2017-11-08 / Religion Column

The vital role ‘Isaacs’ play in Jewish life

Temple Sinai

Parshiot Chayei Sarah
and Toldot
Gen. 23:1-28:9

The most memorable sermon I ever heard was never delivered. Approaching my bar mitzvah, which fell on last week’s sedra, Vayeira, my father described to me a talk he was considering for the occasion. Referring to Abraham’s two servant boys, who travel with Abraham and Isaac to the Akedah, but are left to watch the donkey as the two patriarchs ascend Mount Moriah to meet their appointment with destiny, my father delivered the punch-line: “When great events are transpiring, don’t be left behind with the donkey!”

Ironically, the same milquetoast nebbish-ness so neatly captured in that phrase seems to aptly describe the life of Isaac himself, which mostly plays out over the upcoming pair of sidrot, Chayei Sarah (in shuls Nov. 11) and Toldot (Nov.18). As generations of commentators have noted, Isaac seems to be a passive bystander even in the events of his own life:

Although not left back with the donkey, Isaac is the sheep of the Akedah, at least until replaced by an actual sheep (a ram). Isaac is nowhere mentioned in connection with the burial of his mother Sarah, and his only role in the epic tale of finding his own wife Rebecca is that she falls off her camel on first catching sight of him. In his middle years, Isaac almost exclusively repeats Abraham’s deeds: Going to Philistine territory to escape famine; presenting his wife as a sister; seeing her taken into the harem of the Philistine king Avimelech; even literally re-digging Abraham’s wells. A notable exception is that where Abraham proactively sent his servant Eliezer back to his family home to find a suitable wife for his son, Isaac is meekly embittered by the Hittite wives of his son Esau. In case we missed the contrast, the Torah notes that Esau married at 40 years old--the same age as Isaac!-- and the midrash makes it starker still with a story about Abraham influencing his own wayward elder son Ishmael to divorce an inhospitable first wife and replace her with a more satisfactory partner for a son of Abraham. Finally, we see the elderly Isaac blind and bedridden, readily deceived and manipulated by his wife and son. Where Abraham and Jacob in their primes are powerful men who create their own destinies, Isaac is a football kicked around by fate.

Elie Wiesel, in his book “Messengers of God,” unsubtly calls Isaac a “Survivor,” and furthers the analogy by mentioning that Isaac was to be sacrificed as an ‘olah (burnt offering), using the classical translation, “holocaust.” He labels Isaac “the most tragic figure in Biblical history.” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in his “Biblical Images,” describes Isaac’s personality as an echo--existing only in reaction to more affirmative action. In my brother-in-law Rabbi Zvi Grumet’s truly excellent new book “Genesis: From Creation to Covenant,” he writes that Isaac’s name, signifying laughter, suits him because “he is a living example of the absurd.” The Kabbalah identifies Isaac with the sefirah of Din (punishing judgment) and the color blood red.

Yet, we venerate Isaac as a patriarch on equal terms with his father Abraham and his son Jacob. We invoked his merit recently as we prayed for rain in its season. Isaac may be associated in Kabbalah with a stern aspect of the Godhead, but Isaac is associated with an aspect of the Godhead! He represents a major facet of the Divine “personality.”

Rabbi Grumet writes that if Abraham is an archetype of the revolutionary leader whose ideas change the world, Isaac is the archetype of the stable maintainer and transmitter who ensures that those ideas can sink roots and flourish. In my view, few of us--few in history--can be Abrahamic innovators, or Jacobs wresting concessions from angels and men to alter the destiny of nations. But each of us in our private lives can be an Isaac who nurtures and transmits our tradition from generation to generation. s

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