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Toldot 2009

The protagonist of this week’s Sedrah, Isaac, is the least known of the patriarchs. The lives of both Abraham and Jacob were full of incident. But Isaac was the man of calm, of peace, of blindness, about whose character the Torah is surprisingly reticent, leaving us to draw our own inferences. But the opening verse of the Sedrah makes it abundantly clear, through repetition, that Isaac was the true son of Abraham and that Abraham fathered Isaac. This repetition offers a clue that Isaac followed closely in the footsteps of his father. Isaac inherited his father’s blessing, and soon ended up a man of great wealth. But equally soon jealousy and anti-Semitism reared their ugly heads. As the Torah states, “He had possessions of flocks and possessions of herds and a great household; and the Philistines envied him” (26:14). Soon we hear that the Philistines stopped up with earth the wells which Abraham had dug, and it was left to Isaac to try to open them up again.

This is a curious episode. The Torah tells us that the Philistines stopped up the wells after the death of Abraham (26:18). So the destruction of the wells had nothing to do with anything that Isaac had done. Rabbi Zvi Mecklenburg (early 19th century) focuses on the fact that when Isaac re-dug the wells he gave them the same names as his father had given them. It is clear therefore that Abraham had given the wells names. And just as he had called places by the names of G-d (eg Bethel, House of G-d; Hashem Yireh, G-d will see; Hashem Nisi, G-d is my sign, so he is likely to have consecrated his wells with the name of G-d in order to spread and sanctify the divine name among the heathens as they drew water.

So in stopping the wells, the Philistines were seeking to remove all traces of Abraham’s religion and thus to stop the dissemination of the knowledge of G-d amongst the people. Isaac saw it as part of his mission to restore the wells and their original names so that G-d would again be sanctified in the non-Jewish world. The message is that Isaac recognised the religious significance of remaining faithful to the ways of our ancestors so that we may observe the customs and teachings of our fathers.   Nachmanides suggests that the episode of the wells alludes to the future history of the Jewish people. The first well, which Isaac’s servants dug and over which they and the Philistines quarrelled, Isaac called Esek (Contention). This was an allusion to the First Temple, which was the true “well of living water” referred to in 26:19. It suggests that the First Temple was destroyed through the contentions and quarrels engendered by the onslaught of the surrounding nations. Isaac’s second well, also dug by his servants, was named Sitnah (Enmity or Hatred) and refers to the Second Temple, which attracted violent opposition and causeless hatred from within the Jewish community as well as from the surrounding nations throughout its existence. Only with the third well, which Isaac dug himself and over which there was no quarrel, was there room to avoid such friction. Hence he called it Rehovot (Spaciousness), an allusion to the future Third Temple, which Nachmanides said would be built without quarrel or feud, at which time G-d will enlarge the borders of Israel. It is also instructive that whereas the first two wells were dug by his servants, the third was dug by Isaac himself. Perhaps he knew better than his servants that his personal example would succeed: undaunted by prior failure, he had faith that G-d would give him space to be fruitful in the land. And the analogy with the Temple is reinforced by the fact that, according to the Midrash, the first two Temples were built with the assistance of other nations (Hiram, King of Tyre, and Cyrus, king of Persia) and were destroyed by other nations. In the same way, the Third Temple will be built without foreign involvement and will endure accordingly.

So Isaac is already depicted as the lonely man of faith, foreshadowing his descendants, a “people who will dwell alone”, in the words of the pagan prophet Balaam. Isaac’s loneliness is accentuated by his blindness. Blindness comes to be almost the defining characteristic of Isaac, once we come to learn of his relationships with his twin sons and the deception practised upon him. Rashi offers three explanations for Isaac’s blindness:

  1. He refers to the smoke of his daughters-in-law who offered incense to their idols. This alludes to Esau’s Canaanite wives who were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. Blindness may operate as a defence mechanism so that Isaac does not have to witness the loss of the Shechina in his home.
  2. Rashi’s second explanation refers to the need for Jacob to receive the blessings of his father. In this sense G-d ensured that Isaac would be blind; otherwise the deception of Rebekah and Jacob could never have come about and the blessing be bestowed upon Jacob.
  3. But it is the third explanation that is particularly interesting. Rashi says that when Isaac was bound on the altar at the moment of the Akeidah, on the point of being sacrificed by his father, at that instant the heavens opened and the angels saw and wept; it was their tears which fell upon his eyes and dimmed their vision. There is a profound psychological import to that description. In one sense the Akeidah was the defining event of Isaac’s life, indeed the defining proof of faith in G-d to be found anywhere in the Bible. The Akeidah must have been a traumatic experience for Isaac. As the heavens opened, did he probe them with a too-scorching gaze? Was it like looking into the heart of the sun? Was his vision impaired in order to restore the normal human boundaries of sight? Aviva Zornberg has suggests that what Isaac experienced in his youth, helplessly bound on the altar, his eyes alone free to pierce the veil of heaven, was imprinted forever on those eyes.

