The Chronicles of Isaac
As the first verse of the parasha indicates, this week's Torah reading concentrates on the chronicles of Isaac. This parasha is actually the only one in which Isaac is the focus and major character. Last week's reading, parashat Chayei Sara, revolved, indeed, around finding Isaac a wife, but Isaac himself takes the backstage to Abraham's servant. Next week's reading, parashat Vayeitzeh, concentrates on Jacob's sojourn in Charan. Thus, parashat Toldot remains the only parasha which can be said to be concentrating on Isaac. Of the three patriarchs, Isaac gets by far the least coverage in the Torah. We would thus expect to at least get a significant amount of information about Isaac from his parasha, parashat Toldot. However, if we analyze the content of parashat Toldot we will find that even this modest expectation is not met.
Our parasha begins as follows: "These are the chronicles of Isaac, son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac." How does the Torah choose to begin recounting the story of Isaac? It doesn't list the children of Isaac or recount his life story but rather mentions his father, Abraham! Moreover, this verse is needlessly repetitive. The first clause already states that Isaac is the son of Abraham. What does the Torah add by restating that "Abraham begot Isaac?" The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) and Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) explain that the repetition is to stress that Isaac is the only real successor to Abraham. The rest of his children are not part of the divine covenant. Isaac is therefore the only son mentioned in our verse. The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) interprets the word "holid" (begot) to mean "to bring up and raise" (see Genesis 50:23). According to this interpretation, the second clause of our verse should not be translated as "Abraham begot Isaac" but rather "Abraham raised Isaac." This explanation helps us overcome the problem of repetition in our verse, but it does not explain why this information appears in the beginning of the recounting of the chronicles of Isaac. We would expect it to appear in the chronicles of Abraham. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) cites a homiletical explanation of our sages: "Since the text wrote 'Isaac the son of Abraham' it was necessary to state that 'Abraham begot Isaac' for the scorners of the generation were saying that Sarah conceived from Avimelekh (see 20:2), since for many years she had lived with Abraham and did not conceive from him. What did God do? He formed the features of Isaac's face so similar to that of Abraham's that everyone attested that 'Abraham begot Isaac.'" The Torah, according to this midrash, hints to the physical similarity between Abraham and Isaac. The Radak offers a similar explanation with a slight variation. Isaac was, like Abraham, exceedingly honest, trustworthy and goodhearted, so that all would say "Abraham begot Isaac." It was not physical likeness, but rather similarity in personality and behavior which made it clear to all that "Abraham begot Isaac." We will return to this explanation later.
Not only the first verse but the entire parasha provides us with sparingly little information regarding Isaac. The beginning of the parasha concentrates on the birth of Jacob and Esau, and Esau's selling his birthright to Jacob for lentil stew (25:22-34). The parasha concludes with Jacob's guilefully receiving his father's blessing instead of Esau (chapter 27). The framework, the beginning and end of what was supposed to be Isaac's parasha, deals with Isaac's offspring, Jacob and Esau. We are left with only one chapter, 26, to describe all of Isaac's lifework! This compares with twelve chapters which cover Abraham's lifestory (chapters 12-23) and at least eight which document Jacob (chapters 28-35)! What information does the Torah reveal to us about Isaac in chapter 26?
The chapter covers Isaac's years amongst the Philistines and describes his struggles and his material growth during this period. God first appears to him during the famine and commands him not to go down to Egypt but rather to dwell in the land of Israel. As you read the following text, pay attention to the rationale which God gives for this commandment.
26:1. There was a famine in the land - aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham, - and Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar.
2. The Lord had appeared to him and said, "Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you.
3. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.
