Parshat Toldot: Genesis 25:19-28:9; Malachi 1:1-2:7.

Toldot tells of Yitzchak’s adulthood. Preceding it, we know Yitzhak mostly as the child bound upon the altar as a near sacrifice by his father, followed by his mother’s death.

Rabbi Nadav Caine
Rabbi Nadav Caine

Now, his adult life is dominated by his fear of being killed by the local bullies of Gerar and, in his seniority, his fear of disappointing his favored son Esau.

It is no wonder, then, that the Rabbis see him primarily as a vessel of yirah — fear. Yirah, however, can have two meanings.

It can describe fear of physical harm, but it can also describe the emotion we have before a higher moral authority, as the Israelites feel at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the latter “awe.”

Awe shares much with fear: a sense of human smallness in relation to that which is greater, and yes, even a healthy modicum of terror. Unlike fear, awe has a sense of the ineffability and holiness of the greatness one is encountering.

Does Yitzchak embody fear of being hurt or reverence for a higher authority? Rather than fear that his father will hurt him, his reverence for the future of the tribe may be the reason he avoided the bullies and made a pact with their leader and why he faced his fear of disappointing his son Esau.

Today, we live in a divided country, each side too often seeking to gain power to force the other side(s) to obey its positions.

The Torah teaches us, however, that real authority never truly depends on the first kind of fear, that based on force and intimidation, but rather depends on reverence for the moral voice and moral calling.

As we face the divisions, each side needs to be operating not from “Now we’re in power, and we make the rules!” but rather from articulating the moral voice and humanity in their proposals and trying to show the other side that deep down they can tap into reverence for what we can be if we make these changes together.

Of course, that means we have to find God before we represent God, and we need to have reverence for the presence of God in each of us.

Rabbi Nadav Caine is the rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor. His podcast “Judaism for the Thinking Person” is widely available. 

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