The Akeidah left in him a searing after-image, but throughout his mature years he may have repressed the memory and the experience: the Akeidah was never again mentioned in the Torah. Could such repression lead, in his later years, to blindness, as a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, like the blindness that afflicted many women survivors of the Killing Fields in Cambodia? Isaac is described in the Sedrah as an old man, close to death, even though he lived 60 years after he saw himself as on the verge of death (27:2, 4). As a blind man, he became akin to one who is dead, untroubled by physical desires or evil impulses.

If Isaac was shaped by the Akeidah, so too was his family. Isaac’s attitude of old age and other-worldliness helps to turn Rebekah from the loving vigorous girl of Chaye Sarah to the pained despairing woman of Toldot. The relationship between Isaac and Rebekah is bound to impact upon their children. In selling his birthright to Jacob for a lentil stew, Esau shows some of his mother’s despair when he asks, “I am going to die, so what use is my birthright to me?” (25:32). With a blind father who sees himself as close to death and a despairing mother, Jacob and Esau appear to be the products of an almost dysfunctional family, each competing for the love of their parents and neither loved by both. So perhaps it’s little wonder that they grow up as total contrasts and rivals, each finding a different way of coping with their upbringing. There are many parallels to family life in the present century. Esau is the brother who lives only for the present, seeking instant gratification and prepared even to trade his birthright for the immediate satisfaction of his hunger. Jacob, by contrast, is the simple scholar who lives for the future, delaying gratification in favour of ultimate spiritual gains. And it is precisely because of this ability to renounce present reward in favour of the future that Jacob becomes worthy of becoming the founder of the Jewish people.  

But the focus of this Devar Torah is Isaac. And I would like to explore a little more what is happening with him when Jacob supplants Esau as the recipient of his blessing. As we know, “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his venison” (25:28). Maybe after the traumatic experience of knowing that his own father had sent away his half-brother Ishmael to a near-death in the desert and had then been prepared to kill Isaac, Isaac resolved to indulge his own children, whatever the outcome. Or perhaps the more spiritual and withdrawn father sees an enviable contrast in his aggressive and forceful son. Interestingly enough, the Zohar comments that what Isaac loves in Esau is the similarity to himself: perhaps the fury evoked by animal life and the hunt reflects a fury which he has suppressed in himself and a sympathy for Esau’s unhappiness and despair. In other words he may see below the surface of Esau and identify this son as the one more in need of his father’s blessing. Either that, or else Esau is such a good dissembler that he has deceived his father into believing that he is the more worthy of the blessing.

And if Esau can trick his father into believing that he merits the blessing, Jacob too can play that game by pretending outwardly to be Esau. He is reinforced by his mother’s perception of Esau as a dissembler. Rebekah of course has grown up in the home of a dissembler, as the brother of Laban the Aramean (a word logically connected with “ramai” (deceiver), repeated 3 times in this portion). She now sees the opportunity to expose Esau as the deceiver, even though she cannot criticise him outright to Isaac. Her strategy is to show Isaac how far he is capable of being tricked. And once Jacob approaches his father with the food, disguised as his twin brother, Isaac, who cannot recognise Jacob, uses his other senses to know him—including those senses which tell him the spiritual truth. So now Isaac realises through his spiritual capacity that whichever son may be before him is the one entitled to his spiritual blessing. Jacob has in a way become an amalgam of Jacob and Esau: “The voice—or spirit—is the voice of Jacob, but the hands—or body—are the hands of Esau” (27.22).   In this condition of blurred identity, Isaac blesses his nameless son, whose name is mentioned no more in this passage and whose voice, touch, taste and smell all convince him of his authenticity. And as the commentary of Or-Hachaim remarks, when Jacob bought the birthright from Esau he acquired with it some of the essential virtue of Esau. The conferring of the blessing was the pivotal, maturing experience of Jacob’s life. With the impersonation of Esau, he acquired some of his twin brother’s virtues, namely his strength, his vitality and a new sense of wholeness which the rabbis compared to the bridegroom leaving the Chuppah.

And what of Isaac? When the true Esau returned from the hunt and approached his father, we are told that Isaac trembled with a great trembling. The Midrash comments that he saw Gehinnom opened before him. Not because he had made a mistake; but because he realised how close he had come to conferring his blessing on the wrong son. Isaac for the first time realises how Esau has deceived him and what his true character is. For the first time Isaac became aware that he had erred through all these years, and the shock was traumatic. His trembling recalled his trembling on the altar. He realised that just as his own father had nearly sacrificed him, so he had unconsciously been sacrificing Jacob. If Rebekah had not possessed the insight into her two sons, who knows what disastrous outcome might have occurred? Certainly the history of Israel could have been very different. So this near miss evoked Isaac’s trembling.  

Having realised at last that he was capable of being deceived, Isaac also realises that it would be wrong to direct his anger at Jacob. On the contrary, Isaac recognises that Jacob is the true heir to the blessing, which is why he tells Esau, “And moreover he (Jacob) shall be blessed (27:34). Jacob is not the deceiver: Esau is, and has been all along. And once Isaac has been undeceived, his role in the Torah is over. We hear virtually no more about him, even though he lived for a further 60 years. A complex man, living a complex life, one would like to think that after suffering the traumas of the Akeidah and the deceptions practised by his wife and his two sons, he lived the rest of his days in peace and happiness. But somehow I doubt it.

21st November 2009       Neville Nagler

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