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Parashat Toldot

November 16, 2006

Parashat Toldot: Fathers and Sons
By Rabbi David Greenstein

Parashat Toldot is the only Torah portion devoted to the life of Isaac. Abraham merits a much more extended treatment by the Torah (as does Jacob, later). Isaac seems to exist in the shadow of his illustrious father. This is borne out by the very first sentence of this Torah portion, which begins: ‘And these are the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac.’ (Gen. 25:19) The second part of the verse is jarring. Not only is it redundant – for Isaac has just a second ago been referred to as ‘son of Abraham” ‘ it is also completely contrary to the first part of the verse, for it tells us of Abraham’s offspring instead of telling us of Isaac’s. It is as if, just as the Torah is about to start talking about Isaac, she cannot refrain from returning to talking about Abraham. Isaac cannot escape his father’s shadow.

Rashi, quoting a midrash, drives this point home. He explains that it was necessary for Scripture to reiterate that Abraham was Isaac’s father because ‘the jokers of the time’ doubted that the old man could really have been the biological father. In order to prove Abraham’s paternity God ‘formed Isaac’s visage to be like Abraham’s.’ Thus Isaac’s right to his own unique appearance was denied in deference to the need to defend his father’s honor.

As happens so often with regard to the children of the great and famous, Isaac has a hard time becoming his own person. Our portion tells us of an episode in Isaac’s life that is an uncanny replay of an episode in his father’s life. This is the story of Isaac and Rebecca who go to Gerar in time of famine. Out of fear for his safety, Isaac, as did Abraham before him, lies about the true relationship between him and the woman by his side. ‘She is my sister,’ he says, as did Abraham, a generation before. The similarity is so strong that the Torah feels compelled to state explicitly that this ‘famine’ is ‘apart from the first famine that happened in Abraham’s days.’ (Gen. 26:1)

Isaac seems condemned to repeat his father’s life. We get a mere glimpse of Isaac as an active, forceful agent. But even here it is merely a recapitulation of his father’s life. He must dig Abraham’s wells again and quarrel over them just as Abraham had done. (Gen. 26:18ff) And just as Abraham was compelled by his wife to send away one of his beloved sons, so is Isaac forced by Rebecca to send Jacob away. This happened after the tense episode in which Jacob, at Rebecca’s urging, apparently fooled his father into bestowing the patriarchal blessing upon him, rather than upon his brother, Esau. While Ishmael was sent away because he was perceived as a threat to his brother, Jacob is sent away because he is being threatened by his brother. So the parallel is not quite equivalent. It is more disturbing for being a mirror image of the original, just as Isaac was born as a mirror image of his father. Viewed in this way, as a series of parallels, we may speculate also about the effect of this expulsion upon the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca. Abraham, having two sons by two wives, could send away the mother with the expelled son. But Isaac, with only Rebecca as his wife and as the mother of both boys, could not physically send Rebecca away. Yet, we may wonder whether the struggle that Rebecca had to undertake did not result in a distancing between herself and her erstwhile lover.

To view Isaac’s life through the lens of recapitulation and parallelism allows us to see another possible interpretation of that dramatic, enigmatic episode of the bestowal of the blessing, referred to above. What if we assume that Isaac was not really duped by Jacob’s and Rebecca’s subterfuge? What if we assume that Isaac willingly went along with the ruse? We would have to ask – Why would he do so? Why would he deprive Esau of the blessing? A chilling thought arises – that Isaac felt compelled to echo his father’s path in one more decisive way. Does not the midrash explain that Isaac’s blindness, the condition necessary for the ruse to succeed, was the result of Isaac’s experience of being bound on the altar by Abraham? Thus the bestowal of the blessings to Jacob, and their denial to Esau, was done in the shadow of the `Aqedah. To be Isaac, Isaac had to be Abraham. To be Abraham meant to be called upon to sacrifice one’s beloved son. ‘And Isaac loved Esau.’ (Gen. 25:28) And so he sacrificed him.