Bereishit

Isaac, the Eternal Optimist

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Gavriel Lakser

 

One of the most overlooked events in this week’s parshah, Vayishlach, is the passing of the patriarch, Isaac. His death is reported almost as a footnote, seven chapters removed from his last appearance in the narrative. And yet, somehow it seems apropos of Isaac’s character in life that he should depart from this world with such little fanfare. To begin with, in comparison to the other patriarchs, there isn’t a whole lot of narrative to work with on Isaac. And in virtually every story line that he does figure into, he comes across as- in the words of Leon Kass- “drab, passive and gullible” (The Beginning of Wisdom, 353). 

All of this makes for a perplexing character. For Isaac is not some auxiliary cast member in the story of God’s founding of a chosen nation through whom to bring blessing upon all the families of the earth. Isaac is one of the leading men. He is one of the revered patriarchs whose righteousness is recalled countless times in our holy texts and in whose merit the wayward Israelites in Moses’ generation are granted entry into the Promised Land. And yet, in observing his character as presented in the patriarchal narrative, we are hard-pressed to find validation for the accolades bestowed upon him. 

Isaac’s passive nature is first apparent in the episode of the Akedah where he is designated as the lamb to be offered up to God at Mt. Moriah. Not only is Isaac uninformed of his impending slaughter, it only occurs to him on the third day of his journey with his father to the mountain that they are missing the sheep for the offering. And yet, when he inquires of Abraham the whereabouts of the animal, his father responds evasively- “God will see to the sheep for the offering” (22:7). For Isaac, his father’s vague response is satisfactory and he doesn’t bring up the matter again.  

A few chapters later, when Abraham decides it is time for Isaac to marry, Isaac is once again left in the dark. The discussion takes place between Abraham and his servant, with Abraham instructing his servant to travel to the former’s birthplace to select a wife for Isaac (24:2-4). When the servant suggests the possibility of Isaac accompanying him on the trip, Abraham firmly dismisses the proposition, insisting that Isaac is not to leave the protective confines of his home. Up until the moment that his bride-to-be shows up at his doorstep, there is no indication in the text that Isaac is ever informed of the plans for his marriage.   

In fact, based on the attributes the servant seeks in a wife for Isaac, it appears that he has in mind a woman with traits offsetting to Isaac’s docile personality. Included in the servant’s criteria are the qualities of assertiveness and resolve; a woman who not only agrees to provide water to him upon request, but who takes initiative in watering his camels as well (24:14). 

Indeed, Rebekah’s assertiveness is famously on display later in the narrative when she arranges for Jacob to steal the blessing of the first-born from his older brother, Esau (27:5-40). And there, once again, Isaac is entirely blind (in this case, both, literally and figuratively) to the events playing out around him. 

Then, as Esau’s devastation at having been deprived of the blessing transitions into full-blown rage against his brother, Isaac seems, once again, oblivious to the developments around him. It is Rebekah who learns of Esau’s intentions to kill Jacob and who springs into action. Bypassing her husband, she goes directly to her younger son, warning him of Esau’s intentions and instructing him to flee to her brother in Haran for refuge and to remain there until his brother’s fury subsides. 

Ironically, the matter is already settled by the time Rebekah goes to Isaac to inform him of her wishes for Jacob to relocate. Not only is Isaac last to learn of the plan, he remains uninformed of the backdrop to Jacob’s departure; Isaac’s understanding of the purpose behind Jacob’s trip is in order to find a wife and he has no awareness of the strife between his two sons.

In fact, Jacob is not the only of Isaac’s sons to deceive him. The text reports that, while Rebekah preferred Jacob, “Isaac loved Esau, for game was in his mouth” (25:28). According to the simple reading of the text, Esau was able to manipulate his father’s affection by feeding him fresh game. According to the Midrash, Esau feigned piety before his father by asking him questions on religious law (Genesis Rabbah 63:10). Either way, the clear implications are that Isaac was being “played” by his son. 

