I would like to dedicate this drash to my friend Shalva Sorani, wishing her strength and shalom.
V’eyleh toldot Yitzchak—these are the generations of Isaac, or just “the story of Isaac.” But is it really Isaac’s story? Toldot contains not one, but two of the most familiar Torah stories: Esau selling Jacob his birthright for a bowl of stew, and Jacob dressing up in goat skins to trick the blind Isaac into blessing him. But we don’t usually see these as stories about Isaac. In fact, Isaac is typically treated as the sad sack of the patriarchs. He seems at best a passive player in the historic events unfolding around him. His starring role comes when he is nearly sacrificed, almost a prop in the drama played out between his father and God. Isaac’s character is not really established before the Akedah; and after it, we’re inclined to view him as further diminished, scarred, perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, in Toldot, we see an infirm old man, poor in sight and perhaps worse in insight, conned by his own wife and son into giving the wrong child his blessing. Even in rabbinic commentary, there’s a tendency to see Isaac as pathetic; he seems sometimes to make the roster of patriarchs merely as a courtesy, because he’s the biologically necessary step between Abraham and Jacob.
But the more I read and re-read Toldot, the more Isaac drew me in. I kept thinking about something Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the Amidah. Our central prayer--at least the old, boys-only version of it--begins with: “Blessed are you, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” Heschel says, “The term, ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ is semantically different from a term such as ‘the God of truth, goodness, and beauty.’ Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not signify ideas, principles, or abstract values. Nor do they stand for teachers or thinkers… [They] are not principles to be comprehended but lives to be continued.” Now admittedly, Isaac has tough acts both to follow and to precede. His father Abraham is an awesome, towering figure, the devout and single-minded founder of ethical monotheism. Isaac’s complex, resourceful son Jacob, who struggles first with his brother, then with his own yetzer ha’rah, and ultimately with his God, is the founder and namesake of our people. We can grasp something about how to continue Abraham’s life, and Jacob’s. But what does it mean to continue Isaac’s life? Who is Isaac? And Who is the God of Isaac?
Isaac’s story is above all one of constancy, perseverance, and commitment. To begin with, the Talmud tells us that because Isaac’s name was given by God before his birth, he is the only patriarch whose name is not changed. More concretely, he’s the only one to remain monogamous. Like his parents and later their son, Isaac and Rebekah have fertility problems. But, after 20 years of childless marriage, Isaac does not take another wife or a concubine, nor does he pray for an heir for himself, or remind God of the need for offspring to uphold the covenant. Instead, he pleads with Adonai on behalf of his wife, who badly wants children. So Isaac’s first recorded request of God is motivated by tenderness and compassion for someone he loves.
After the colorful stories of Rebekah’s pregnancy, the birth of the twins, and the birthright-for-stew exchange, Chapter 26, the middle of this week’s parashah, seems downright boring. It’s mostly a narrative about Isaac’s community and business relations--hardly the stuff of legends, but I think critical to understanding Isaac. There is a famine in the land—what else is new? Adonai appears to Isaac, and tells him not to go down to Egypt as his father did. This is the first clear indication that the Divine plan is different for Isaac—he’s instructed to stay put, to make things work where he is, to develop the land rather than just move on when it fails him. Isaac sojourns in G’rar, home of the Philistine king Avimelech. Far from being a head-in-the-clouds ascetic, this Isaac is a sensualist, a man who delights in the world and its pleasures. We know, of course, that he loves a good meal. We’re told that he likes to go out late in the day to pray in the fields, and loves their earthy smell. And in a remarkable passage, we hear that, while trying to pass Rebekah off as his sister, he gives himself away when Avimelech spies him “m’tzachek et Rivkah ishtoh,” fondling or playing with his beloved wife Rebekah, in a decidedly unbrotherly way. The verb used, m’tzachek, is a pun on Yitzchak’s very name.
