PRESENTS OR PRESENCE?
TO BE OR TO FREE- THAT IS THE QUESTION
ויתן אברהם את כל אשר לו ליצחק.
ולבני הפלגשים אשר לאברהם נתן אברהם מתנות וישלחם מעל יצחק בנו בעודנו חי קדמה אל ארץ קדם
And Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzchok. And to the concubine-children which were Avraham’s, Avraham gave presents, and he sent them away from his son Yitzchok while he was yet alive, eastward to the land of Kedem.
Knowing that his end was near, Avraham made sure to transfer all his possessions to Yitzchok, lest his other children lay claim to the inheritance. Furthermore, he actually sent the other children off to the land of Kedem, putting physical distance between them and his heir apparent, Yitzchok. And yet, says the Torah, he made sure to present those other children, born of his concubine-wife Keturah, with “presents” prior to sending them off.
While the story seems pretty straightforward, the details are a bit perplexing. Firstly, how can the Torah state that Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzchok, and then go on to describe “presents” that he then gave to the concubine-children? What “presents” could possibly remain to be given, after Avraham had written off everything to Yitzchok? Additionally, what type of “present” could one possibly give children that would bear mention in the context of their being chased away from one’s legacy forever? And if it were indeed something that noteworthy, why would the Torah refer to it simply as “presents”?
Obviously, there is something far deeper occurring here. Indeed, Zohar contends that the “all that he had” which Avraham is said to have given to Yitzchak, refers not to his physical estate but his spiritual heritage. We may similarly infer that the “presents” given to the concubine-children refer likewise to some unspecified spiritual asset of Avraham.
Yet what, we wonder, might that asset be, and how might that explain our original difficulties?
Our Sages teach that Avraham represents the trait of unbridled kindness. Yitzchak, on the other hand, epitomizes justice.
Kindness and justice.
Contradictory, you say?
You see, God himself has interwoven the two from the very moment of Creation. The raison d’etre of Creation, according to Judaism, is to allow for God to share His goodness with others, in fulfillment of His inborn will to do kindness. And yet, God did not create Utopia.
Because the Utopian experience, simply put, is sub-utopian. The greatest possible pleasure, explain our Sages, is one experienced as reward for one’s toil. One may enjoy the very same pleasure as an unearned gift or as the fruits of one’s labor, and yet the experience as a gift will pale in comparison to the experience as earned reward. It is for this reason that God purposely holds His goodness in check for a short little lifetime, during which we can earn the right to becoming party of that goodness, so that we may then ultimately experience it with the wholesomeness of it being deserved.
And so, God restrains His basic will to simply give (unbridled kindness), limiting his giving to within the confines of merit (justice), so that the giving itself may take on the highest form of perfection.
With this in mind, it becomes obvious that Avraham, as the root of the Jewish nation, represents the root intent of Creation-i.e., the will to benefact others- while Yitzchok, representing justice, composes the element which implements that benefaction in its highest form by limiting its receipt to the deserving.
And thus, says the Zohar, just as God lovingly placed His entire benevolence in the firm hands of justice for the true good of his beneficiaries, Avraham lovingly gave all that was his, or better put, all the lovingkindness that was him, to the firm reign of Yitzchak, so that it may be implemented in its highest form. To the concubine-children, however, who lacked that tempering element of justice, all that remained to give was “presents”,i.e. that imperfect form of giving in which the recipient of the goodness knows full well that he is the undeserving conferee of a handout.
And so it has remained. Yes, there is spirituality out there to be had by simply extending an outstretched arm (ok, I admit that may be an oversimplification of yoga) and waiting for the divine to drop in. If you’re looking for that, head east. Far east. Yet that isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the Jewish way.
We are here to work and to earn, to toil and yearn. Yet it is only we who will eventually bask, in the fulfillment of our task, while those who were in a rush, will just sit there and blush.