Parshat Toldot: The Unique Role of Yitzchak among the Patriarchs

And these are the offspring of Yitzchak the son of Avraham. Yitzchak gave birth to Yitzchak. Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka the daughter to Betuel of Aram, the sister of Lavan of Aram to himself as a wife. (Beresheit 25:19-20)

The Torah’s brevity in dealing with Yitzchak

The Torah’s account of the life of our first patriarch, Avraham, is the topic of three parshiyot (plural of parasha). The life of our third patriarch, Yaakov, is the topic of two parshiyot. The Torah’s account of the life of our second patriarch, Yitzchak, is limited to Parshat Toldot. Even in Yitzchak’s parasha, he shares the tableau with his son, Yaakov. The impression that the Torah treats Yitzchak primarily as a bridge between his father Avraham and his son Yaakov is reinforced by the opening passages of the parasha. The Torah announces its intention to describe the life of Yitzchak; the Torah opens its account by describing Yitzchak as the son of Avraham and then immediately describes the circumstances of the birth of his two sons, Yaakov and Esav.

The Torah’s account of Yitzchak’s life is limited to two incidents. The first incident is his resettlement in Gerar and the surrounding area and the resultant interactions with the people of the area and Avimelech their king. The second incident is his attempt to bless Esav and Rivka’s successful effort to divert the blessings from their intended recipient to Yaakov. We can understand the significance of this second incident. It impacted the future of the Jewish people. However, the message or importance of the first incident is less apparent. It seems odd that this incident should be one of the only two incidents from Yitzchak’s life described by the Torah! Clearly, a closer examination of this incident is required in order to identify its message.

There was a famine in the land aside from the first famine that was in the time of Avraham. And Yitzchak went to Avimelech, the King of the Pelishlim, to Gerar. (Beresheit 26:1)

Yitzchak’s resettlement in Gerar

The Torah tells us that the Land of Cana’an was stricken by a severe famine as had occurred in the time of Avraham. Yitzchak prepares to travel to Egypt to find relief. As Yitzchak is traveling to Egypt, he receives a prophecy. Hashem directs him to remain in the Land of Cana’an. His descendants will take possession of the Land as Hashem promised Avraham. In response to the prophecy Yitzchak remains in the Land and settles in Gerar.

The morality of the people of Gerar is suspect. Yitzchak decides to conceal that Rivka is his wife and claims that she is his sister. He is fearful that if their true relationship were known, a suitor might kill him in order to take Rivka. Overtime, this subterfuge is discovered by Avimelech the King. Avimelech rebukes Yitzchak for his deceit and warns the people of his land to not harm Yitzchak or Rivka.

Despite the continuation of the famine, Yitzchak has a remarkably successful harvest. Hashem blesses him with prosperity. As he prospers the local population – the Pelishtim – becomes increasingly jealous. Wells that Avraham had dug in the region are filled with by the Pelishtim. Avimelech asks Yitzchak to move away.

Yitzchak agrees to Avimelech’s request. He moves-on. However, he re-digs the wells of his father and restores to each the name that Avraham had assigned to it. He adds other wells to these wells. The first two wells he digs are the focus of controversy. The Pelishtim dispute the right of Yitzchak and his shepherds to the water from these wells and insist that they have the primary right to the water. Yitzchak gives each of these wells a name that reflects strife and conflict. He is persistent and digs a third well. The Pelishtim to not dispute this well and Yitzchak gives this well a name reflecting tranquility and Hashem’s providence.

Yitzchak settles in Be’er Sheva. Here, he has another prophecy. Hashem tells him to not fear because He is with him because of his covenant with Avraham. Yitzchak constructs an altar and assumes Avraham’s role of teaching humanity.

Avimelech travels to Be’er Sheva and asks Yitzchak to enter into a treaty with him. Yitzchak agrees. Yitzchak then digs another well that he names Shiva.

There are many strange elements to this account. However, we will focus on two of them. In the first part of this narrative, the Torah seems to suggest a comparison between Avraham and Yitzchak. Both are confronted with famine. Both decide to travel to Egypt to secure relief. Yitzchak does not complete the trip and instead settles in Gerar. In Gerar, he is confronted with the identical problem encountered by Avraham when he traveled to Egypt and later in his life when he settled in Gerar. Both were afraid that as the husbands of beautiful women, their lives were in danger. Both solved the problem through identical strategies; they described their wives as their sisters.