Meanwhile, Isaac gets to work. He grows rich with livestock and accumulates a large household, to the point that the local Philistines become envious and send him away. But water is crucial to survival in that arid land, so “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham…and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” Unlike Abraham, whom God commanded to totally reject his ancestors, Isaac self-consciously draws strength from his parents’ lives. Like many of us, having reached middle age, Isaac has come to better understand what his parents had gone through. He is able to see what in his father’s legacy is worth retaining or recreating. But out of preservation grows innovation. Abraham’s wells were mostly just cisterns for holding runoff when the rare rains came. But, having reopened these holding tanks, Isaac’s servants then find a new well, a “well of spring water”--a precious, original, and renewable resource.
So Isaac, having followed quite literally in his father’s footsteps, now surpasses him. The jealous Philistines try to claim the sweet well water. Faced with this conflict, Isaac doesn’t flee. He doesn’t try bargaining with or tricking his neighbors; he doesn’t draw a line in the sand to fight them; and he certainly doesn’t invoke God’s name or ask God’s help. Instead, he moves over a little, and digs a new well. The same thing happens again, until finally Isaac digs a third well at Rechovot and is left in peace. Isaac perseveres, literally digging deeper and deeper into the local soil. He establishes himself as hardworking, self-reliant, and trustworthy, but also a force to be reckoned with, not just the lucky heir to a family fortune or a Divine promise. Avimelech comes to ask for a peace treaty. It’s only then that God appears to Isaac and says, “I am with you.”
Look at the challenges Isaac faces:
What’s striking is that this list could belong to someone in this room, today, or to anyone, in any age. Isaac’s struggles certainly seem more mundane--much less “Biblical”—than those of Abraham and Jacob. Isaac’s got no grand new religious ideal to promote, no angels to contend with, no national liberation movement to shepherd, no army to lead. What he has to do is guard, build, and nurture a family and a community, consolidating what Abraham had created in the previous generation. And he succeeds magnificently. Without this strengthening and grounding, the monumental achievement of Abraham’s covenant with the One God would have withered on the vine.
But wait a minute. For a man whose genius I’m saying lies in the domestic and interpersonal domains, how does Isaac mess up so badly in the climactic scene of Toldot, the blessing of Jacob? Let’s turn our attention there now. Perhaps Isaac hopes to impart some wisdom to his rebellious firstborn son, while he still commands Esau’s respect. When he finds himself old and going blind, he calls Esau to him, tells him to go hunt and prepare some game, and then come to him “ba’avur t’varechechah nafshi b’terem amut.” This is translated in our Chumash as “that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.” But it literally means, “that my soul” or “my breath may bless you.” I want to come back in a few moments to this unique way of describing the blessing.
But first, you all know what happens: Esau goes off. Rebekah, having overheard, summons Jacob and tells him to get two young goats from the flock, that she will cook up as Isaac likes. Jacob will then take the dish to Isaac to receive the blessing meant for Esau. Jacob fears that if his blind father touches him, he will be revealed as a trickster, and be cursed rather than blessed. Rebekah says “Your curse, my son, be upon me!” but nevertheless adds some safety measures to the plan. She dresses Jacob in Esau’s best clothes, and covers the hairless parts of his hands and neck with the skins of the kids. Impersonating Esau, Jacob goes in to see Isaac. With his vision going, Isaac is very attuned to sound, smell, taste, and touch—the text is unusually rich in references to these sense perceptions. So how is it that he’s hoodwinked by the crude plot that Rebekah and Jacob, so to speak,“cook up?”
Or is he really fooled at all? It seems far-fetched to think that Isaac wasn’t already tuned in to the struggle for primacy between his sons. And why wouldn’t Rebekah have told Isaac of God’s prophecy, that Jacob was destined to rule his brother? There’s plenty of evidence that their relationship was close and loving, and it would be bizarre to keep so important a revelation to herself for 60 years. Likewise, is it plausible that word never got back to Isaac of Jacob having bought Esau’s birthright? What, after all, would be the point of Jacob’s acquiring the birthright if his parents weren’t made aware of his new status? But most convincing is the drama of the text itself. The more one reads the blessing scene, the more obvious it seems that Isaac knows exactly what’s going on.
