The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Chayei Sarah: The Blessing of Old Age; Parents and Children
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
And Abraham was old, well-stricken in age… (Genesis 24:1)
The death of Sarah at the beginning of the portion of Chayei Sarah leaves Abraham bereft as a single parent, looking after his home and caring for Isaac, his unmarried son. We are already familiar with their unique father-son relationship from the traumatic biblical account of Isaac’s binding, where ‘the two of them [father and son, Abraham and Isaac] walked together.’ In addition to their shared ideals, their symbiotic relationship includes a remarkable likeness in physical appearance. Our commentaries explain this by reflecting on Isaac’s miraculous birth when Abraham is almost one hundred years old. We can imagine that every town gossip cast aspersions about Abraham’s paternity, hinting that a younger, more potent man must have impregnated Sarah. Just the leers and the stares would have caused unnecessary shame to Abraham and threatened Isaac’s equanimity. Hence, suggests the Midrash, to prevent a trail of whispers and sly innuendos, God created Isaac as an exact double of Abraham, like ‘two drops of water,’ so that no one could possibly ever imagine anyone other than Abraham as the biological father.
Interestingly, one of the consequences of their physical similarity is the basis for one of the strangest comments in the Talmud. On the verse in the portion of Chayei Sarah, ‘Abraham was old, well-stricken in age’ [Gen. 24:1], our Sages conclude that at this point in time, the symptoms of old age were introduced to the world [Bava Metzia 87a]. The reason? They suggest this very identical resemblance between Abraham and Isaac. The Sages describe how people seeking out Abraham would mistakenly address Isaac, and those seeking out Isaac would approach Abraham. Disturbed by the confusion, Abraham pleads for God’s mercy to make him look old, and Abraham’s plea is answered: a one-hundred-and- twenty-year-old man will never again look like his twenty-year-old son!
How do we begin to understand why Abraham was so upset by this case of mistaken identities? After all, what’s wrong with being mis- taken for your son? Doesn’t every aging parent dream of slowing down the aging process and remaining perpetually young? What’s the problem if father and son appear to be the same age?
We find the answers hidden between the lines of this Midrash in which the dialectic of the complex relationship between father and son is expressed. Despite our desire for closeness between the generations, a father must appear different from his son for two reasons. Firstly, so that he can receive the filial obligations due to him as the transmitter of life and tradition. This idea is rooted in the biblical commandment that the younger generation honors the elder. In fact, the last will and testament of the sage of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Yehudah the Pious, forbade anyone from taking a spouse with the same first name as that of their parents. This, explained, Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik, zt’l, was to avoid giving the impression that a child would ever address a parent by their first name. We may be close to our parents, but they are not to be confused with our ‘buddies’.
Secondly, the son must appear different from his father so that the son understands his obligation to add his unique contribution to the wisdom of the past. Abraham pleads with God that Isaac’s outward appearance should demonstrate that he is not a carbon copy of his father, but rather a unique individual. After all, when Isaac becomes a patriarch himself, he will represent gevura, that part of God’s manifestation of strength and justice which provides an important counterbalance to Abraham’s hesed or loving-kindness. Abraham, the dynamic and creative world traveler, was a contrast to the introspective and pensive Isaac who never stepped beyond the sacred soil of Israel. With great insight, Abraham understood that unless the confusion in appearance ceased, Isaac might never realize the necessity of ‘coming into his own’ and developing his own separate identity.
A Talmudic discussion of the pedagogic relationship between grandparents and grandchildren illustrates the importance of a dynamic and symbiotic relationship between the generations. In discussing the importance of teaching Torah to one’s children and grandchildren, our Sages insist that teaching your own child Torah is equivalent to teaching all your child’s unborn children down through the generations [Kiddushin 30a]. R. Yehoshua b. Levi adds that ‘teaching one’s grandchild Torah is equivalent to having received it from Sinai.’ He proves this by quoting from two consecutive verses in Deuteronomy: the first highlights the commandment to ‘…teach thy sons, and thy son’s sons’ and the following verse begins with, ‘The day that you stood before the Lord your God in Horev-Sinai…’ [Deut. 4:9, 10]. The message is crystal clear: our parents are our link to Sinai, the place of the initial divine revelation of Torah. When the younger generation learns Torah from the previous generation, it is as though they were receiving the words from Sinai. Such is the eternal bond which links the generations and one of the powerful reasons for children to respect and learn from their parents.
Interestingly, in that same Talmudic passage, R. Hiya bar Abba makes a critical word change in R. Yehuda’s interpretation. R. Hiya states, ‘Whoever hears Torah from his grandchild [not whoever teaches his grandchild] is equivalent to having received it from Sinai’! What does it mean for a grandchild to teach his grandfather Torah? Obviously, this will make any grandfather proud, but this concept also reveals that the line from Sinai to the present can be drawn in the opposite direction. Not only do grandfathers pass down the tradition to their children and grandchildren, but grandchildren pass up the tradition to their forebears. In contemporary times, this could certainly refer to the phenomenon of the ba’alei teshuva, the return of the younger generation to the traditions, where in many cases, the grandchildren literally are teaching their grandparents. But it might also be alerting us to the additional insights into Torah that we can and must glean from the younger generations.
Consider one of the most puzzling Talmudic passages which describes how, when Moses ascended on high to receive the Torah from the Almighty, the master of all prophets found God affixing crowns (tagim) to the holy letters of the law [Menahot 29b]. When Moses inquired about their significance, God answered that the day would arrive when a great Sage, R. Akiva the son of Joseph, would derive mounds of laws from each twirl and curlicue. Moses asked to see and hear this rabbinic giant for himself, and the Almighty immediately trans- ported him to R. Akiva’s Academy. Moses listened, but felt ill at ease almost to the point of fainting; the arguments used by R. Akiva were so complex that they eluded the understanding of the great prophet. How- ever, when a disciple asked for R. Akiva’s source, and he replied that it was a law given to Moses at Sinai, the prophet felt revived.
How is it possible that Moses could not understand a Torah lecture containing material that was given to him at Sinai? The answer is embedded within the same Talmudic text. Moses was given the basics, the biblical words and their crowns, the fundamental laws and the methods of explication and extrapolation (hermeneutic principles). R. Akiva, in a later generation, deduced necessary laws for his day, predicated upon the laws and principles which Moses received at Sinai.
This is the legitimate march of Torah which Maimonides documents in his introduction to the interpretation of the Mishna, and it is the methodology by which modern-day responsa deal with issues such as electricity on the Sabbath, brain-stem death and life-support, and in-vitro fertilization. The eternity of Torah demands both the fealty of the children to the teachings of the parents, as well as the opportunity for the children to build on and develop that teaching. This duality of Sinai enhances our present-day experience.
Abraham prays for a distinctive old age to enable Isaac to develop his uniqueness. Sons and fathers are not exactly the same, although many fathers would like to think that they are. Only if sons understand the similarity, and if fathers leave room for individuality, can the generations become truly united in Jewish eternity.