Isaac’s passive nature is once again on display in his confrontation with the Philistine king, Abimelekh over the wells that Abraham had dug years earlier. In fact, Isaac’s altercation with Abimelekh is somewhat of a replay of Abraham’s own dispute with the Philistine king regarding those same wells. But despite the similar backdrop, the interplay between Philistine and patriarch in each case couldn’t be more different. 

After his wells are seized by Abimelekh’s servants, Abraham immediately confronts and rebukes the Philistine king (21:25). In response to Abraham, Abimelekh takes on a defensive posture, twice assuring the Hebrew prince that he had no knowledge of the incident (21:26). Clearly, Abimelekh regards Abraham with great respect. 

Yet, under similar circumstances, Abimelekh shows little deference to Isaac. Not only does Abimelekh make no attempt to absolve himself of any responsibility for his servants’ destruction of Isaac’s wells, but he accuses Isaac of impoverishing the Philistine people and proceeds to order him off his land. Making no attempt to resist Abimelekh’s egregious accusations, Isaac obediently submits and withdraws from the Philistines’ land. Following his relocation and his digging of new wells, Isaac is harassed a second and third time by the Philistines and is forced to relocate, yet again.  

Even when Abimelekh eventually comes to Isaac to reconcile, he offers no apologies for his earlier behavior and even has the gall to claim to have “not molested” Isaac and to have “sent you away in peace” (26:29). And, once again, Isaac seems incapable of standing up to his oppressor, refusing to call out Abimelekh’s dishonesty while accepting his overtures for peace without hesitation or preconditions (26:30-31). 

Contrast this with Abraham’s treaty with Abimelekh in which Abraham dictates the conditions for peace, including his demand that Abimelekh acknowledge Abraham as the rightful owner of the disputed well (22:28-30). While Abraham demonstrates agency in his dealings with Abimelekh, Isaac is acquiescent and yielding.

Perhaps, most troubling is the fact that Isaac never seems to learn from his experiences; his lack of sophistication and naivety remain as pronounced in his old age as during his formative years. This lack of character development is reflected in the fact that, of the three patriarchs, Isaac is the only one whose name is never modified. While Abraham begins his journey as Abram and Jacob takes on the name Israel, Isaac remains plain old Isaac from start to finish. 

In fact, the text offers a hint as to the source of Isaac’s passive and submissive nature. Following his marriage to Rebekah, the Torah reports that Isaac is consoled over the death of his mother (25:67). The clear implications are that Sarah’s passing was a great blow to Isaac. We can, thus, assume that Isaac had a very close relationship with his mother. 

Indeed, when we consider the circumstances of Isaac’s birth, his attachment to his mother becomes fully comprehensible. Recall that Isaac was Abraham and Sarah’s miracle child, the son of their old age whom they never dreamed would be born to them. As such, one can imagine Abraham and Sarah to have been doting parents to young Isaac, showering him with love and affection while in constant supervision of his every move. This would have especially been the case for Sarah, for whom Isaac was her only child. 

Abraham and Sarah’s adoration of Isaac is first exhibited through the great feast made by the proud parents following Isaac’s weaning (21:8). This overt display of affection is intuited by Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, whose jealous mocking of Isaac is reported immediately following this event (21:9). 

Abraham and Isaac’s close bond is particularly evident in the Akedah narrative, beginning with God’s command to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, that you love- Isaac.” And that deep love shared between father and son is clearly displayed through their dialogue while on their journey up to Mt. Moriah- 

Father?

“Here I am, my son

“Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?”

“God will see to the lamb for the offering, my son.” (22:7-8)

The Akedah’s positioning in the biblical narrative- just prior to reporting Sarah’s death- also conveys Sarah’s deep love for Isaac. The rabbinic commentators conclude from the close proximity of the two stories that Sarah’s death was, in fact, precipitated through word received of Isaac’s journey to Mt. Moriah to be slaughtered (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 22:20). 

Aside from shedding light on Isaac’s attachment to his mother, the Torah’s relating that Rebekah is able to fill the void left through Sarah’s passing suggests that Rebekah and Sarah share similar qualities. We already attested to the assertive, take-charge personality of Rebekah. In fact, the text presents Sarah as every bit the powerhouse that her daughter-in-law was.  

