“Good Families Bad Children, Bad Families Good Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read of the birth of Esau and Jacob, the twin sons who were born to Isaac and Rebecca, and the children’s very different development and the lifestyles that they each chose for themselves.

In Genesis 25:19, the Torah announces: וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם, אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק, and these are the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham–-Abraham begot Isaac. The rabbis are perplexed by the seemingly unnecessary repetition in the verse. After proclaiming that these are the offspring of Isaac, the son of Abraham, why was it necessary for the verse to state that Abraham begot Isaac?

Rashi offers two reasons for the repetition. He first suggests that since the Al-mighty in Genesis 17:5 gave Abram the new name Abraham, which means that he will be the father of a multitude of nations, the Torah confirms the beginning of the fulfillment of that role by stating that “Abraham begot Isaac.”

Rashi also cites a Midrash that asserts that the scoffers of Abraham’s generation claimed that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, who had taken Sarah to his palace, had really fathered Isaac. After all, despite the many years that she and Abraham lived together, Sarah never became pregnant. Therefore, the Al-mighty fashioned Isaac’s face to be identical to Abraham’s, to serve as indisputable evidence that Abraham fathered Isaac. Hence, the reason for the scriptural emphasis.

The Tanchuma Yashan in Toledot 1 asks: But, after all, Abraham bore many children? Genesis 15:14 testifies that Hagar bore a son to Abraham, whose name was Ishmael, and Genesis 25:2 records that Abraham had six additional sons with Keturah. Why then does scripture here identify only Isaac as Abraham’s son?

The Midrash suggests that the reason that only Isaac is mentioned is because Isaac was Abraham’s primary progeny and the main source of his joy and pride. As we know too well, there are children who are ashamed of their parents, like Abraham was of his father, Terach, and Rachel and Leah were of their father, Laban. There are also parents who are shamed by their children, for example, Abraham by Ishmael and even Isaac ultimately understood that Esau was not worthy of receiving the Abrahamic blessing. This was not so in the case of Abraham, who was particularly honored and elevated by his righteous son, Isaac. To mark this special relationship, the Torah explicitly states that Abraham begot Isaac.

The Midrash Hagadol claims that people would constantly praise Abraham for meriting to have a son as wonderful as Isaac. The Radak suggests that, because Isaac was so scrupulously honest, thoroughly faithful, determined to live by following the straight path, and, like his father, demonstrated love to all of G-d’s creations, people would immediately identify him as the son of Abraham.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for children to also visit great shame and ignominy upon their parents. Some commentators (Midrash Rabba Numbers 21:4) suggest that the verse purposely omits the birth of Ishmael, because Ishmael traveled in the wrong circles and was consistently involved in evil, thereby not only compromising his own good name, but disgracing the name and reputation of his family as well.

The rabbis of the Talmud underscore how easy it is for a child to be drawn in to the evil patterns of one’s family. The Talmud in Eruvin 70b suggests that the inheritance that is bequeathed to a child is very much like the limb (foot) of the father. Just as one sheep follows another, so do children follow their parents’ example.  The Talmud Ketubot 63a affirms that the actions of the mother are often mimicked by her daughters.

Scripture records that while familial behavioral patterns are common, there are many exceptions to this rule, for both good and evil. The saintly prophet, Eli, Samuel I 2:12, had sons who were wicked. On the other hand, Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, came from the rather shady family whose members included the notorious characters Bethuel and Laban, but Rebecca was able to swim against the tide, emerging righteous and chaste.

Despite biological propensities and tendencies, each person must be judged on his or her own merits. The importance of checking family roots and backgrounds notwithstanding, we see (Genesis 25:20) that Abraham did not hesitate to marry off his very spiritual and righteous son Isaac to Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramite, and the sister of Laban the Aramite. Rebecca was able to overcome the grave disadvantage of being the daughter and sister of wicked people, and a product of the wicked environment in which she was nurtured. Rebecca did not learn from their nefarious deeds, and instead blossomed as a rose in a thorn bush.

While the lessons of parashat Toledot are particularly relevant, emphasizing the importance of family background, the actions of the individuals have the ability to trump the biological and familial factors. The Torah, in Genesis 25:27, states, וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, when the boys grew older, Esau became the hunter and Jacob became the innocent man who dwelled in tents. We see clearly that the factors that determine the character of a person are their personal developmental experiences and the paths that they personally choose to follow in life.

Unfortunately, there are many children from good families who become entangled in the negative elements of their environments, forsaking all they learned when they were young. Fortunately, there are also those who emerge from difficult and challenging backgrounds, who pull themselves up to become great people and even greater leaders.

May you be blessed.