.g. Sadducees, Kararites, Boethusians, etc.

In our generation too scoffers are relentless in their pursuit to undermine and destroy the continuity of our legacy and traditions. Yet, the continuation of the transmission of Avrohom’s legacy continues.

When G-d was about to destroy Sodom, He felt compelled to reveal His intentions to Avrohom. “Shall I conceal from Avrohom what I am about to do… For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of G-d…”[8]

There were many reasons that G-d could have mentioned in explaining the reason for His extreme love for Avrohom. Yet, above all He mentioned the fact that Avrohom educated his children.

A person reveals his true passions and values by what he strives to imbue in his children. The fact that Avrohom was so involved in the promulgation of his values and beliefs demonstrated that they were of seminal importance to him.

The Chasam Sofer questions why Avrohom was unaware of G-d’s intent to destroy Sodom. Many of the great prophets of future generations - including Yeshaya, Yirmiyah, and Yechezkel - were privy to revelations about retribution that was imminently going to be meted out to heathen nations. If Avrohom was a prophet and had reached such lofty levels of connection with G-d, why was he not privy to what was about to happen to Sodom?

The Chasam Sofer explains that, in truth, Avrohom did not reach the same levels of prophecy as his successors. It was not because he was unworthy of those levels but because he did not devote the necessary time and efforts to reach those levels. In order to ascertain the highest levels of prophecy one must invest many hours into personal growth, including engaging in deep introspection in utter seclusion. However, it is almost impossible for one to engage in exalted ponderings in prolonged isolation and still be able to teach on a rudimentary level. Avrohom preferred to afford that time and energy to the education of his family and disciples. Essentially, Avrohom gave up his own greatness for the edification of his family and students.

With this understanding the wording of the pasuk is beautifully understood. G-d said, “Shall I conceal from Avrohom what I am about to do?... For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of G-d, doing charity and justice, in order that G-d might bring upon Avrohom that which He had spoken of him’.” The reason Avrohom did not know about the imminent destruction is because of his ‘prophetic deficiency’, which itself was a result of the fact that, “he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of G-d”. If so, G-d felt Avrohom should not lose out because of his full involvement in the education of his household.

This thought from the Chasam Sofer has powerful ramifications. At times we may want to engage in ‘loftier Judaism’. We may want to add stringencies or other worthy ideals to our religious observance. But we must never forget that our primary role is to educate our children and to foster within them love and appreciation for our beliefs.

This can perhaps also explain why the righteous individuals who preceded Avrohom were unable to influence their own children and their generation. They may have been too invested in their own personal growth, hoping that they would be able to inspire others by osmosis. They failed to realize that without active education one cannot inspire and influence others.

In parshas Ki Sisa when the Torah reiterates the centrality and holiness of Shabbos it says, “The children of Israel shall observe the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations.”[9] The Torah is commanding us to observe Shabbos in such a manner that it will become an eternal covenant for all generations. This entails observing Shabbos so that, not only do we enjoy it and look forward to it, but that we ensure that our children love it as well. If we are so busy with our own Shabbos that we neglect the ‘Shabbos of our children’ then we have failed to fulfill this verse which adjures us to ensure that “our generations” also observe the Shabbos.[10]

In regards to observing the Torah’s laws and mitzvos, the Torah itself demands, “You shall live by them”[11], on which the gemara[12] expounds, “and not die by them.” In light of the aforementioned insights we can offer a homiletical explanation of the verse: One must live his life in such a manner that his children will follow in his footsteps and adhere to the Torah as he did. Thus, he will live beyond death in the actions and lives of his successors. “You shall live by them”, i.e. to observe the Torah in such a manner that it will vicariously ensure eternal life.

As we usher in the month of Kislev, the excitement for the holiday of Chanukah begins to be palpable. When the Syrian-Greeks imposed their heinous decrees on the hapless Jews their intent was not to stop them from studying Torah completely. The Greeks were a cultured people who appreciated knowledge and wisdom and they saw the Torah as a mere book of wisdom. Their intent was to destroy the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition and our sense of mission and purpose.

The Syrian-Greeks sought to extinguish our flame but the righteous Maccabes proved that its light is eternal. Its light will continue to cast its ethereal glow, well beyond our own mortality and temporal existence.

“To make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations.”

“Yitzchak, son of Avrohom; Avrohom begot Yitzchak”

Please keep in mind:

Elimelech ben Basya in all of your tefillos.

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[1] The anniversary of the day of death

[2] to a tune which the chazzan chooses

[3] Composed by the noted Yiddish lyricist, M. M. Warshavsky (1840-1907) [The chazzan later informed me that his mother would sing that song to him when he was a child.]

[4] It is a song which depicts little children who are being taught the letters of the Hebrew alphabet by their Rebbe, huddled around a fire warming their hearts and souls. The teacher exhorts his students to remember that all the tears and hope of our people are inextricably bound to those letters.

[5] 25:19

[6] Yevamos 64b

[7] Avos 5:2

[8] Bereishis 18:17-19

[9] Shemos 31:16

[10] In a world of talking toys and dolls and electronic games which are forbidden to be played with on Shabbos, this is no simple task. If our children view Shabbos merely as a day of “NO” (i.e. “you can’t play with this”; “you can’t play with that”) they will surely not enjoy it. The concepts of having a “Shabbos party”, as well as the fact that children receive extra attention from parents are integral components of a child’s Shabbos observance and education. A therapist related that when he wants to understand the dynamics of a family and how a child feels at home his first inquiry is about the family’s Shabbos table. “Describe to me the atmosphere at your Shabbos table.”

[11] Vayikra 18:5

[12] Sanhedrin 74a

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