The first example of Sarah’s assertive character comes with her insistence- owing to the fact of her barrenness- that Abraham take Hagar as a concubine in order to perpetuate the family name (16:2). Then, after Hagar conceives and begins to scorn the childless Sarah, Sarah responds with fury. First, she scolds her husband, accusing him of contributing to Hagar’s contempt for her. She then turns her wrath on Hagar, oppressing her so mercilessly that Hagar is forced to flee to the wilderness (16:4-6). Hagar eventually returns to her mistress, only to be banished a second and final time at the command of Sarah following the improprieties of Hagar’s son, Ishmael (21:9-14). 

This latter incident, in which Ishmael is caught mocking Isaac, demonstrates the combined effects of Sarah’s vigilance and her intense love for her only son: in the one instance where Isaac experiences the slightest bit of antagonism, Sarah is there to quickly and decisively remedy the situation.

Adored by his parents and under the constant supervision of their watchful eye, Isaac’s development of independent decision-making and problem-solving skills may have been compromised. This can, perhaps, explain those traits of passivity, submissiveness, and naivety that stand out in Isaac as an adult. His sheltered upbringing may have simply ill-prepared him for the harsh realities of an adult world ripe with deceit and devilry.

Regardless of cause, Isaac appears to lack the character traits to earn him the prestige and honor set aside for the other patriarchs. To be sure, there are those for whom Isaac’s blandness is not so troubling. Kass, for instance, suggests that Isaac’s significance is primarily in his function as “a link in the covenantal chain” (ibid., 355). In this regard, however sloppily executed, Isaac did succeed; despite his intentions, he does ultimately bequeath the covenantal blessing to the appropriate son. And yet, it is difficult to accept the notion that one of our revered biblical patriarchs was nothing more than a go-between in transmitting forward the Abrahamic covenant. 

The truth is that, in exploring the conditions of Isaac’s childhood and youth that contributed to his weakness of character as an adult, we begin to discover the attributes that would ultimately come to define Isaac’s greatness. In a sense, all the love, attention, and affection that Isaac received as a child nurtured in him a natural joie de vivre. Rarely experiencing hostility or cruelty, Isaac saw the world as essentially good and he developed an optimistic approach to life as well as a natural affection towards all those he encountered. In his eyes, all people were intrinsically good and were to be judged as such.

This natural tendency to see the best in people is reflected in Isaac’s love for Esau. While it is true that Esau was able to deceive his father, it would be mistaken to think that Isaac’s affection for his eldest son was premised on a false impression of Esau’s character. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks correctly points out (Essays on Ethics, 37), Isaac was fully aware of Esau’s true nature, of his lack of refinement. This is evident from the episode of the blessing of the first-born. Note the content of the blessing initially set aside for Esau- for “the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” and for “the abundance of grain and wine.” It was a blessing entirely suited to Esau’s character. Esau was a man of the field whose interests were in economic prosperity and material wealth. Indeed, the blessing he ultimately receives from his father is a similar- albeit, more modest- version of the original one intended for him- for the “fatness of the earth” and the “dew of the heavens” (27:39). 

Esau’s schemes and deception did nothing to convince Isaac of his eldest son’s piety and refinement, for Isaac had never had such illusions of Esau as such. What did influence Isaac’s affection towards Esau was his perception that his son so badly yearned for his father’s love and approval.

If Isaac had, all along, intended to give Esau the appropriate blessing, then all of Rebekah’s plotting and scheming proved to be entirely superfluous (see Rabbi Sacks, ibid.). Once again, there is no denying the fact that Isaac was duped by Rebekah and Jacob. However, his naivety was not in his judgment of his children’s character; he recognized the unique qualities in each of his sons. His oversight was his naive assumption that everyone else saw the basic goodness that he saw in each of his children. 

In fact, Isaac’s unconditional love of Esau left a lasting impression on his first-born son. Knowing that his father appreciated and adored him, Esau made a special effort to improve himself in order to make his father proud. This is evident when, upon seeing his father’s displeasure at the prospect of Jacob taking a wife from among the Canaanites, Esau, too makes a point of selecting a wife from among the family relations (28:6-9). 