Yitzchak’s emulation of Avraham

The impression made by these passages is that when confronted with a series of practical dilemmas, Yitzchak did not attempt to develop new and original solutions. Instead, he relied upon the wisdom of his father. In each instance, his decision was to adopt the strategy of his father. Apparently, the Torah is telling us something important about Yitzchak’s character. However, the lesson is not yet apparent.

In the next series of incidents, the Torah describes the successes and the challenges that came upon Yitzchak. These experiences are very different from those of his father. Avraham and Yitzchak both prospered in Gerar. Avraham became increasingly welcomed and respected. His fame and influence was acknowledged by Avimelech who asked Avraham to enter into a treaty with him. Yitzchak also prospered. But his success was greeted with jealousy and opposition. Avimelech chased him out of Gerar and his expulsion was followed by a prolonged period of strife with the local inhabitants. But the most notable contrast between Yitzchak and his father was in their role as teachers. Avraham adopted the mission of teaching others with his arrival in Cana’an. According to our Sages, he actually began teaching even before reaching Cana’an. Yitzchak only belatedly assumed this role. Only after achieving some level of acceptance among the local population and an assurance from Hashem that He would protect him did Yitzchak assume the role of teacher. This contrast is all the more remarkable given Yitzchak’s reliance of Avraham as a model for his own behavior!

The divergence in the personalities of Avraham and Yitzchak

Yitzchak’s delay is taking-on the role of teacher provides an important insight into his personality. Yitzchak waited until he was accepted by the people and assured by Hashem that he should not fear before establishing himself as their teacher. Avraham did not wait for acceptance and needed no assurance. He found the truth and immediately began his life-mission of sharing that truth with others. Avraham was not only a sage. He was also a perceptive and shrewd student of human nature. He was confident in his ability to reach others and to impact their convictions. He had a truth to share with humanity and he developed strategies and practices to facilitate his work. Yitzchak was a sage. Perhaps, building upon the discoveries of his father, he added to the body of knowledge handed down to him by his father Avraham. But he did not perceive in himself his father’s understanding of human nature, or his shrewdness in dealing with others. Avraham taught others with the confidence that he could shape their opinions – even their perceptions of him. Yitzchak taught those who were prepared to accept him as a sage. But their acceptance of him preceded his assumption of the role as their teacher.

Avraham’s facility in understanding people and reaching them led to his rapid ascent in Gerar. Yitzchak achieved Avraham’s success and even a comparable level of acceptance. However, he did not achieve these through his astute insight into human character; he achieved his success and acceptance through sheer tenacity. The Pelishtim attempted to forget Avraham and the lessons he had taught them. They filled his wells, attempting to erase his legacy. Yitzchak re-dug the wells and returned to them the names assigned by Avraham. He dug a well and the Pelishtim fought with him over it. He dug a new well. When they disputed his right to this well, he dug a third. Ultimately, his repeated successes could no longer be ignored. The Pelishtim abandoned their campaign and accepted Yitzchak’s success as an expression of Divine providence. With this acceptance, Yitzchak realized that his time had come to continue Avraham’s mission; he erected an altar and began teaching. Ultimately, even Avimelech who had expelled Yitzchak from Gerar was forced to accept Yitzchak as Avraham’s spiritual heir and to acknowledge that the providence that permeated Avraham’s life extended to his son.

Now, Yitzchak’s wisdom in emulating his father’s responses to famine and danger can be appreciated. Too often a scholar is intoxicated by his own wisdom. A master in one field, he imagines himself a sage in areas of knowledge in which he has no expertise. Yitzchak understood his own greatness, but he also appreciated that in his deep understanding of the complicated workings of the practical world and human nature, his father was the true master. Yitzchak accepted his father’s example as his guide and adopted the strategies developed by his father as his own.

When Yitzchak became aged his vision dulled. He called to Esav his elder son and he said to him: Here I am. (Beresheit 27:1)

Yitzchak’s attempt to bless Esav

The Torah’s description of these events is an essential prelude to its presentation of a second event in Yitzchak’s life – his failed attempt to bless Esav and the diversion of the blessings to Yaakov. The Torah tells us that Yitzchak preferred Esav and that the greater portion of Rivka’s love was directed towards Yaakov. Yitzchak decided to bless his beloved son Esav. The ensuing events are well known and require only a brief review.

