The beginning of Parshat Toldot states that Abraham “begat” Isaac, using the word holid. This is in contrast with the word to describe Abraham’s fathering of Ismael with Hagar yaldah.
The Rav (Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik) comments that while yaldah describes the biological act of procreation, that according to the Ibn Ezra, holid refers to raising children and having a multigenerational vision. This plan involves education into the Jewish mission, along with the information that this mission will require a very heavy price. Both Ishmael and Esau were fertile and controlled large swathes of territory, while Abraham, Isaac and Jacob experienced many trials and tests. None of the things that Avraham was promised — strength, permanence, family harmony and blessing, came easily to the patriarchs.
The challenges that have beset us as a people have helped to shape our destiny. Our experience of being strangers has caused us to be leaders in social justice. The role of being an outsider has allowed us to challenge conventional wisdom in art and science. Our persecution and restrictions as far as ownership forced us to develop a creative approach to commerce, and our ghettoization allowed us to retain a common culture and language and be able to conduct international trade.
The world has changed to the point where mere brute strength is nothing compared to intellectual flexibility and creativity. Although the Jewish debut into the Western world has resulted in many casualties, both cultural and physical, there is no question that the prophecy to Abraham that, “through you, all the families in the world will be blessed” has come true.
However, just as many challenges of persecution proved to be the nidus for our creativity, our success has the threat of derailing many of our people from our mission. Virtually all Jewish leaders are concerned about the contents of the Pew report, but it is much more difficult to answer the question, “Why be Jewish?”
My answer is that our faith provides us with mission and meaning. There is a midrash that I believe accurately articulates our mission. In the next world, there is a tradition that we will be asked four questions:
• “Were you honest in business?”
• “Did you make time to study Torah?”
• “Did you make shidduchim (marriages)?”
• “Did you wait longingly for moshiach (messiah)?”
The first question is about how you conduct yourself with other people. The second asks if you learned enough of the raw material of our tradition so that you could conduct yourself properly. The third is resonant with Rav Solveitchik’s point of raising Jewish children. Since this is a multigenerational project, the question asks what that person did to pass our tradition and make sure, in some way, that there was a “next generation” to receive it.
Last, the question about moshiach is a reflection that the world as it is can be a dark and imperfect place. The way that we demonstrate our longing for moshiach is by trying to begin some of his work in perfecting the world. This may be why the turning point in the drama between Isaac and Jacob, when Jacob is impersonating Esau in order to wrest the blessing from Isaac, occurred when Isaac smelled the fields of paradise instead of the goat-hair covering that Jacob had appropriated from Esau.
The midrash says that when Isaac smelled “the apple orchard of paradise,” this scent was accompanied by a realization that the descendants of Jacob, even the wicked ones, had the capacity for repentance, and that perfection, while elusive, was a real possibility, with a scent all its own. Intrinsic to being Jewish is the belief that human beings are both able, and are obligated to improve themselves and their world. Our tradition provides pathways to do so.
Why be Jewish? It is a unique way of being human that offers guidance along a path, if not the only path, to the paradise of perfection.
(David Brent lives in Squirrel Hill.)