Disillusionment and reassessment
Toldot — Genesis 25:19-28:9
Disillusionment — I first learned about it in a park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I attended high school. I learned about it from three old gentlemen, each affected differently by disillusionment, each with a different lesson to teach.
We frequented that park frequently for a round or two of basketball. The shabby, elderly trio sat on a park bench and engaged in heated conversation in Yiddish and in another language we later learned was Russian.
A friend and I decided one morning to ask these gentlemen who they were and what topic so excited them. They told us that they were Mensheviks and expected that we were familiar with that term.
We weren’t, but they soon enough educated us about the Russian Revolution and about a group of early communists who split from Lenin and the Bolsheviks and were known as the Mensheviks, the Russian word for “minority.”
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, members of this group found themselves in grave danger. Many, including the park bench companions, emigrated from Russia in the early 1920s. These three settled in the Lower East Side.
We listened for several weeks to their magnetic story of youthful dreams and grand plans for changing the world. They had helped overthrow the czar and looked forward to a new order of freedom, peace, and total economic equality.
But their youthful dreams came to naught, and the utopia they envisioned turned out to be nightmarish.
One of them never gave up on the dream and told us he was certain that the day would soon come when he could return to Russia and help lead the ultimate reform. Another, darkly depressed, had turned to alcohol and was sober only in the early morning. And the third had abandoned his former beliefs and became, of all things, a hasidic Jew.
Each experienced disillusionment; each dealt with it in his own way.
Many years later, I was inspired by another story of disillusionment, that of Rabbi Issachar Teichtal, who was martyred by the Nazis. This man was a disciple of one of the most virulently anti-Zionist pre-World War II Jewish leaders. He was raised to think that participating in the creation of a Jewish state was apostasy.
When the war broke out, Rabbi Teichtal was witness to all the horrors of the Holocaust. He questioned and re-examined his beliefs, and ultimately rejected them. Instead, he came to believe that the failure to adopt Zionism and build a Jewish state was the root cause of the Jewish people’s suffering.
Rabbi Teichtal’s treatise Aym HaBanim Semaycha is a fascinating and rare example of a courageous public confession of disillusionment.
In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we learn of the disillusionment of none other than the patriarch Isaac, who labored under the lifelong illusion that his son Esau was righteous and good. He was ready to bestow his blessings upon Esau, not Jacob.
Jacob, disguised as Esau, ultimately received those blessings. When Esau appeared and asked for those blessings, Isaac realized that the divine hand had intervened and that he had been wrong in considering Esau to be the deserving son.
Isaac is stunned to learn he has been mistaken all along in his assessment of his son. His shock is expressed in Genesis 27:33 with these powerful words: “And Isaac trembled an exceedingly great trembling” — the great trembling of a disillusioned father.
How apt and poignant is Rashi’s comment here: “He saw the gates of Hell open before him.” It is indeed hellish to have one’s dreams shattered and to have to re-examine the fundamental assumptions that one has made in life. It is difficult and painful to garner the courage to turn our disillusionment to advantage and start life again under new assumptions. Yet, in ways significant and trivial, we are all occasionally called upon to do so. Knowing that even Isaac was in error about the assumptions he made can be of some solace to us all.