Divergent paths

No mechanism within Judaism exists to tolerate a communal religion.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

At the end of the Torah portion of Chayei Sara, the story of the progenitor of monotheism comes to an end. Avraham passes away, a life defined by his ahavat Hashem, love of God, and his dedication to bringing the true idea of God to the world. Like any person nearing his end, Avraham needs to settle his affairs. Any reading of the previous stories would conclude that Avraham would bestow more of his possessions to Yitzchak then his other children. The Torah, though, explains that Avraham handled the inheritance in a very unique manner.

The final years and days of Avraham’s life recount his marriage to Keturah and the birth of more children. The Torah then explains (Bereishit 25:5-6):
“And Abraham gave all that he possessed to Isaac. And to the sons of Abraham's concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive, eastward to the land of the East.”

Avraham then passes away.

There is a section in the Talmud that discusses a series of claims made by various nations against the Jewish people. In one of them, we see an interesting back and forth that relates directly to the above verses (Sanhedrin 91a):

“On another occasion the Ishmaelites and the Ketureans came for a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded thus: ‘Canaan belongs jointly to all of us, for it is written,, Now these are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham's son; and it is [further] written, And these are the generations of Isaac,’ Abraham's son.’ “

The claim here seems to be that since the progeny of Avraham include Ishmael (and the children of Keturah), they should have a shared claim to the land of Israel. It is critical to note they are not suggesting that Israel be solely for them; rather, they are proposing a joint “ownership”.

An ally of the Jewish people offers to take up the case and defend the sole ownership of the land. His argument in court is a bit vague:

‘Whence do ye adduce your proof?’ asked he. ‘From the Torah,’ they replied. ‘Then I too,’ said he, ‘will bring you proof only from the Torah, for it is written, And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac. But unto the sons of the concubines which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts: if a father made a bequest to his children in his lifetime and sent them away from each other, has one any claim upon the other? [Obviously not.]”

To clarify the argument: if a father gave his children a specific inheritance, and one of the clauses was that the children separate from each other, how could one son return and file a claim against the other? When Avraham gave his inheritance to his children, he specified that Yitzchak separate from the other ones. How then could these other progenies make a claim?

Does this argument seem compelling? What exactly is the argument? And if the prosecutors in this case against the Jewish people knew verses from the Torah, how did they miss the two quoted above?

Another opaque part of the verses above concerns what specifically Avraham gave to Yitzchak. If he literally gave everything he had to Yitzchak, what was left to give to the other children? There are multiple Midrashim that present various opinions as to what he gave to Yitzchak. According to one opinion, he gave him gevura (in some editions the birthright, but we will use the version that says gevura), or strength and courage. Another opinion says he gave him the bracha, or blessing. And the final one explains he gave Yitzchak the place of burial, referring to Maarat Hamachpela.

Can we clarify what the nature of this debate is?

What was the initial claim? Knowing that Avraham gave parts of his inheritance to all of his children is the opening here. True, it says that he gave everything to Yitzchak; yet they could understand this as a demonstration of favoritism. Avraham felt Yitzchak deserved more than the other children, and that was his prerogative. Therefore, they viewed the entire bequeathing by Avraham in a quantitative framework. Avraham gave to all his children; he just gave more of his things to Yitzchak. If so, then they had some rights to the Land of Israel, as they were children of Avraham as well.

Viewing what Avraham gave in a framework of property and  physical belongings would lead to a reasonable argument of shared control.

The response of the attorney points to a different conception entirely. When we see the debate about what specifically was given to Yitzchak, one common thread is the lack of monetary or property-based inheritance. Sure, a place of burial is important, but where is the wealth in that? And the blessing and gevura are both intangibles. What Avraham gave over to Yitzchak was reflective of the ideology of Judaism, as we will soon see. The key point, though, is that the inheritance given to Yitzchak was of a different quality all together. What he received was not compatible with the ideologies of the other children. The inheritance was a theological one, not a physical one.

The debate about what was given reflects this approach. The blessing refers to the unique covenant between God and the future Jewish nation, predicated on the monotheistic faith Avraham brought forth to the world. The place of burial referenced the unique connection the Jews would have to the Land of Israel. The land was not merely a place to reside and prosper. Its purpose was to bring the Jewish people to a higher level, evidenced in the various additional commandments exclusive to Israel, as well as the location of the Temple. The great progenitors of the faith were buried in at Maarat Hamachpela, a constant indicator of the exceptional ideological relationship the Jewish people have with the land. What about the gevura?

One of the great challenges facing Avraham was pushing forward with an outlook completely contradictory and at odds with the surrounding world. It is easy to overlook the incredible courage of conviction Avraham possessed. His commitment to truth and desire to spread it required a unique type of personality. It could be the gevura referred to Avraham’s teaching to Yitzchak of the traits and strengths needed to persevere in the face of ideological challenges. 

The above debate reinforces the idea that what Avraham gave to Yitzchak was not be measured in dollars and cents. But there is a more critical idea here, one that may not reflect current trends in political correctness. Avraham understood that the future of the Jewish people would pass through Yitzchak. He also understood that Judaism could never be harmonious with any other ideology.

Today, many see in the belief system of Judaism shared features with other religious outlooks. At times, a moral equivalency is noted, or an influence in law. Yet this cannot lead one to assume some type of compatibility with other ideologies. A shared partnership in the Land of Israel seems like a tempting proposition. In truth, it would doom Judaism. No mechanism within Judaism exists to tolerate a communal religion. While we cannot co-mingle ideologies, we certainly can appreciate and learn from our surroundings. Yet Avraham recognized that to ensure the correct path for humankind lay clear, a complete separation between his children must ensue.