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Parashat Toldot: The Effects of Cynicism

Parashat Toldot begins by telling of Yishak’s marriage to Ribka and the birth of their two sons, Yaakob and Esav, a story which it introduces by stating, "Abraham Holid Et Yishak" – "Abraham begot Yishak." The commentators raise the question of why this reminder was necessary, given that we are certainly aware of the fact that Yishak was Abraham’s son, and this verse itself refers to Yishak as "Yishak Ben Abraham" – the son of Abraham.

Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, explains that the Torah here is actually telling us something more – not that Abraham begot Yishak, but that G-d made it clear to one and all that Abraham begot Yishak. After Yishak’s birth, the "Lesaneh Ha’dor" – "scoffers of the generation" – denied the miracle of Abraham and Sara producing a child at an advanced age after decades of infertility. They charged that Sara conceived when she and Abraham settled in Gerar, and she was abducted by the city’s king, Abimelech. They insisted that Abraham did not miraculously beget a child, and that Yishak was fathered by Abimelech. In order to disprove this claim, G-d made Yishak look exactly like Abraham, making it clear to all that he was Abraham’s son.

A number of commentators asked why G-d found it necessary to perform this miracle to silence the scoffers. Why did it matter? If people wanted to deny this miracle, why was it important to intervene to stop them?

One answer perhaps emerges from a remarkable insight by the work Zera Berach. He discusses the seemingly peculiar exchange between Abraham and Yishak as they made their way to the Akeda, to the site where G-d commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son (but at the last moment, an angel appeared and told Abraham to withdraw his knife). Yishak said to Abraham, "My father," and Abraham then replied, "I am here, my son." The Zera Berach explains that Yishak was asking Abraham whether perhaps he believed the rumors spread by the scoffers that he was not Yishak’s father. After all, fathers do not kill their children. There is nothing more natural than a parent’s love for a child. Yishak therefore turned to his father and asked, "My father?!" As if to say, "Do you not think that you are my father, that you are preparing to slaughter me? Do you accept the rumors spread that I was fathered by Abimelech?! How else can I explain why you are going to kill me?!"

Abraham then turned to Yishak and assured him, "My son" – that he believed with full confidence that he was Yishak’s father. But nevertheless, he was bound to fulfill G-d’s command to sacrifice his beloved son.

This reading of Abraham and Yishak’s exchange shows just how impactful cynicism can be. The scoffers’ cynical charge that Yishak was fathered by Abimelech had such an effect that for a moment, Yishak himself suspected that his righteous father believed it. The cynicism of the scoffers did not remain in bars or clubs; it reached the Akeda, one of the most sublime, spiritually powerful moments in human history, causing even Yishak to entertain doubts, if only for a brief moment, as to whether Abraham was truly his father.

The Ramhal (Rav Moshe Haim Luzzato, 1707-1746), in his Mesilat Yesharim, compares cynicism to a shield smeared with oil. If an arrow is fired at the soldier, he lifts his shield, and the arrow strikes the shield and slides right off. Similarly, cynicism "shields" a person – and everyone who hears his mockery – from spiritual growth. A rabbi or speaker can deliver an emotional, uplifting lecture, but all it takes is just one cynical remark by someone in the audience to ruin it all, to "shield" everyone in the room from the inspiration they could receive.

This is why G-d intervened to counter the "Lesaneh Ha’dor," to show that Yishak was truly Abraham’s son. If their cynicism was capable of reaching even the Akeda, then surely it was capable of inflicting great harm and sabotaging Abraham’s efforts to spread the belief in G-d throughout the world.

May Hashem always protect us from the cynics and from the harmful effects of their scorn, so we can continue growing and living a life of inspiration and spiritual meaning.

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