What do great men ask for as their lives draw to a close? Virgil, the celebrated Roman poet, insisted that his friends burn all copies of his lyric masterpiece, the Aeneid. Shakespeare left instructions to give his wife his “second best bed.” Benjamin Franklin forbade his daughter Sarah from partaking in the “the expensive, vain, and useless pastime of wearing jewels.” Napoleon ordered that his hair be made into a bracelet “with a little gold clasp, to be sent to the Empress Maria Louisa, to my mother, and to each of my brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, the Cardinal—and one of larger size for my son.” Such were the matters preoccupying some of history’s most influential characters as they prepared to breathe their last.
These, however, are not the sorts of last wishes which our own forefathers expressed. To be more specific: There are three scenes in Tanach where we find ageing patriarchs binding their sons with formal commitments as they realize that their deaths are approaching. The first occurs in this week’s Parshah, when Avraham extracts an oath from his servant assuring him that his son, Yitzchak, will not take a wife from among the idolatrous nations of Canaan (Gen. 24). The second occurs at the end of the book of Bereshit, when Yaakov has his son Yosef pledge to bury him in his ancestral burial plot, the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 48). The third occurs when King David adjures his son, Shlomo, to compensate his allies and exact revenge upon his adversaries following his death (I Kin. 2).
At first glance, it is difficult to discern a common thread with which we can weave together these three disparate episodes. When we consider the episodes more closely, though, we notice a fascinating pattern: in each of them, the father in question is tasking his son with an undertaking which, due to life circumstances, he himself was unable to accomplish. This is explicitly the case in the final passage, in which David entrusts Shlomo to even scores that David had lacked the political wherewithal to settle himself. It is also explicitly the case with Yaakov, who opens his appeal for proper burial by acknowledging that he had not provided as much for his own wife, Rachel, because she died unexpectedly on the road to Ephrat (Gen. 48:7). And it is equally the case with Avraham, who, ten years after arriving in the land of Canaan, had himself married a foreign woman, Hagar, because his first wife, Sarah, was barren (Gen. 16:1-3).
There is yet a second similarity between our three cases. In each of them, the father’s past inability to meet those standards which he now imposes upon his son had in fact impacted negatively upon that very son. Hagar, whom Avraham married, mocked Yitzchak’s mother, Sarah, while her son, Ishmael, tormented Yitzchak himself (see Gen. 16:4-5; Gen. 21:9-12). Rachel, whom Yaakov failed to bury in Machpelah, was none other than Yosef’s own mother. And Yoav, whose divisive violent streak David routinely neglected to discipline (see II Sam. 3, II Sam. 20), wound up throwing his support behind prince Adoniah when the latter challenged Shlomo’s right to the throne (I Kin. 1).
Putting it all together, then: Our Tanach presents us with three “will and testament” scenes. In each of them, one of our revered patriarchs turns to a son upon whom his unideal (if unavoidable) behavior has had a deleterious effect, and charges his son to uphold the very ideal which he himself could not. What are we to take away from this?
It seems that the Torah here is providing us with a profound perspective on what it means for parents to bequeath a legacy unto their children, and what it means for children to claim that legacy. When parents depart from this world, they do not only leave us a material inheritance; through the attitudes they adopted, the values they abided by and the conduct they modeled, they also leave us with a spiritual inheritance. This latter inheritance literally inheres within us: we carry it with us throughout our lives in ways both conscious and subconscious, and are affected by it in ways both positive and negative.
Never has this been easier to appreciate than in the present era, with all of our discoveries in the field of developmental psychology. One study after another has confirmed empirically what humans sensed intuitively for millennia: what parents do, children become. The ever-growing list of attitudinal and behavioral characteristics that have been shown to be at least partially transmitted intergenerationally—even after controlling for genetic factors—includes: subjective well-being; optimism; willingness to trust and take risks; emotional stability; social skills; empathy; quality of friendships; self-control; resourcefulness; goal-setting; hard work; cognitive abilities; perfectionism; susceptibility to stress; anxiety; aggression; crime; substance abuse; eating habits; physical activity; marital stability; financial habits; religious involvement; and charity and volunteer activity.
For better and for worse, then, who we are is highly reflective of who our parents were. Our strengths are generally their strengths; our flaws, generally their flaws. Phrased differently, this means that it is largely our parents who set the stage for the particular set of cognitive, emotional, social and adaptive challenges we will face over the course of our lives. And this, in turn, places us at a difficult crossroads, morally and existentially. How do we choose to confront the fact of our parents’ occasionally adverse influence upon ourselves?
To excuse our vices by blaming them on our parents is one option—and it is a particularly easy, convenient, and popular option at that. But though it can sometimes be healthy to trace our harmful habits back to childhood experiences, defining ourselves strictly in terms of those experiences only promotes a sense of jaded helplessness, while unfairly and inaccurately skewing our portrait of those who have shown us the purest and most unconditional form of love we shall ever know. Such abdication of personal accountability robs life of its freedom, and thus, of its dignity.
There is an alternative. If, instead of pointing to the shortcomings of our parents as a cause for our recidivism, we recognize within those shortcomings the potential for rectification, and view it as our unique calling to effect that rectification, then we have it within our power to reverse these shortcomings, and ultimately, to redeem them. Indeed, this intergenerational process of tikkun, in both the Kabbalistic and the more mundane sense, is part and parcel of what it means to lead one’s life in the context of a covenantal community. Avraham married an Egyptian and Yaakov buried his wife on the side of a highway and David never adequately apprehended those who sought to divide his monarchy; therefore, marrying Jewish becomes an essential component of Yitzchak’s life mission, and Jewish burial, an essential component of Yosef’s, and Jewish unity, an essential component of Shlomo’s. In this way, the lives of father and son alike both acquire meaning, and aspire to their meaning, not independently of each other, and not in spite of each other, but because of and through each other.
Thus the Navi states: והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם—“and the hearts of fathers shall return [to Hashem] upon their children, and the hearts of children shall return upon their parents” (Mal. 3:23).
For further study: The texts we referenced in this week’s article are perhaps best understood in terms of what has been identified by Dr. Robert Alter, a Jewish professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, as “type scenes:” the phenomenon whereby we find a series of episodes strewn throughout Tanach whose fundamental plot line and setting are more or less the same. In the Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter focuses particular attention on what he terms the “betrothal scene:” the scene in which a man travels to a foreign land, meets his wife-to-be next to a well of water, and is then invited into her home for a meal. With slight variations, this outline describes the way in which three of our patriarchs met their wives-to-be: Yitzchak, in this week’s Parshah (Gen. 24); Yaakov, later in Bereshit (Gen. 29); and Moshe, at the beginning of Shemot (Exod. 2). For more on “type scenes” as they relate to our Parshah and to the texts that we discussed in this article, please click here.