Parashat Toledot: The Cynics
The opening verse of Parashat Toldot introduces the story of Yishak Abinu and his family, and writes, "This is the story of Yishak; Abraham begot Yishak." Curiously, the Torah found it necessary to "remind" us that Yishak was Abraham’s son, despite the fact that we are already very well aware of who Yishak was from the previous chapters of Sefer Bereshit.
The Midrash explains that the Torah here tells us not that Abraham begot Yishak, but rather that it was clear to one and all that Abraham begot Yishak. The "Lesanim" – "cynics" – of the time charged that Yishak was actually fathered not by Abraham, but rather by the Philistine leader Abimelech. After all, Abraham and Sara were married for many years without children, and then immediately after Sara was abducted by Abimelech, Sara conceived. The cynics pointed to this as "evidence" that Yishak was not really Abraham’s son. G-d therefore made Yishak appear exactly like his father, thereby putting to rest the cynical denial of Yishak’s relationship to Abraham.
The Hid"a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806) noted how the rumors spread by the cynics of Abraham’s time are typical of the way cynics speak. In a certain sense, the claim that Sara conceived as a result of Abimelech was true. After Abimelech returned Sara to Abraham, Abraham prayed on his behalf, asking that his wives should have children. In reward for his prayer, Abraham was blessed with a child. Hence, when the cynics went around proclaiming, "Sara conceived from Abimelech," they were not lying. Indeed, the Hid"a notes, the Midrash calls these people not "Resha’im" – wicked people who spread lies – but rather "Lesanim" – cynics. They spoke the truth, but deliberately phrased in a way that guarantees it would be misunderstood. Part of the reason why cynics are so dangerous is that they do not lie. Instead, they find a way to portray all things in a negative light without actually speaking dishonestly. Liars could easily be dismissed; formulating the truth in a negative, disparaging way attracts an audience.
Ensuring to speak the truth does not always ensure that we speak appropriately. The truth can be expressed in many different ways. The cynics excel in spinning the truth to make everyone and everything look bad, so they don’t have to take anything seriously. We can learn from them the importance of exercising care and caution with regard to not only what we say, but how we say it, and of seeking to find all that is noble and commendable in other people, rather than constantly looking to insult and malign.