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Facing disillusionment
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Facing disillusionment

Toldot | Genesis 25:19-28:9

I first learned about disillusionment in a park on the Lower East Side. My friends and I frequented that park daily, but few of us noted a trio of elderly men who sat on a bench nearby, engaging in heated conversations in Yiddish and Russian.

One morning, a friend and I inquired who they were and what so excited them. They told us they were “Mensheviks,” and soon educated us about a group of early communists who split from Lenin and the Bolsheviks. These were the Mensheviks (Russian for minority).

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, this minority found itself in grave danger. Many, including the park bench companions, left Russia in the early 1920s.

We listened for weeks to their story of youthful dreams and grand plans for changing the world. They helped overthrow the czar and anticipated a new order of freedom, peace, and equality.

Their dreams came to naught, and the utopia they envisioned turned out to be nightmarish — in short, they became disillusioned.

One of them never gave up on the dream and was certain that he would return to Russia and help lead the ultimate reform. Another, depressed, had turned to alcohol. The third abandoned his beliefs and became, of all things, a hasidic Jew.

Each experienced disillusionment, each dealt with it in his own way.

Years later, I became inspired by another story of disillusionment. Rabbi Issachar Teichtal was a disciple of a virulently anti-Zionist Jewish leader who believed that participating in the creation of a Jewish state was a terrible sin. When war broke out, Rabbi Teichtal witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. He re-examined his convictions and came to believe that the failure to adopt Zionism and build a Jewish state was the root cause of the Jewish people’s suffering. He was killed by the Nazis toward the end of the war.

Rabbi Teichtal’s treatise Eim HaBanim Semeichah is a public confession of his disillusionment.

In Toldot, we learn of the disillusionment of Isaac, who labored under the illusion that his son Esau was righteous and deserving of his blessings. It is his son Jacob, disguised as Esau, who ultimately receives those blessings. When Esau asks to be blessed, Isaac realizes that God has intervened and that he has been wrong in considering Esau deserving of those blessings. He is, quite literally, disillusioned.

His shock in this discovery is expressed in Genesis 27:33: “And Isaac trembled an exceedingly great trembling” — the great trembling of a disillusioned father. How apt is Rashi’s comment: “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 one’s fundamental assumptions. It is difficult and painful to garner the courage to turn our disillusionment to advantage, but it is a choice we are inevitably called upon to make. Knowing that even Isaac was dramatically confronted with his mistaken beliefs can be of some solace.

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