4. I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs.
5. All this is because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My decrees and My laws.
The repeated mention of Abraham's name, three times in a span of five verses, is striking. First, in verse 1, while describing the onset of famine, the Torah stresses that this was a different famine from the famine of the days of Abraham. (The commentators struggle with the necessity of the Torah's mentioning this seemingly superfluous fact. See the Rashbam, Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, Provence, 1160-1235), and Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274)). In verse 3, God connects the demand that Isaac remain in Israel with His oath to Abraham; God's promise of the land to Abraham is the reason for the prohibition of Isaac's going down to Egypt. God's promise to multiply Isaac's seed and give the land of Israel to his offspring is then explained in verse 5. It is not due to Isaac's merit, to his good deeds or loyalty to God. Isaac's merit stems solely from Abraham's adherence to God's commandments. It is as if Isaac has no merit of his own! God's whole relationship with Isaac is based on the merit of his father.
Fascinatingly, not only is the rationale for Isaac's remaining in Israel based on Abraham, Isaac's experiences themselves uncannily parallel those of his father. Isaac, like Abraham, dwells in Gerar amongst Abimelech and the Philistines. Like Abraham, he fears being killed by natives desiring his beautiful wife and therefore lies, claiming that his wife is actually his sister (compare 26:7 with 20:2,11). Both Abraham and Isaac are reproached by king Abimelech for having lied and both give similar justifications (compare 26:9,10 with 20:9-11). The parallels between the two extend far beyond this one episode. Compare the following two texts. How many similarities can you find?
And Abimelech came to him from Gerar, with Achuzzat his councilor and Pikhol chief of his troops. Isaac said to them, "Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from you?" And they said, "We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you, and we thought: Let there be a sworn treaty between our two parties, between you and us. Let us make a pact with you that you will not do us harm, just as we have not molested you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace. From now on, be you blessed of the Lord!" Then he made for them a feast, and they ate and drank. Early in the morning, they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace. That same day Isaac's servants came and told him about the well they had dug, and said to him, "We have found water!" He named it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.
At that time Abimelech and Pikhol, chief of his troops, said to Abraham, "God is with you in everything that you do. Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my kith and kin, but will deal with me and with the land in which you have sojourned as loyally as I have dealt with you." And Abraham said, "I swear it." Then Abraham reproached Abimelech for the well of water which the servants of Abimelech had seized. But Abimelech said, "I do not know who did this; you did not tell me, nor have I heard of it until today." Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them made a pact. Abraham then set seven ewes of the flock by themselves, and Abimelech said to Abraham, "What mean these seven ewes which you have set apart?" He replied, "You are to accept these seven ewes from me as proof that I dug this well." Hence that place was called Beer-sheba ("well of an oath") for there the two of them swore an oath. When they had concluded the pact at Beer-sheba, Abimelech and Pikhol, chief of his troops, departed and returned to the land of the Philistines.
In both cases, Abimelech and his general, Pikhol, the highest officials of Gerar, approach our patriarchs requesting a treaty. The explanation given by the Philistines for these initiatives are basically identical: "God is with you in all that you do"(21:22) and "We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you" (26:28). Once the Philistines recognized the greatness of Abraham and Isaac and understood that they were recipients of divine favor, they concluded that it was in their best interests to have a treaty with them. Both Abraham and Isaac take an oath to keep the treaty with the Philistines and in both cases the treaty is made in the same location, Beer-sheba. Same place, same king and general, same event with only one minor change - Isaac replaces Abraham.
As already mentioned, chapter 26 not only describes Isaac's struggles with the Philistines but also his industriousness and his consequent affluence. The Torah describes Isaac's success in agriculture in verse 12. "Isaac farmed in the area. That year he reaped a hundred times [as much as he sowed]], for God had blessed him." Although Abraham was mainly a shepherd, Isaac's entry into agriculture seems to have nevertheless been foreshadowed by his father. "[Abraham] planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba"(21:33). It would seem that, here to, Isaac was just expanding a tendency already present in Abraham.
