“You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you – I don’t know – but it’s a tradition!” – Tevya the Milkman, Fiddler on The Roof.
If Tevya would have asked me, I would have told him that I believe the answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Chaya Sarah.
After Abraham finished burying his late wife Sarah, the Torah states, “And Abraham was old, advanced in age, and G-d blessed him with everything.” What does “everything” mean? The simple understanding is that G-d blessed him with wealth. He had all of his material needs taken care of. Rashi, the classic commentator (1040-1105), states, based on the Midrash, that the Hebrew word for everything –בַּכֹּל – has the numerical value of 32, the same numerical value as the word –בֶּן – son. This alludes to the idea that since Abraham had a son, he had everything. The question arises, why does the word ”everything” refer to his son? Also, why doesn’t the verse just say the word ”son” straight out instead of hinting at it? And one final question on Rashi’s concluding statement: “And after there was to him (Abraham) a son, it was necessary to find him a wife.” What is the connection between acknowledging that Abraham had everything – meaning a son – to the necessity to find that son a wife?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) offered the following insight: Abraham thought to himself, “What good is any material wealth or any good deeds or accomplishments if I don’t have a child to perpetuate it?” Indeed, having introduced to the world the foundation of what would eventually become the Jewish people, raising a son to create the first link in the chain of tradition, was “everything” to Abraham. This idea connects to the need for Abraham to find his son a wife – in order to ensure continuity of the fledgling Jewish people, Abraham needed to find a wife for his son.
In commenting on the commandment to honor one’s mother and father (Exodus 20:12), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) writes, “The knowledge and acknowledgment of historical facts (referring to the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai) depends solely on tradition, and tradition depends solely on the faithful transmission by parents to children…without this bond (referring to that which is fostered between parent and child through the child honoring his/her parents) the chain of generations is broken, the Jewish past is lost for the future and the Jewish nation ceases to exist.” This centrality of tradition is underscored in the Torah making reference to Abraham’s child as “everything.”
So if you happen to pass Tevya the milkman, you can let him know that I have an answer to his question of how this tradition got started…