Rivka persuades Yaakov to disguise himself as Esav and to divert his father’s blessings to himself. Yaakov is successful in executing his mother’s strategy. Esav discovers his father’s error and implores him to bestow a blessing upon him. Yitzchak protests that he has no further blessings to distribute. However in response to Esav’s anguish, he does bless him. Rivka realizes that Esav’s anger places Yaakov in dander and she persuades Yitzchok to send Yaakov away to the home of her bother Lavan.

Many aspects of this account are troubling. However, there are two questions that stand out. First, the previous incident provided a basic delineation of Yitzchak’s strengths and his limitations. With that account we can understand his failure to fully comprehend Esav’s character and the full breadth and depth of his flaws. However, it is more difficult to explain his perspective on Yaakov. How could he not recognize Yaakov’s greatness? Why would he wish to bless Esav rather than Yaakov?

Second, the dialogue between Yitzchak and Esav is confusing. Esav beseeches his father to bless him. Yitzchak protests that he has no additional blessing to bestow. However, when pressed he does come up with a blessing. What changed that allowed Yitzchak to bless Esav? Furthermore, Yitzchak’s protest that he had no further blessings is contradicted by the blessing that he apparently held in reserve and only bestowed upon Yaakov before his departure for Lavan’s home.

Yitzchak’s understanding of the blessings and his design for their distribution

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that Yitzchak fully appreciated Yaakov’s greatness and his superiority over his brother Esav. The last blessing – held in reserve – was the blessing of Avraham. This blessing was to be bestowed upon the son who would continue Avraham’s mission and posses the Land of Israel. Yitzchak never doubted that Yaakov was the spiritual giant of his sons and that this blessing was his destiny. However, Yitzchak believed that Esav was the appropriate recipient of a blessing that would bestow material success and even conquest. According to Sforno, Yitzchak believed that the distribution to these two blessings to their appropriate recipients created the best possible outcome for each. Yaakov would assume the role of spiritual leader unburdened by the distractions of dealing with the material world. Esav would assume responsibility for confronting and overcoming the mundane challenges of material existence. He would be a conqueror and ruler and he would benevolently care for his younger brother and free him from the distractions of the mundane. [1] In other words, Yitzchak attempted to create for Yaakov the life we would imagine that Yitzchak would have desired for himself.

Rivka was a shrewder judge of human character and she did not trust Esav to be the benevolent ruler envisioned by Yitzchak. Therefore, she disrupted Yitzchak’s plan and diverted the material blessing to Yaakov and away from Esav.

The blessing received by Esav

Sforno’s explanation of Yitzchak’s reasoning explains his initial response to Esav – his insistence that he had no blessing to give him. Yitzchak had not envisioned a blessing whose sole end was material success. He conceived of a spiritual blessing. This was the blessing of Avraham that he gave to Yaakov. He also conceived of a blessing of material success and conquest for the purpose of supporting and nurturing Yaakov’s spiritual development. This is the blessing he had intended to bestow upon Esav. But Yitzchak recognized that Divine providence had assisted Rivka and the diversion of this blessing to Yaakov only occurred because he had been mistaken in his assessment of Esav. Esav would not use material success and conquest to nurture spiritual growth – not Yaakov’s and not even his own. A blessing of material success without a spiritual end was not envisioned by Yitzchak. Neither could he imagine the value of such a blessing. Therefore, when Esav pleaded with Yitzchak to bless him, Yitzchak could not imagine an appropriate blessing. Only after Evav insisted that his father reconsider did Yitzchak realize that he could bestow a blessing on his son Esav. It was not the type of blessing that Yitzchak had ever considered as worthwhile or of value. But it was a blessing that he belatedly recognized as appropriate for Esav – a purely material blessing devoid of any spiritual objective.

Now, Yitzchak’s role as a bridge between Avraham and Yaakov can be appreciated. Avraham was the first patriarch and he discovered the truth that would become the foundation of a new nation. Yaakov designed the structure of this nation. He intimately understood the character, strengths and weaknesses of each of his twelve sons. He organized them into the forerunners of a nation that would optimize these strengths and minimize the failings. Between these two giants Yitzchak existed served as a bridge. His greatness and conquests were in the spiritual realm. He was the patriarch that embodied complete devotion to Hashem uncompromised by the distractions of the mundane. This super-human dedication allowed him to nurture, develop, and transmit to his son Yaakov the truths of his father Avraham. But the very source of his greatness – his total, absolute devotion to the spiritual – made him inappropriate for the more practical responsibility of nation builder to be assumed by Yaakov.

1. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Bereseheit 27:29.

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