Learning From Our Ancestors’ Mistakes

Ramban, in his commentary on Sefer Beresheet, quotes the famous teaching in Beresheet Raba of “אמר לו הקב”ה (לאברהם): שב אתה סימן לבניך,” explaining: “כל מה שאירע לאבות- סימן לבנים-” every story, every encounter, every significant event that happened to our forefathers has significance to us. For the past few weeks, we’ve shown how different examples of Avraham’s conduct with his Canaani neighbors and Kasdi cousins can shed light on how we, his modern-day descendants, should interface with our neighbors, cousins, and allies.

However, we must wonder how Avraham’s mesorah was understood in times before the Torah was given. How did Yaakov feel about going down to Egypt after hearing from his grandfather how the natives treated his grandmother? Why would Eisav marry Cana’aniyot after remembering Avraham’s reluctance to let Yitzchak marry one? The questions go on and on…

However, perhaps most confusing of these questions of mesorah and ma’aseh avot is the story of Yitzchak’s journey to Gerar, the land of the Pelishtim, in the face of the famine. Hashem commands our second forefather: “גור בארץ הזאת ואהיה עמך- stay in this land (Gerar) and I will be with you,” but surely Yitzchak must have feared for his and his family’s safety after hearing of the Pelishtim’s treatment of his father. Nonetheless, Yitzchak settles in the land of the Pelishtim, even using the time-old ruse of pretending his wife is his sister. When “אחד העם,” (euphemistically Avimelech, the ruler of the Pelishtim) sees our patriarch and matriarch getting a little too friendly, he realizes that he had fallen prey to the ruse of the Ivrim again, and sends them out of the city before he gets his people in any trouble (perhaps the memory of the punishment for taking Sara must still have been fresh in his memory, more than seventy years later).

At the same time, Yitzchak was doing rather well for himself, and the Pelishti shepherds, jealous of his success, begin to block up his wells and argue about the ownership of the remaining ones (deja vu, anyone?). Once again, Yitzchak is forced to leave the Pelishtim, and he settles in Rehovot (which those of us familiar with Israeli geography know as being quite far from Gush Katif, the biblical Land of the Philistines).

Hashem appears to Yitzchak that night, promising to bless him and his descendants, and the next day, Avimelech and his head general Pichol come and ask to renew their covenant together.

Pause. So far, Yitzchak’s time in Gerar seems to almost exactly parallel his father Avraham’s. Both have their wives targeted by the Pelishti king, and both have quarrels with Pelishti shepherds (some mefarshim highlight that these are the royal shepherds of Gerar, making it very personal between Yitzchak and Avimelech) over wells that the latter had taken. And, both were sent away from Gerar by a mob of jealous and angry Pelishtim.

