“The Deeds of the Fathers are Signposts for the Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read, for the third time, the story of our Patriarchs going to Egypt or to Gerar on account of famine.

In Genesis 26:1 we read, “Va’y’hee rah’av bah’ahretz, mil’vad ha’rah’av ha’ree’shon ah’sher ha’yah bee’may Avraham. Va’yay’laych Yitzchak el Avimelech melech P’lishtim Grar’rah.” There was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Avimelech, the King of the Philistines to Gerar. G-d instructs Isaac not to follow his father’s footsteps and go to Egypt to relieve the famine, but rather to remain in the land of Canaan, so that the promise that Isaac will inherit the land of Canaan will be fulfilled. According to tradition, because he was prepared to give up his life for G-d at the Akeidah on Mt. Moriah, Isaac was now considered an Olah Temimah, a pure and holy offering, and was consequently forbidden to leave the land of Israel.

Isaac heeds G-d’s words, and goes to Gerar. There the people ask about his wife, and he, like his father before him, says that his wife, Rebecca, is his sister. In Genesis 26:7 scripture explains Isaac’s actions: “Kee yah’ray lay’mor eesh’tee, pen ya’har’goo’nee ahn’shay ha’makom al Rivkah, kee to’vat mar’eh hee,” for he was afraid to say “my wife,” lest the men of the place kill me because of Rebecca, for she was fair to look upon.

After dwelling in Gerar for a while, King Avimelech looks out his window and sees Isaac “sporting” with his wife. Angrily, Avimelech summons Isaac and demands to know why Isaac claimed that Rebecca was his sister. After all, says Avimelech, I could have been killed on account of her, had I taken her as a concubine. There is no recorded response by Isaac to this charge. Instead, Avimelech announces to his people that Isaac and his wife are protected sojourners, and anyone who harms Isaac shall surely die. While Isaac is allowed to remain in Gerar, Avimelech does not shower him with gifts as he did Abraham. Instead, Isaac independently plants May’ah sh’ah’rim, a hundred measures, and becomes enormously wealthy. His economic success leads to disputes between Isaac’s servants and Avimelech’s servants, and ultimately Isaac moves his family to Beersheva.

With only a few subtle differences, this story is virtually identical to the story that we read of Avram in Genesis 12:10 concerning the famine in Canaan. Avram and Sarai go down to Egypt. Avram instructs Sarai to say that she’s his sister. Pharaoh discovers the deception and expels Avram and Sarai from Egypt. In Chapter 20 of Genesis, Avraham and Sarah once again go down, on account of the famine–this time to Gerar. Abraham himself announces to all that Sarah is his sister. King Avimelech sends for Sarah, but before he has a chance to violate her, he’s warned away by G-d. After the incident, Avimelech gives Abraham gifts and allows him to remain in Gerar.

Our rabbis have much difficulty not only with the fact that our patriarchs engage in “deception,” by stating that their wives are their sisters, but also with the effects of the deception which results in endangering the women. Only in Genesis 20:11-12 is any reason given to explain why the patriarchs do this. Abraham informs Avimelech that the reason that he said that Sarah was his sister was because he saw that there was no any fear of G-d in this place (Gerar), and that he (Abraham) was afraid that they would kill him because of his wife. In verse 12 Abraham expounds further, stating explicitly that in truth Sarah was his sister, the daughter of his father but not the daughter of his mother. Rashi states that by this Abraham means that Sarah was his brother’s daughter. And thus, in a figurative sense, Sarah could be considered his sister.

Other commentators maintain that the Egyptians and the Gerarites had a most perverted sense of morality. They would not transgress the commandment forbiding adultery, but they would not hesitate to murder a husband, so that the woman would no longer be married. Hence, the patriarchs were justified in their fear that they would be killed and the women spared. Other commentators suggest that this was the patriarchs way to stall until the famine had passed. By stating that their wives were their sisters, Abraham and Isaac would be in a position to demand exorbitant dowery for the woman’s hand. As no dowery would ever be sufficient, they would be able to remain in the country until the famine concluded and then depart safely. Unfortunately, they did not anticipate that the king would simply take the wives without any dowery. In stark contrast to the mainstream commentators, the Ramban maintains that Abraham sinned grievously by putting Sarah in jeopardy in order to save his own skin.

The real question however remains: Why does this story repeat three times, albeit each in a slightly different manner? Umberto Cassuto, in his brilliant analysis of these sections, asserts that the narrative is repeated in order to underscore the fact that this story is history in the making, and that from this particular repeating story we learn that the deeds of the fathers are surely signposts for the children.

Cassuto explains: G-d had already predicted to Abraham in the Covenant between the Pieces, the Brit bayn hab’tar’im (Genesis 15:13): “Ya’do’ah tay’dah kee ger yee’hee’yeh zar’ah’chah b’eretz lo lah’hem,” You shall surely know that your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs. In this covenant, the prophecy of exile, servitude and persecution is pronounced, in effect, predicting the exile to Egypt and the subsequent triumphant salvation. This, maintains Cassuto, is exactly what is predicted by the repetition of the stories. There will be a famine, the families of Abraham and Isaac will have to leave Canaan, either to Egypt or to Gerar. In exile the men will be threatened with death, but the women will be allowed to live. Eventually, the people will go out with great wealth.

Once again, we see that there is nothing casual about the Bible. Textual repetition is not mere coincidence. Emphasis in scripture is never accidental, but rather comes to underscore profound messages for subsequent generations. As the Ethics of the Fathers states (5:26), “Ha’fach bah vah’ha’fach bah, d’kolah bah,” repeat your study of the Torah again and again, because everything is in it. In 1905, the famed George Santyana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our sages said it first, and said it better. How crucial it is for us to see those signposts, to heed them, and to learn from them.

May you be blessed.