The Flaws of Our Ancestors

Toledot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 13, 1993 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

As Jews, we revere our ancestors not because they were perfect, but because they are ours. Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob are portrayed by the Torah as men without flaws, or saints who could do no wrong. They exhibit the warts and weaknesses we recognize in ourselves. What sets them apart, rather, is the nobility and courage of their convictions as evinced in moments of luminous insight and supreme self-denial.

But such moments also take their toll. Isaac never seems to recover from his binding at the hands of his father. Abraham may have passed the divine test at Moriah, but Isaac’s religious growth is permanently stunted. In a mystifying omission, the Torah reports after the aborted sacrifice that only “Abraham then returned to his servants (Genesis 22:19).” On the way to Moriah, the Torah stated on two separate occasions that father and son walked together, as if to stress their unity of purpose (Gen. 22:6, 8). Yet once the ordeal is over, the Torah omits to tell us that Isaac accompanied his father home. Did he flee from the scene in terror and incredulity? It is the kind of narrative gap that begs for reader participation.

Curiously, we are told later that the name by which God was known to Isaac is “the Fear of Isaac,” a name of God not found elsewhere in the Torah (Gen. 31:42). Does the nomenclature suggest that Isaac knew God only as a demonic presence, a source of dread, as God surely must have appeared to him at Moriah?

The Torah offers only the most fragmentary data about Isaac, which are all strikingly bereft of spirituality. Indeed, they point to a man who, having faced death early, lusted for life ever after. The Torah, for example, goes out of its way to report that Isaac loved Rebekah after she became his wife (Gen. 24:67). And a bit later Isaac is even caught fondling Rebekah in public, to the dismay of Abimelech, king of the Philistines, who had been led to believe by Isaac that she was his sister (Gen. 26:8).

A tantalizing aside informs us that when Rebekah came into Isaac’s life she filled the void left by the death of Sarah: “Isaac loved her (i.e. Rebekah), and thus found comfort after his mother’s death (Gen. 24:67).” Had Sarah replaced Abraham as the more important parent in Isaac’s life after the near fatal encounter at Moriah? Did Isaac prefer the warmth of a loving mother to the impenetrable behavior of a stern father?

What we do know from this week’s parasha is that “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, while Rebekah favored Jacob (Gen. 25:28).” It is the more virile, robust, and adventurous of his two sons that Isaac showers with attention. Unlike Rebekah, he is oblivious to the divine wish that the religious legacy of Abraham pass through the line of Jacob. Again, I am struck by the unspiritual character of Isaac, for whom pleasure takes precedence over piety, an image reinforced by the wealth he amassed as a farmer in Gerar.

The blindness of which the Torah speaks in Isaac’s old age, which allows Jacob, at Rebekah’s instigation, to steal Esau’s blessing, is therefore not just a physical infirmity of old age, but also a lifelong aversion to matters spiritual (Gen. 27:1). Rashi agrees that this condition goes back to his experience on the altar. As he lay there awaiting his fate, the heavens parted and the angels beheld the ghostly sight. The tears they shed in anguish fell on Isaac’s eyes and dulled his vision for life. Rashi’s comment, I think, is intended to explain the permanent damage done to Isaac by his father’s religious zeal. For the rest of his life he chose to make his home in the temporal realm. True to his name, Yitzhak (“he shall laugh”) wanted to enjoy life.

It discomforts me to draw this sketch of Isaac, for I bear his name! But the real hero of this ancestral saga is Rebekah, who displays an unfailing religious sensibility throughout. Her quick acceptance of the invitation to marry Isaac from a total stranger bespeaks a full awareness of God’s hand in the remarkable events at the well (Gen. 24:58). In the midst of a difficult pregnancy, with twins in her womb, she turns to inquire of God herself, without benefit of any intermediary (Gen. 25:22). And Rebekah rises to protect Jacob because she alone senses that religious leadership in the family ought not to be the exclusive prerogative of the first-born son. Her advocacy marks a brave first step toward opening the ranks of religious leadership to all who are religiously qualified.

A close reading of this artful narrative will reveal an unexpected and decidedly sympathetic view of Esau. While the narrator knows that Jacob must be the heir to Abraham’s covenant with God, he can hardly conceal his compassion for Esau who is unjustifiably deprived, in human terms, of his father’s blessing. Jacob has by now wronged his brother twice, and in a crescendo of laments by Esau, we are made to feel the victim’s pain.

The story unfolds simultaneously on two levels. The divinely guided history of Abraham’s clan is predetermined and quite indifferent to individual virtue or suffering. Ineluctably Esau is felled by a design beyond his ken or control. And yet the author cannot help but identify with the suffering of those unfavored by history. God’s moral economy does not always correlate with our human sense of justice. To recount this story from both the divine and human perspectives, at one and the same time, is the mark of a truly great writer and profoundly religious mind.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tol’dot are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.