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Toledot 5770-2009

“The Jew Under the Microscope”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, the Torah tells us that, once again, there was a famine in the land of Canaan, aside from the first famine in the time of Abraham. Like his father Abraham, Isaac goes to Grar, the land of the Philistines, where Abimelech is king.

Isaac settles in Grar, and when asked about his wife, he says that Rebecca is his sister.

In Genesis 26:8, Scripture tells us that after sojourning in Grar for a while King Abimelech gazes down from his window, “Vayar, v’heenay Yitzchak m’tzachek et Rivka eeshto,” and behold, Isaac was sporting with his wife, Rebecca. Abimelech summons Isaac and angrily berates him for identifying Rebecca as his sister, when in reality she was his wife. Isaac apologetically explains to the king that he was afraid the men in Grar would kill him because of Rebecca’s beauty. Having learned from the plague that befell the people of Grar in the times of Abraham and Sarah, Abimelech warns his people not to harm Isaac and Rebecca in any manner.

Unlike the king of Egypt who expelled Abraham and Sarah from his land, Abimelech allows Isaac to remain in Grar. Isaac begins to cultivate the land, and, in his first year, reaps one hundred fold. In Genesis 26:13, Scripture reports, “Va’yigdal ha’eesh, va’yay’lech ha’loch v’gadayl ahd kee gah’dahl m’ode,” and the man [Isaac] became greater and greater, until he was very great. Eventually, Isaac had so many flocks, herds and enterprises, that the Philistines began to resent him.

Unable to stomach Isaac’s successes, the Philistines purposely stop up all the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug, filling them with earth. Finally, Abimelech says to Isaac (Genesis 26:16), “Laych may’ee’mah’noo, kee ah’tzahm’tah mee’meh’noo m’ode,” go away from us, for you have become much mightier than we!

Isaac departs from Grar, sets up a new camp away from Abimelech and his people, digs new wells of water, and continues to prosper. Thereupon, the herdsmen of Grar quarrel with the herdsmen of Isaac, insisting that the recently discovered water is theirs. Isaac digs new wells that are also disputed. He finally relocates from there to Rechovoth, where he digs a well that is not disputed.

Not long after, Abimelech, together with a group of his friends from Grar, and Phichol, Abimelech’s general, seek out Isaac. Surprised by their visit, Isaac asks (Genesis 26:27): “Why have you come to me? After all, you hate me and drove me away from you?” They finally acknowledge that they have seen that G-d is with Isaac. They then press Isaac to make an oath and a covenant with them to ensure peaceful future relations between the two camps and their descendants.

As we have stated in the past, a significant portion of the Torah’s narratives are governed by the principle (Sotah 43a), “Mah’ah’say avot see’mahn l’vanim,” the deeds of the fathers are a prognostication for the children. This principle asserts that not only is history repeated with Abraham and Isaac, but repeated throughout the annals of the Jewish people. Consequently, there is much to learn for our own safety and security, if we only pay close attention to the details.

Professor Umberto Cassuto has pointed out that the repetition of the famine story and going down to Egypt and Grar is clearly a paradigm for the future experiences of the people of Israel. There will be a famine, the people will go down to Egypt, the Egyptians will attempt to kill the male children but allow the females to live, and eventually the people will leave with great wealth.

The particular paradigm that is played out in Genesis 26 in the story of Isaac and Abimelech is remarkably subtle and requires careful study and examination. The Jew [Isaac] comes to town. The local inhabitants immediately recognize that he and his family and their lifestyles are different. They ask personal questions about his family and are particularly interested in his wife, who happens to be very beautiful.

A Jew must always be concerned about his behavior and actions, because others are always looking for him to stumble. Abimelech has his binoculars out, keeping a close watch on Isaac, even noticing how he behaves in his bedroom, sporting with his wife. The more the Jew tries to keep a low profile, the more curiosity it creates.

Despite many distractions, Isaac is able to focus on providing for his family. He plants his field and reaps “may’ah sh’ah’reem,” one hundred measures, an immense amount of produce. Despite the fact that he is a newly arrived immigrant, his willingness to work hard and his business acumen allow him to eclipse all the other farmers. The Jew’s economic success leads to resentment and jealousy among the populous. Unwilling to confront them and fight over the wells and his success, Isaac leaves Grar only to have his enemies follow him to his new location and stop up his new wells. When he moves far enough away, however, he is finally able to ensure a secure source of water, and is no longer bothered by his enemies. Ultimately, the enemies have a change of heart, and come back to Isaac to sue for peace.

Undoubtedly, what had happened with Isaac and his family is what usually happens after Jewish expulsions. It happened in England, Spain, Portugal and in many other Jewish diasporas. After the Jews were expelled, the economy of the country took a nosedive. The leaders then come back to the Jew to try to coax him to return to their country.

The deeds of the father are the signposts for the children. History repeats itself, again and again.

One of the fascinating sidebars of contemporary history, which is not very well known, is that the German government has been, for several years, recruiting Jews to move to East Germany. All Jews (especially those from the former Soviet Union) who can prove that they have any ancestral connection to Germany are entitled to immediate citizenship in Germany, and are given generous government stipends upon arrival. In fact, more Jews from the former Soviet Union have moved to Germany during the past ten years than have moved to Israel. Apparently, the Germans expect the “resourceful” Jews to revive their stagnant economy.

There is much to learn from the expulsion of Isaac, and his relationship to Abimelech, king of Grar. We dare not ignore the nuances that are found in the Torah’s narrative. They are there to teach us and to warn us. The Jew in galut, in exile, is always under the microscope.

We may think that the Jewish experience in America, an experience that has been so blessed, is different, but we have to remember that we have been blessed before–in England, France, Spain, Italy, and North Africa. Let us hope that we will learn from these ancient lessons and be fortunate enough to ward off the enmity that has historically, and apparently inevitably, ensued.

May you be blessed.