After all of this, Avimelech surely had some nerve to come before Yitzchak and claim:
אִם תַּעֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ רָעָה כַּאֲשֶׁר לֹא נְגַעֲנוּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂינוּ עִמְּךָ רַק טוֹב
If you will do to me bad as I didn’t hurt you, and just as I’ve done only good to you, you should only do good to me. (בראשית כו:כט)
Not only had Avimelech done the opposite of good to Yitzchak, but all of his aggression seems in direct contradiction to his covenant with Avraham, which was still in effect. How could Avimelech come forward and ask Yitzchak to reaffirm the covenant, lying directly to his face about how he and his people had treated the Ivrim only a few weeks ago?
Ramban (שם) agrees with our question, only adding that technically Avimelech wasn’t lying to Yitzchak. The Pelishti king tries to brush away his recent agression against Yitzchak, by reminding our forefather that his people had not actually slept with Rivka or even taken her, and that when the violent mob sent them away from Gerar, they didn’t steal anything this time. In this passuk, Avimelech effectively tries to convince Yitzchak that he handn’t broken his brit with Avraham, because he hadn’t “been as bad this time.”
Yitzchak until now had seemingly not learned from “מעשה אבות סימן לבנים” by returning to Gerar, pretending his wife was his sister, and fighting with the shepherds over his wells until they drove him away. After seeing how the Pelishti king tried to twist his wrongdoings into being less bad, and tried to obligate him in another covenant, how does Yitzchak react? Does he follow in Avraham’s footsteps again?
וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם מִשְׁתֶּה וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.
And He made for them a feast, and they ate and drank.
וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ בַבֹּקֶר וַיִּשָּׁבְעוּ אִישׁ לְאָחִיו וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם יִצְחָק וַיֵּלְכוּ מֵאִתּוֹ בְּשָׁלוֹם
And they woke up the next day and made vows, each man to his brother, and Yitzchak sent them and they left in peace (כו:ל-לא)
While Yitzchak was certainly cordial, and he was very polite to and peaceful with the royal delegation from Gerar, he never makes another brit with them. The passuk “וישבעו איש לאחיו” is very vague, especially compared to Avraham’s “אנכי אשבע” (כא:כא). Furthermore, Yitzchak opens this encounter by berating Avimelech over his poor treatment- even after a feast and a sleepover, no one would ever accuse Yitzchak of considering himself Avimelech’s “brother.” It’s much more plausible that Avimelech (“איש”) swore to his brothers, perhaps to continue to treat Yitzchak and his descendants badly, but the most difficult understanding of this passuk would be to say that Yitzchak renewed his father’s covenant with Avimelech.
If this is the case, then we see that, at least at the end of this story, Yitzchak understood “מעשה אבות סימן לבנים” and learned from the lesson of his father. Whereas Avraham had faith in the Pelishtim to keep their side of the bargain, even after that Avimelech refused to accept responsbility for his servant’s actions, Yitzchak realized that his neighbors would never keep their side of the bargain, so he cordially rejected their offer of renewing a brit.
Rav Yissachar Teichtel, in his landmark work Em Habanim Semecha, builds off of this theme of the importance of “מעשה אבות סימן לבנים” and learning from the past. There (פרק ג’, סימן ל”ט), he writes about two seemingly unconnected cases in halacha- the sword that is used for a Bet Din execution (הרג), and an animal which was subject to human bestiality. Their common denominator? The כלי (whether a sword or an animal) must be destroyed afterwards, and they are אסור בהנאה- no benefit can be had from them. Why? Because we are afraid that as this animal passes through the market, people will point at it and say “this is the animal which caused [ploni bar ploni] to be killed,” or if this sword is used in public afterwards, others will say “this is the sword that executed [ploni bar ploni]. Since this would cause a terrible embarrasement to Am Yisrael, Chazal decreed that these items must be destroyed and cannot be reused afterwards (even for הרג, which is a mitzva).
Rav Teichtel continues:
וגם, איך נעבור בארצות הללו עוד ונאמר: במקום פלוני ובמקום פלוני נהרגו ונשרפו ונסקלו ונשללו ונחטפו פלוני ופלוני. כי אין משפחה בישראל שלא נלקט להם אחד מבני המשפחה בפח יקשם, אב או אח או בן ובת, למאות ולאלפים ולרבבות, כידוע ומפורסם בעולם. ועתה, איך אפשר עוד להביט על המקומות הללו, ומי הוא האדם שיש בו רק קצת רגש זק, שיוכל להתרועע עוד עם מקומות כאלו, אשר שפכו עלינו בוז וקלון ועשו לנו תקלות גדולות במדה גדולה כזו אשר לא נשמע עוד בכל קורות ימי חיינו שעברו עלינו עד עתה. זאת וכזאת צריך לעורר ולהזכיר את הנשארים מפליטת הגולה במדינות אלו.
In a nutshell, Rav Teichtel writes that the Shoah is very much the same. After the killing was finished, after Six Million of our brethren were no longer, how could anyone still live in the land of our enemies, passing by the cities where Jews were gathered up and shot, or sent to death camps? “Here, hundreds were killed… There, thousands were killed.” No, writes Rav Teichtel, we must remember what the Germans did to us and get out of their lands, for “how can we live in a land where we were embarrased, harrassed, and slaughtered on scales that had never been heard of before?”
This is the principle that our forefather Yitzchak grasped in refusing to reaffirm Avraham’s covenant with Avimelech in biblical times. This is the principle that thousands of Jews understood as they tried to escape the furnace of Europe for the hope of Mandatory Palestine in the 1930’s and ’40’s, and this is a message that each every one of us needs to understand now and today.
With the exception of perhaps Canada and some third world countries in Central America, there is NOT a SINGLE country who does not have Jewish blood on its hands. Forgetting about current struggles in and around Israel, and terorism against Jews abroad; looking back to the time of the Shoah, nearly every country in the world had some part in killing the Six Million. For some, like Germany, Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, it was allowing Hitler to rise to power and selfishly supporting his Kampf in the hope that it would stop the elected leader from invading them (spoiler alert: it didn’t work). For more Western European countries, such as France, Spain, and the UK, they turned a blind eye to Hitler’s aktion in exchange for a deal that they wouldn’t be touched (again, how did that “brit” work out for them?). The British were especially at fault, for their racist emigration policy to the Mandate, in an attmept to placate the insatiable anger of the Arabs, very much limited escape routes for Jews trying to get away from the Nazis. Even the United States, “Israel’s greatest ally,” had a terrible immigration policy in the early Twentieth Century which made it almost downright impossible for any Jews to seek sanctuary from war-ridden Europe. Evidence has also surfaced that the American Army deliberately ignored concrete evidence of Hitler’s Final Solution because they didn’t want to get involved in World War Two. And, don’t even get started with the Middle Eastern Arab countries who kicked their Jews out around the same time, and supported Germany’s attempted extermination of the Jews with a special zeal.
Contrast this the world’s openness and willingness to help and take in refugees from Syria, and one can’t help but wonder where they were for us fifty years ago. But, putting that aside, we can’t help but feel hurt by the world who refused to help us until it was too late, and are now at our throats about the racism that they see in Zionism. But, the truth is that we shouldn’t feel hurt. We, like our forefather Yitzchak, should just be disapointed, that a world which committed to “never again” is back at its old tricks, less than a century later. As countries including Germany, Austria, the UK, the United States, Saudia Arabia, Turkey and Syria, guilty of inhumane crimes against the Jews and their own people, get up and accuse the Jewish State of violating international law and committing war crimes, we must resist the urge to get up and scream “j’accuse?! How dare you!” We must sit this one out, and take it as a very direct and open reminder that the knife which was used for an execution must be disposed of afterwards. It’s time to distance ourselves from the knife, those who engineered and enabled the Shoah, and make our way home.
“כל מה שאירע לאבות- סימן לבנים”
Nations have been making empty promises to us for millenia, only to abandon us at our time of need. Yitzchak realized this, and refused to renew his covenant with Avimelech after his mistreatment in Gerar. Rav Teichtel and six million of our other brethren realized this too late, as Germany and civilized Western culture left them to die in the concentration camps. As global anti-Zionism slowly but surely transforms into anti-Semetism, and being Jewish is becoming dangerous in even more countries of the Disapora, let us not wait for the next round of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים. Let us learn from the lessons of our Avot and over two milenia of enmity from the nations, and remove ourselves from the execution knife before it finds its way into us again.
With Hashem’s help, may we merit to see a fulfillment of the positive stories of Jewish history, seeing Jews leaving the lands of our enemies for our ancestral home of Eretz Yisrael. Through this, we will surely merit the safety, security, and the impending redemption very very soon.