Peace on Earth? Toledot 5779

The story line of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel has moved on to the second, and soon to the third generations, but our portion begins with a curious backwards facing reference that seems entirely redundant: “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac.” Interpreters have long puzzled over this seemingly pointless verse. We know! Already two weeks ago we got the good news. Even on the verse’s internal level, it is almost ridiculously obvious, like asking who is buried in Grant’s tomb. Isaac is the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac. Got it—can we move on? Apparently, not yet.

The rabbis discern a hint of anxiety in the Torah’s belaboring of the point. Why emphasize that Abraham was the father of Isaac? Ah yes, there is the matter of this aged and previously infertile couple suddenly having a son. Really? And then there is the suspicious fact pattern of Sarah having spent time with two other men, Pharaoh and Avimelekh. We understand why they want Isaac to be their son, but we also get why that claim might have been viewed with suspicion.

The rabbis felt that such suspicion was reasonable, and further imagined it eating away at Abraham himself, causing him to wonder if he really was the father. In Bavli Bava Metzia 87a, they imagine Isaac’s weaning party, and a thoroughly skeptical gathering of the neighbors—don’t tell me that Sarah was suddenly fertile, they laughed.  And so, a miracle—Sarah took every baby in town and nursed it. OK, so maybe Sarah is still fertile, but look at old Abe! Yes, the rabbis agree, look at Old Abe very closely. The emphatic verse must mean something, and so another miracle: Isaac suddenly became the spitting image of his father. Like father like son—everyone could see the resemblance, and thus were the skeptics shut down.

This claim is made in the Bavli and modified in the later Midrash Tanhuma, and is quite well known. However the Tanhuma adds a framing element which feels fresh and relevant to us today. This Midrash opens with the format of a question, “Let the sages teach us ילמדנו רבינו.” The question is unrelated to our portion and thus rather surprising—“What was the point of the peace offerings?” We know from the book of Leviticus that the burnt offerings were a show of devotion, and the sin offerings were used for purification. But what was the need for sacrifices of well-being? Normally we think of them as thanksgiving offerings, but the sages have another answer in mind.

The Midrash answers its own question: the peace offerings are not for the person who brings them, but for the world at large. A person who brings a peace offering brings peace to the world. Rabbi Eliezer says that since the Temple was destroyed, “there is no day without curse and suffering.” Proper worship brings peace; lack of worship brings pain. The Midrash continues with a famous discussion of the virtues of peace. It is so important that the Torah was willing to tell an untruth, when the brothers claimed their father had before his death commanded Joseph to forgive them for selling him into slavery. The Midrash says that Jacob did no such thing, but for the sake of family peace, such “noble lies” are acceptable.

Reading this text, I wonder whether it could be said that our peace offerings produce blessings for the entire world. I want to believe this to be true, but I find it difficult to be certain. It does seem lately with all of the violence in our society and global community, that there is no day without curse and suffering. If we look closely at all conflict zones, we can lose all hope. There is a certain amount of self-deception required to motivate us to work nonetheless for peace. If you listen to the rabbis, the premise of our religious enterprise is that it brings blessings not only to the people who practice, but also to the entire world. Adding this intention to our worship and study can elevate raise our motivation and direct our focus. May our service always be for peace, and may our blessings spread far and wide, so that the cycle of violence and destruction can finally be broken.

בראשית פרק כה, יט

(יט) וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק:

בבלי בבא מציעא דף פז עמוד א

ועדיין היו מרננים ואומרים: אם שרה הבת תשעים שנה תלד, אברהם בן מאה שנה יוליד? מיד נהפך קלסתר פנים של יצחק ונדמה לאברהם. פתחו כולם ואמרו אברהם הוליד את יצחק.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת תולדות סימן א

(א) ילמדנו רבינו על מה היו השלמים באים כך שנה רבי חייא בר אבא בשם רבי יהודה כל המביא שלמים מביא שלום לעולם, אמר ר’ אליעזר בשעה שהיו זבחים בעולם היה שלום משחרב בית הזבחים אין לך יום שאין בו קללה ופורעניות, ארשב”י לעולם השלמים לשום שלום הן באין, ואמר רשב”י גדול הוא השלום שדברה התורה דברי בדאי בשביל שלום ואי זה כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך וחטאתם (בראשית נ) ואין אנו מוצאים שצוה כלום מכל הדברים האלה אלא לפי שהיה יודע חסידותו של יוסף ולא היה חושדו ומחזיק אותו כשופכי דמים, בא וראה כח השלום שבשעה שנתטלטלה שרה מיד פרעה ליד אבימלך ונתעברה ביצחק היו אומות העולם אומרים הלבן מאה שנה יולד אלא היא מעוברת מאבימלך או מפרעה והיתה חשד בלבו של אברהם על אלו הדברים מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא אמר למלאך הממונה על יצירת הוולד עשה כל אקונין שלו כדמות אביו כדי שיעידו הכל שהוא בנו של אברהם מנין ממה שקראו בענין אלה תולדות יצחק בן אברהם ממשמע שהוא אומר יצחק בן אברהם איני יודע שאברהם הוליד את יצחק ומה ת”ל אברהם הוליד את יצחק שכל הרואה אברהם היה אומר בודאי שאברהם הוליד את יצחק ממה שהיה קלסתר פניהם דומין זה לזה לכך נאמר אברהם הוליד את יצחק.