Disillusionment: Rabbi Weinreb on Parshat Toldot

Disillusionment. I first learned about it on a park bench 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, and each with a different lesson to teach.

We frequented that park daily for a round or two of basketball. Few of us noted the shabby elderly trio, who joined each other on a park bench near where we played and engaged in heated conversation in Yiddish and in another language that we later learned was Russian.

A friend and I decided one morning to inquire of these gentlemen as to who they were and as to the topic that 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, this minority found itself in grave danger. Many, including the park bench companions, emigrated from Russia in the early 1920s. These three settled in the United States, in New York City, on the Lower East Side.

We listened for several weeks to their magnetic story of youthful dreams and grand plans for changing the world. They helped overthrow the Czar and looked forward to a new order of freedom, peace, and total economic equality.

But they became disillusioned. 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 that 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 only sober in the early morning. And the third abandoned his former beliefs and became, of all things, a Chassidic Jew.

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

Many years later, I became inspired by another story of disillusionment, the story of Rabbi Issachar Teichtal, 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 Zionism was equal to apostasy, and that participating in the creation of a Jewish State was a terrible sin.

When World War II broke out, Rabbi Teichtal was witness to all the horrors of the Holocaust. He found himself questioning and eventually re-examining his earlier beliefs, and rejected them. Instead, he developed the contrary perspective; namely, that the failure to adopt Zionism and build a Jewish State was the root cause of the suffering of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Teichtal’s erudite treatise, Aym HaBanim Semaycha is a fascinating and rare example of a courageous retraction of an earlier held worldview, a 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 and not upon Jacob.

Jacob, disguised as Esau, ultimately received those blessings. When Esau appears and asks for those blessings, Isaac realizes that the Divine Hand has intervened and that he has been wrong all along in considering Esau to be the son who deserved those blessings. He is, quite literally, disillusioned.

He is stunned to learn that he has been mistaken all along in his assessment of this son, and 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. Yet, in ways significant and trivial, we are all occasionally called upon to do so.

Knowing that even Isaac was proven to be in error about the assumptions he made, and that he was dramatically confronted with his mistake, can be of some solace to us all.

It is difficult and painful to garner the courage to turn our disillusionment to advantage and start life again under new assumptions. But it is a choice which we are inevitably called upon to make.