Isaac: the mediocre patriarch

by | Oct 25, 2013 | Torah Thought

Almost the entire career of our Father Isaac is recorded in parashat Toledot. It begins, “V’ele toledot Yitschak ben Avraham; Avraham holid et Yitschak.” (“Now, this is the story of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham sired Isaac.”) Other than his birth and early childhood, his near sacrifice, his meeting and marrying Rebecca and, much later, his death, every episode in Isaac’s life is related in parashat Toledot. This is a considerably shorter set of narratives than those featuring his father, Abraham, or his son, Jacob. The Torah devotes many more parashiyyot to the other two patriarchs than to the middle one. A case has often been made for Isaac being simply the place holder between his much more actively involved father and son.

Please do not misunderstand me. I continue to give Isaac the respect due to one of our three great patriarchs. Yet, I cannot but wonder at the relatively small amount of text devoted to his life and activities. The classical rabbis praise him in comparison to his two peers as the only patriarch who did not feel the need to leave the territory which would later become the land of Israel. Isaac’s connection to the Holy Land was so strong that he lived his entire life within its boundaries. We have been taught to admire him greatly for the strength of his bond to the Land. Yet, we read the Torah text which refers to the only occasion when Isaac might have had need to travel abroad and find that the decision was made for him. Parallel to the episode in Abraham’s life, a famine came to Canaan. Abraham chose to take his wife, Sarah, to Egypt in order to find food to eat. Isaac, under similar circumstances, was specifically instructed by God not to leave Canaan but to go only as far as Gerar to find sustenance. He followed God’s command and did not leave the country. For his compliance, God renewed the Abrahamic Covenant with Isaac and rewarded him with wealth and possessions.

After leaving Gerar, Isaac moved his camp to a series of locations. At each new place, his servants dug a well only to have the water source disputed by the followers of the king of Gerar. Rather than create an incident, Isaac moved his camp. Finally, he reached a place at which the ownership of his newly dug well was not disputed. Seeing that Isaac always did well no matter how much was taken from him, the king of Gerar proposed a treaty between the two of them. Isaac was perceived as the chosen favorite of a powerful God and to oppose him could prove dangerous. We read in the Torah that Isaac avoided conflict over water rights and then agreed to a treaty with a potential enemy that benefitted that enemy more than it would himself.

At a certain age, Isaac’s eyesight began to fail. Again, reading the Torah text, we understand that he began to behave as a total invalid, rarely even leaving his tent. It is possible that his bodily strength also began to wane, but the text says nothing of this. More likely, the timidity exhibited in other episodes of his life continued to reign over his actions, making him hesitant to attempt any semblance of a normal life. This attitude leads directly into the famous story of Jacob’s impersonation of his brother, Esau. Jacob’s purpose was to receive the paternal blessing, which would bring with it the leadership of the clan. Even on this occasion, Isaac declines to act on the suspicion that the young man presenting himself as Esau was actually Jacob “in sheep’s clothing.” All in all, a close reading of the Torah favors viewing Isaac as an ineffective leader who allows others to manipulate him, molding the paths his life takes. Perhaps God protects him from harm precisely because Isaac is incapable of taking care of himself.

In early November, we shall once again make our ways to our polling places and vote for new leaders. This is an “off-year” election so we shall not be voting for a new president, but many important state and city officials will be chosen by the electorate. If you are anything like me, you will go and vote because it is both a privilege and a responsibility in the great democracy of the United States of America. For our entire lives, we have been told of the importance of voting; expressing our opinions and preferences as to where we wish our government officials to guide us. If we do not vote, we opt out of the process and, therefore, do not really have any business commenting on the course of governmental policy.

Even more so, if you are anything like me, you are becoming more and more despondent over elections in this country and their results. There is a virtual litany of negatives associated with the electoral process. Primarily, there is a lack of acceptable candidates. For more years than I care to remember, I have been dissatisfied with all the candidates and am left to vote against the one I dislike more rather than voting for a candidate for whom I have real respect. These nominees frequently propose inadequate or incredible platforms, which are unlikely ever to be successfully implemented. Sometimes they represent ideas which are so distressing as to be an embarrassment. Experience now tells us that, regardless of who is elected, the same old crippling special interest groups will prevent any effective positive change anyway. It is as if those who occupy office are just that—people who come to work each day (if they are not on extended vacations) and barely keep things going.

The political system we have may still be the best in the world but it is so very far from achieving its potential. Isaac held the fort for one generation between Abraham and Jacob without coming up with any positive innovations. We have been experiencing that kind of stagnation or worse for too many political administrations for us to tolerate without speaking up. We must continue to perform our civic duty by voting. We must continue to participate in the process. But we need to go so much further than that. We need to put ourselves forward and find leaders who are capable of making positive strides toward real progress in our country and who will have the courage and integrity to rid the system of the special interests whose greed endangers our people and the peoples of the world. Then, perhaps, Isaac’s blessing of his son, Jacob, will become ours as well; “V’yitten l’kha ha’Elohim mittal hashamayim umishmaney ha’arets v’rov daggan v’tirosh”. (May God give you the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.”) See you at the polls!

—Cantor Gordon Piltch, Congregation Beth El