Jacob, grotesquely dressed in his goatskins and nearly strangled with fear and shame, can only croak, “Avi”—my father. Isaac’s first words back are “Hineni; mi atah, b’ni?”—usually translated as “which of my sons are you?” but literally: “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Isaac seems to be saying, “After all I’ve been through, I know who I am; can you say the same? Do you realize that what you do next will go a long way toward defining your character, and your life?” Jacob replies, “I am Esau, your firstborn...” Isaac knows that something’s wrong: “How did you succeed so quickly, my son?” Then Jacob not only commits more deeply to the lie, but brings God into it: “Because Adonai your God granted me good fortune.” According to Rabbi Yochanan, this is when Jacob gives himself away, since Isaac knows that Esau would never invoke the name of the Holy One. Now Isaac seems almost to toy with Jacob: “Come closer,” he says, “that I may feel you, my son—whether you are really my son Esau or not… The voice,“ he says, “is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
Then, we’re told simply: “V’lo hikiroh”— “And he did not recognize him.” This could be taken straightforwardly to mean that he doesn’t know it’s Jacob. But it may also mean that Isaac doesn’t “recognize” Jacob in the sense of “acknowledging” or “admitting” who he is. Isaac asks Jacob to come even closer and kiss him, and comments, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of the fields that Adonai has blessed.” Doesn’t it seem odd that Isaac, with his acute senses of taste and smell, wouldn’t notice the pungent skins of the freshly killed goats? Is this what he really means, tongue in cheek, by “the smell of the fields?” Or, according to a midrash by Rabbi Yochanan: When Isaac says “Come closer, that I may feel you, my son,” urine runs down Jacob’s legs, his heart turns soft as wax, and God has to send two angels to hold him up by the elbows. The image of Jacob peeing in his pants sure puts Isaac’s comment about “the smell of the fields” in an altogether different light. Suddenly, it’s Jacob who seems pathetic and disoriented. Isaac appears as a man of restraint, irony, even humor, mature and patient in the face of Jacob’s awkward attempt to dupe him, subtly offering him many chances to retreat with honor.
But in the end Isaac goes along, and gives his blessing. Why on earth would he do this? Many possible explanations come to mind—I’ll just mention two. Maybe, recognizing that Jacob, while a kind and gentle man, is immature and unsure of himself, Isaac feels that the game should be played out so that Jacob will have to take responsibility for his actions and deal with their consequences. As we readers know, and as Isaac may intuit, Jacob will in fact spend the rest of his life dealing with those consequences. Or maybe Isaac, knowing how miserable Jacob is in undertaking the pretense, simply refuses to out him, so as to spare his son additional pain and humiliation.
But if he knows Jacob is doing wrong, isn’t he obliged to call him on it? There is a commandment in Vayikrah [Lev. 19:17], “Hocheyach tochiach et amitecha, v’lo tisah ahlav chet.” This translates as: “Reproach your kinsman if you see him doing wrong, and incur no guilt because of him.” But the Sages typically interpret it to mean, “Reproach your kinsman, if need be… BUT in so doing don’t yourself incur the additional sin of shaming him.” The point of the commandment, then, is not the reproach, but that one should avoid carrying reproach to the point of disgracing someone. It’s hard to see how Isaac could let on that he’s wise to Jacob without humiliating him. So perhaps it is out of love and compassion for his mixed-up, unhappy son that Isaac fails to “recognize” him, choosing the commandment not to belittle over the commandment to rebuke. Now Esau, returning to find that Jacob has been blessed in his place, panics, and cries pitifully, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” And Isaac, out of compassion for this rough man who is nevertheless his beloved son, does bless him, and promises him the same abundance—“the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven”—he did to Jacob.
