Poor Isaac; wedged between “exemplary” Abraham and “vivid” Jacob, he exhibits very little personality of his own. Robert Alter’s recent Torah commentary characterizes Isaac as “the pale and schematic patriarch among the three forefathers, preceded by the exemplary founder, followed by the vivid struggler.”
The opening words of Parashat Tol’dot emphasize Isaac’s paleness. V’eleh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzhak. “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac” (Gen. 25:19). The very next sentence presents Rebekah, and by paragraph’s end, Jacob and Esau have arrived. Isaac barely appears in his own story. He’s far from the star of his own movie! In a handful of phrases, the Torah moves us from Abraham to Jacob, leaving Isaac in the dust.
Rashi’s opening comment on Tol’dot, paraphrasing a passage from Midrash Tanhuma, deepens the dilemma of Isaac. God, teaches Rashi, made Isaac’s facial features identical with Abraham’s. Isaac doesn’t even have his own face! Tol’dot does preserve a cycle of stories devoted to Isaac, but even a cursory glance at them reveals that they very closely resemble earlier tales told about Abraham. Moreover, that cycle, much like Isaac himself, is hemmed in by the much more compelling sagas of sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau which open and close this parashah.
Poor Isaac. No story, no face, no personality of his own. What do we do with him?
Eighteen years ago, I struggled with that question in preparing my senior sermon before ordination from JTS. Somehow, I knew intuitively that Isaac deserved better, and with the help of my teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg, z”l, and JTS’s world-class library, I sought out commentaries that might help me salvage Isaac’s reputation. Of all of the books I opened, only one served up what I sought, and it turned out to be a very interesting book indeed.
In 1632, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel published, in Spanish, a volume called Conciliador designed to reconcile apparent contradictions in the Hebrew Bible. R. Menasseh wrote for his own community, the children and grandchildren of Portugese Marranos, in an effort to bolster their newly recovered faith in classical Judaism. Fending off the critiques of early Bible criticism and skepticism, Menasseh responded with a bold and spirited defense of traditional Jewish teaching.
The Conciliador takes the form of questions, each of which presents an apparent scriptural contradiction, followed by responses, or reconciliations. Question number forty-eight juxtaposes Abraham’s naming of Beer Sheva with Isaac’s assignment of the same name to the same place. “Where Abraham gave the name to the city, how then does it subsequently say that it was given by Isaac?” Isaac’s story, that is, down to this very detail, is nothing more than a rerun of Abraham’s. Who needs it? What, if anything, does it add?
After working his way through a number of possible responses, R. Menasseh gets to his bottom line: “Abraham only gave the name to the place and site where he found the well, but Isaac gave it to the whole city . . . which reconciles the verses.” Isaac, in other words, actually did something distinct and original. He received what his father left behind and he built on it!
This “pale and schematic patriarch” emerges, upon close reading, as our tradition’s original inheritor. And in that capacity he has a lot to teach us. A careful look at the cycle of Isaac stories at the heart of Tol’dot (all of Gen. 26) brings to the surface a wonderfully nuanced vision of what it means to inherit. Isaac imitates the patterns of his father’s life; that’s step one. He moves on to conscious reclamation of lost, or hidden, elements of Abraham’s legacy, a process described by the Torah with the rich metaphor of digging old wells anew. And finally, Isaac receives the bequest called Beer Sheva and he enhances and enlarges it. Imitation, reclamation, creative expansion—these are the elusive messages of Isaac’s life.
Of course, we all inherit from those who’ve come before us. Isaac teaches us that a deep commitment to the path of our ancestors can lead us to our own truest selves, as long as we pursue that path with dedication and with an eye toward enhancing what we’ve received.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.