Isaac’s purity of mind is no more evident than with his response to Abimelekh following the latter’s attempt to reconcile. Note Isaac’s reaction upon seeing Abimelekh at his front door- “Why did you come to me? For you hated me and sent me away” (26:27). There is no anger or hostility in his tone. There is only the sadness and hurt that comes with having experienced, perhaps for the first time in his life, the loathing and hostility of another human being. The pain that Isaac felt through the harsh treatment he endured at the hands of Abimelekh and his servants is reflected in Isaac’s naming of the wells over which the dispute was instigated- Sitnah (hatred) and Esek (contention).

And yet, Isaac does not lose hope. He wants to love and to have his faith in man restored. And, as soon as it becomes apparent that Abimelekh has come in peace, Isaac is ready to forgive and forget without hesitation or reservation.

If Isaac’s pain-free upbringing nurtured in him an innocent optimism towards life and a simple and unrestrained love for his fellow man, the Akedah taught him just how precious and fleeting life was. Imagine the shock Isaac must have felt upon realizing, at the altar, that he was the lamb to be slaughtered by his adoring father. Here is this young man who, until this point, had lived a life of comfort and ease and who had rarely been exposed to even the slightest hostility from others. Now it was all about to come crashing down, and at the hands of the man he most trusted and admired in life. 

While Isaac survived his ordeal at Mt. Moriah, it most certainly left scars that remained with him throughout his days. But, as is often the case, it is those who endure near-death experiences who come to develop an even greater appreciation for those simple pleasures in life that had, until then, been taken for granted. Likely, the trauma Isaac endured at the Akedah only reinforced his love of life and his goodwill towards others.  

There is little doubt as to the fact of Isaac’s timid, naïve, and passive character as demonstrated throughout the narrative. Without question, Isaac possesses neither the charisma or ambition of Abraham, nor the fighting spirit or determination of Jacob. As such, Isaac is not your typical biblical hero. However, while he may not exhibit conventional traits of grandeur, his contribution to humanity and, more specifically, to the Jewish people is no less significant. 

The Zohar attributes to Isaac the virtue of gevurah– strength. This refers both to Isaac’s resilience in being able to overcome suffering and to his enduring optimism and belief in the fundamental goodness of man despite having first-hand experience of man’s deceit and cruelty. 

The Talmud (Shabbat 89b) relates an aggadic story in which God approaches the patriarchs to ask what should be done with the Jews who have sinned. Both Abraham and Jacob answer that they should be eradicated. Only Isaac responds in defense of the Jews, arguing that for most of their sins they should not be held liable. Only Isaac can look into the iniquitous deeds of his people and find hope.

And, as demonstrated in his relationship with Esau, it is that confidence he has in people- despite their deficiencies- which propels them forward to reaching higher moral ground. Whereas most see man’s failings and imperfections, Isaac sees man’s potential and promise. This is the true eminence of Isaac. 

For the Jewish people, it is Isaac to whom we owe our survival through centuries of countless massacres, inquisitions, pogroms, and holocausts that, by all logical accounts, should have extinguished this proud nation from the annals of history long ago. Like Job, the Jew should have, by now, given up on this world, cursing the day of his birth while wishing for death. And yet, not only have the Jews survived, they have thrived. There is, perhaps, no other nation in history that has contributed to the development of civilization as much as the Jewish people have. Each time the Jew gets knocked down, he gets right back on his feet, dusts himself off, and is back enthusiastically leading the way in the search for the next scientific discovery, medical cure, or humanitarian cause. Just like Isaac, the Jewish people continue to put their faith in man, to forgive and forget, and to hope that this time it will be different, that humanity has finally learnt the lessons of the past. 

Gavriel Lakser has taught at a number of yeshivot and seminaries in Israel and was, most recently, Coordinator of Academic Programs at The Herzl Institute in Jerusalem. He received semikha from Yeshivat Hamivtar. He can be reached at glakser@gmail.com.