I think we see Isaac’s motives reflected in the form of his blessing. Remember that Isaac says, “ba’avur t’varechechah nafshi,” that my soul may bless you. It is his very soul, his life breath, that is bursting to bless his sons while he still can. The only other place I could find this formula in the Tanakh is in Psalms 103 and 104, which both begin and end: “Barchi nafshi et-Adonai”—“Bless Adonai, o my soul.” Part of Psalm 103, which you may be familiar with from houses of mourning, goes like this:
“As east is far from west,
So far has God removed our sins from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
So Adonai has compassion for those who fear God.”
The focus of the Psalm is not on justice or commandment, but on God’s compassion, God’s unconditional and forgiving love for us. In the same way, the blessing Isaac offers is not the covenantal blessing, the promises of innumerable offspring and possession of the land that Adonai makes to each of the patriarchs. Instead, it’s a father’s deeply personal blessing, expressing the yearning for a prosperous, secure future for each of his sons. Isaac blesses, not out of duty to God, not to transmit the covenant, not to establish a legal heir, and not according to their merit—but with a blind father’s blind compassion for them, in spite of, or perhaps all the more so because of, their faults and limitations. Does Isaac do right in blessing his sons? Maybe not—it’s certainly a question we can debate for a few thousand more years. But I want to suggest that if there is a failing behind his behavior, it may not be senility or foolishness or cluelessness or passivity, but an excess of love and concern for his sons. Isaac might well have said what Shakespeare’s Othello says about himself:
“Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well.”
Clearly, as Othello demonstrates, this sort of excess can be dangerous, both to the loved and to the lover. But in Isaac’s case, coming as it does just two generations removed from child sacrifice, it’s a remarkable weakness to have.
This quality of Isaac’s is the source of an astonishing midrash. According to the Talmud, when Adonai comes to judge the Jewish people, it is Isaac, of all people, who will rise to defend us. Why Isaac? Because, the legend goes, he can truly say to God, “I had a wicked child, and I loved him. Can’t You do the same?” The reference, by the way, is to Esau, who’s made out in the Talmud to be not just rebellious, but evil. In any case, there’s the startling suggestion here that God has something to learn from Isaac. Isaac shows us a different way to handle the transgressions and weaknesses of others—not only Esau’s, but Jacob’s as well. Can you imagine Abraham confronting one of his own sons, who has just invoked God’s name while lying to him? In his righteous rage, Abraham might well take out that knife he was held back from using on Mount Moriah. Yes, Abraham argues with God to save the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. But his successful argument there is based on principles of justice: it wouldn’t be fair to the few righteous people of those cities to be destroyed along with all the sinners. Isaac’s argument is a different one, rooted in compassion and mercy: Everyone, even the evildoer, has a story, is somebody’s child, and should be treated mercifully. Abraham’s genius is for love of God; Isaac’s is for love of one another, an aspect of our love of God.
I asked at the beginning, who is the God of Isaac? The extraordinary thing about parashat Toldot is that we see very little of God. There’s little Divine intervention, and no new tests or laws. In his marvelous book God: A Biography, Jack Miles points out two attributes of God’s developing identity that emerge at this point in the Biblical narrative. One is that we see God starting to gradually withdraw from direct involvement in human affairs. The other is that Adonai, previously a stern and demanding deity, comes gradually to be talked about as a God of love and kindness, a God understanding and forgiving of human frailty. Perhaps it’s no accident that these trends happen together--and happen through Isaac. Mercy, it seems, can’t be just a matter of commandment, but needs to grow out of our own everyday experiences of suffering, being wronged, falling short, hurting others, forgiving, and loving. Like Isaac, we have to find our own paths to compassion through the tangles of our mundane relationships. Yet it’s not just we who are changed by this engagement with life; it’s our God. Just as God requires these qualities of us, a conception of God without them would be a harsh and deeply unsatisfying one.
“Blessed are you, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The God of Abraham is a God of dramatic social change, of commandment, obedience, and justice. The God of Isaac is a God of day-to-day life and relationship, of respect and kindness for one another, a God of love and mercy. And the God of Jacob—well, for that you’ll have to come back next week! Shabbat shalom.