A sermon for Parashat Toldot
I caught the end of one of the most wonderful public service broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 the other night as I drove home from work. It was entitled Logan’s Run and Intergenerational War.
50 years ago next year, the book Logan’s Run was released. In 1967 the novel and film, as described by the Radio 4 programme, “proposed a dystopian solution to overpopulation and lack of resources- the (voluntary, willing) self-culling of those over twenty one years of age.”
The radio documentary just a couple of week’s ago “looked at how the then futuristic themes of ‘Logan’s Run’ have manifested themselves in the reality of 21st century society. Large swathes of the capitalist world seem to have adopted the novel’s plot as policy, such as in Silicon Valley, for example, where hardly anyone is over the age of 30. At the same time there is a huge discrepancy in wealth and resources held by the young and old, often held up as the source of conflict in ‘generational unfairness’.”
This was a programme about the changing world into which our children are growing. Where as their responsibilities will be to inherit the world that the generations above them have worked so hard to improve. Make no mistake, they have all strived to set the world on a path to progress, even when we seem like we might have slipped somewhat. But now it is the next generation that will find itself thinking about that world – the young who voted in very particular ways on Brexit, the young who cannot get mortgages or resent the impossible work life balance of their parents who grew up as children of the post-war generation. This is their world.
One of the comments of the radio programme has sat with me since hearing it. The critic described how the system that culled the young men and women of Logan’s Run, effectively birthed them too. So not only was the story, one without generations, but it was also one without parental relations.
I guess we see things through different eyes as we grow up. When I was younger, I read the Torah as Jacob and Esau in our Torah portion. Vying for the birthright and blessing of their father Isaac. Now a parent myself, I am the sandwich generation – looking out for my own children, forging my own path, but caring for and thinking of my own parents. I am Isaac now. I suspect the generations above are thinking they are Abraham – two generations down, what do they see in their bright young grandchildren.
Logan’s Run removes all that. You are who you are, just a flash in time and then no more. No relationships, no children, no grandparents. Like a beautiful sunset that vanishes in the moments you look out with pleasure to appreciate it.
I want you to imagine a world, if it were possible, where this was the case. I want you to imagine a world where you are born without a nurturing care of your family. In fact, let’s go further. A world in which you did not need nursing, weaning, changing, teaching by a teacher or parents. What kind of world would it be?
It would be a world of callousness. A world filled with self-centredness. A world of generations of individuals who despise their past because they have none and only think of their own self gratification. A world without the transmission of culture – a world without any of those sophisticated forms of life that bestow meaning on life’s existence from generation to generation. We would have no need for history. We would have no shalshelet hakabbalah – the chain of tradition passed down between parent and child, passed down between rabbi and disciple.
That’s how Jacob and Esau, whom we meet earlier in our portion, stand in contrast to one another. Jacob in his early life he recognises the importance of the birthright – the family inheritance …and the blessing – the family heritage. In fact, Jacob is obsessed, almost unhealthily obsessed, with this – and this obsession only resolves many years later. After a great deal of time, with reconciliation to his brother, Jacob eventually becomes Israel – a person with his own achievements and his own identity. Esau on the other hand despises his ‘origins’ and devalues the birthright to the price of a bowl of stew.
Esau, the antithesis of Jacob’s obsession with the past, we are told is born red and hairy, but the Targum Jonathan (an Aramaic translation of the text, which tends to be exegetical) goes further. On this verse it reads: They called him Esau because – “he was born with a full head and facial hair, and incisors and molars”. Incisors and molars – teeth! For this reason I would describe Esau as fully formed, an ‘independent’ man right from the word go. Now, I don’t always go in for psychoanalytic readings of texts but there must be an effect on a baby that does not need to be nursed by his mother because he was born with teeth. He doesn’t need his mother. He despises his origins, his mother; and with that he devalues the familial inheritance and heritage. On the other hand Jacob is described as an Ish Tam – a simple, whole person – not fully formed like Esau, but complete. An individual who understands what it is to be part of the first ‘Jewish family’. Through the deal struck with his brother (which Esau did not have to accept) and his willingness to be directed by his mother in obtaining his father’s blessing Jacob becomes the focus of the next chapter in the story. Jacob knows where he has come from, or perhaps only cares about where he has come from, but does not yet know who he is and will become. He only becomes his ‘own man’ when the name he is given by his parents is changed to one which identifies him for his own deeds and his own future ‘Israel’.
But then there is Isaac. Remember what I said, Isaac is the character now with whom I identify. In our portion, the section read for us this morning, we hear of Isaac digging wells. But those wells are the wells which his father has dug. Isaac is the most complex character of the entire Torah. He completely screws up his two sons by blatantly favouring one over the other. He is utterly inept in the way that he raises his children. But He also symbolises the true nature of ancestry and future descendants. The entire narrative arc of Isaac’s story is the way that the bond between him and his father cannot be broken and yet, must be shattered for adult Isaac to go on his way. He must dig the same wells as his father because doing the same but different is exactly the nature of child-parent relationships. He does what his father does and in that act he forges out on his own journey for himself. His character becomes the woven into the fabric of what comes before and what comes after.
If Logan’s Run is unaware of intergenerational relationships until Logan breaks free, a sort of mirror of the obsessive Jacob and unaware Esau. Isaac carries the burden of covenant and blessing from generation to generation. In fact, the midrash tells us that Isaac is the reason Abraham goes grey – arguing until the point that Isaac and Abraham are mistaken for one another, there were no distinguishing features of being old. But in people not being able to tell the difference between father and son, God gives Abraham the blessing of older age through grey hair. Isaac is the middle, the bridge between before and after, the sandwich between hoary headed and youthful exuberance. He is where we shift from dependency to independence. From childhood to adulthood. From looking up to the ancestors to looking down to the descendants.
And this for me is a model for all of us, like Isaac, we must strive to understand where we have come from, who we are, that we are the child of someone. It is healthy to appreciate the gifts from our parents and the trouble they put us to (Isaac has a particularly troubled time with his father after all). So too we must look to the future to build our own dreams and realise our own potential, breaking free and becoming a person with one’s own identity and own achievements. Isaac, in that way, shifts our glance forwards, accepting the bestowal of life from our parents but decoupling the sense that this ‘childhood’ will govern our ‘adulthood’. Adulthood is about responsibility. In that, Judaism is the absolute antithesis of Logan’s Run. And weighs heavily on a Bar Mitzvah boy like this morning’s young man. But trust me it weighs heavily on us all. We have this gift of life in Judaism, but it is anything but hedonistic. It thrusts us towards adulthood and to responsibility. We know our heritage and we are neither born completely independent, nor are we culled at youthful age to avoid learning about freedom and restraint.
We cannot forget that we are authors in the next chapter of our story – the story of the Jewish people. And we cannot forgo reading how we came to be in the first place. What a wonderful gift and what a beautiful responsibility. As Bachya says, Days are Scrolls, write on them what you wish to be remembered. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.