Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

When It’s Too Good To Be True

It is fascinating that at the end of Isaac’s life, he wanted to bless his son Esau instead of Jacob.

One would expect that he would want to bless Jacob, the obedient son. Jacob always followed orders and would be the one to carry on his father’s legacy, along with the principals he stood for. Not Esau, however, who was known to be a wild man, a man with no conscience, let alone a commitment to G-d! Yes, it is true that Esau was a good son in the sense that he would bring his father food, but he was not the son that a dying man would want to bless or to carry on his legacy. So why is it that Isaac looked to bless Esau instead of Jacob?

The Midrash tells us why: Because Esau asked his father a question … and it’s the impetus of this question that caused Isaac to want to bless him.

What did he ask? “How do you tithe salt and straw?”

Now, everyone knows that you do not have to tithe salt or straw; the laws of tithing only apply to things of substance. So isn’t this question a mockery of his father’s devotion to doing what is right, by boasting, “I can be holier than thou?”

Clearly there is a deeper point here that Esau is trying to make. Esau was saying that salt might not have any value on its own, but if you add it to food, the whole dish is enhanced. In essence what he is saying is that one should look beyond just the salt to seek its true potential.

This point did not pass by Isaac unnoticed. Isaac saw the potential in Esau, and wanted to bestow upon him a blessing so that he could achieve his potential. However, Rebekah understood that as great a power the blessing might have, it would not transform him into a better son, since Esau would misuse the blessing (too much salt can ruin the food). Therefore, Rebekah arranged it so that the blessing would go to Jacob instead.

The lesson that we can take from this is that we shouldn’t judge “salt” for what it is, but for what it could be. At the same time, we shouldn’t be blinded by the risk of having too much of something – even if it could enhance our life – if it is something (like salt) that intrinsically can be damaging.  

Does Our Life Influence Us?

“And Abraham came with days.” This statement is more than just a biblical way of saying that Abraham reached old age; if it were just a poetic way to tell us that he became a senior citizen, then the Torah would not have repeated itself a second time—especially thirty-six years after the first time!

The commentators point out that the first mention was before Abraham fathered a child, and when he became a father, he felt young again. The Torah teaches us that he then aged a second time.

However, on a deeper level, we must say that the Torah teaches us a meaningful lesson here.

People sometimes go through life – let it be when they are young or when they get old, and even in their prime years of life – without paying attention to what is going around them. Or worse yet, some do not allow the events in their lives to influence them. For them, they, and the world that they live in, have nothing to do with each other. They exist in the same universe, but that is about it. Neither one has an effect on the other. When we are children, it may be difficult for us to grasp how events in our lives could shape us, but when we are old, already set in our ways, and in our prime years of life, that is when our understanding of the relationship would most naturally occur.

Yet, G-d expects a “living” person to take every experience in our life and “live” with it.  There is no such thing as getting old. There is no such thing as being set in our ways—a living being is always growing, always learning, and always open to new experiences.

So when the Torah says that Abraham came with days, it is telling us that he learned from every experience in his life. Each one influenced him, shaped him, made him into who he became. Thirty-six years later, he was not the same person! He had changed again. We are not talking about a young man here. This is a one-hundred-thirty-six-year-old man! This is an age when we might expect him to be set in his ways, too old to teach an old man some new tricks. The Torah teaches us, no! Abraham never rested! He was always ready to learn from every experience in his life, always looking to learn how to serve G-d by asking, “How can I be a better Jew? Today I might have been good, but how can I be better tomorrow?” This is why the verse repeats itself the second time.

The same applies to his beloved wife, Sarah. The Torah says that she died at the age of “one-hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Why the repetition of years three times? Because the Torah teaches us that she didn’t age—just like Abraham, she, too, lived every day to its fullest. 

We, too, should live every day of our lives looking for how we can learn from our experiences to serve G-d in more meaningful ways. We, too, should never say that we are too old to learn something new. We have to be open to learn from life’s experiences and to listen to G-d’s messages: to allow the weekly Torah portion to have an effect on our lives.

Questioning Your Self-Value

The binding of Isaac is one of the most famous stories in the Torah. There is a lot of drama in the story, from G-d’s request to Abraham to sacrifice his son, to the speed with which Abraham ran to blindly follow G-d’s order without asking any questions, to Isaac’s willingness to go along, and so on. 

Today, I would like to jump to the end of the story, when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, and he hears an angel of G-d call out to him and say, “Stop!”

In the exchange that follows, we read something very unusual. G-d reveals to Abraham that this is a test, and the reason for the test. G-d essentially tells Abraham that He wanted to see if Abraham was willing to put everything on the line for Him, and, G-d says, “Now I know that you are a G-d-fearing man!”

Why does G-d let Abraham in on his reasoning? It is not common for G-d to fill us in on his thinking as to why he tests us. Why is this time different, and what can we learn from it?

Abraham wondered to himself, “Does the fact that I was told to stop mean that I am a bad Jew? Is there a reason why I was told to stop? Have I failed you, G-d, in some way or another? Perhaps,” he thought, ”I am not a good person.” This self-destructive thought bothered G-d, who knew this type of thinking could destroy a person, and G-d did not want that to happen. It bothered G-d that Abraham had passed the test of his life, had put everything on the line just for G-d, yet, Abraham was not sure of himself. To lift Abraham’s spirits, He informed Abraham that not sacrificing his son had nothing to do with him; it was never the plan to actually kill Isaac. This was just a test, and Abraham passed it with flying colors.

In our lives, we, too, have to know to not look back and question every action. There are times when we do our best, and looking back and questioning our actions is not going to get us anywhere. Yes, we must ask, “Are we G-d-fearing?” And if we can answer with a resolute yes!, then we move forward, and we should know that this, too, is a test from G-d.

The point of a test is so that we can come out of the challenge as a stronger person, as a stronger Jew.


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