As with Abraham (21:25), Isaac was also in constant conflict with the Philistines over well ownership and water rights. "He [Isaac] redug the wells that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, which had been plugged up by the Philistines after Abraham's death. He gave them the same names that his father had given them (26:18)." Isaac redigs the wells which his father had dug and also calls them by the same names. This is very symbolic of Isaac's essence. He is constantly walking in the footsteps of his father. This is not only with regard to physical material ventures. God appears before Isaac a second time in our chapter while Isaac is in Beer-sheba: "God appeared to him that night and said, "I am God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bless you and grant you very many descendants because of My servant Abraham. [Isaac] built an altar and called in God's name (26:24-25)." God reveals himself to Isaac as the God of Abraham and, once again, promises to bless Isaac "because of Abraham my servant." The language used by scripture to describe Isaac's worship of God is practically identical to that used in regard to Abraham: "He [Abraham] built an altar there and called in God's name (12:8)." This is of course not incidental. The Torah uses the same terminology in order to stress the interconnectedness of the actions of the different patriarchs. Isaac continues the intimate relationship forged between God and Abraham. He builds a similar alter and calls out, like his father, to God.
The Torah's treatment of Isaac may be summarized as follows:
1. Isaac receives far less coverage than the other patriarchs
2. Chapter 26, the only chapter in which Isaac is actually the focus, is inundated with references to Abraham. The opening verse of "the chronicles of Isaac" reverts to Abraham who "begot Isaac." In both of God's revelations to Isaac the rationale given for God's blessing of Isaac is Abraham's merit. In addition the events of Isaac's life which are recounted by the Torah bare a striking resemblance to events in Abraham's life.
What is the explanation for these phenomena? I believe the two points are related. The reason for the paucity of information regarding Isaac is that there is actually very little to tell. Isaac did not generate any new ideas or set any new direction. The dominant presence of Abraham in Isaac's narrative and the similarity of Isaac's narrative to Abraham's inform us that Isaac is essentially a continuation of Abraham. Abraham was a creative giant, an iconoclast who broke away from his society and etched out a new direction, a new faith. Isaac did not strike off in a new direction but rather faithfully continued his father's heritage. He was able to deepen, preserve and consolidate the spiritual inheritance of Abraham and Sarah.
This characteristic of Isaac might be the key to understanding one of the unique aspects of his life. Unlike Abraham and Jacob who spent prolonged periods in Diaspora, Isaac never left the land of Israel. In contrast to Jacob who goes to Babylon in search for a wife (28:1-2), it is Abraham's servant who brings Isaac a wife (chapter 24). As opposed to Abraham who goes down to Egypt during the famine (12:10), Isaac is commanded to remain in the land of Israel (26:1-2). He is deeply rooted in the land and scenery of Israel. In contrast to the other patriarchs who were primarily shepherds, Isaac is the first to engage intensively in agriculture. Torah relates that Isaac loves Esau because he had a "taste for game (hunting)"(25:28). As Abraham's servant returns with Rebekka, we read that "Isaac went out walking (or meditating) in the FIELD toward evening(24:63). Isaac is a real outdoorsman, a nature lover. He worships God out in the fields (see Rashi 24:63). He connects to God through nature and, more particularly, through the sights of the land of Israel.
However, Isaac's remaining in Israel does not stem only from the nature of his religious character; It stems from the essence of his personality. Isaac represents stability and continuity. His life reflects these attributes. In contrast to the tumultuous lives led by Abraham and Jacob, Isaac lives his whole life securely in Israel. The permanence of his dwelling symbolize the stability of his character. Isaac acquires a certain peace and tranquillity which none of the other patriarchs enjoyed and which have been the aspiration of so many generations of Jews. He lives 180 years, longer than the other patriarchs. His name, Isaac, stems from the root 'tzachak' (laughter) and symbolizes his contentedness.
There are those whose power stems from creativity and who strive on tension. This might be the case with the other patriarchs. Isaac's greatness is of a different nature. It is rooted in stability and in the continuation of the tradition he inherited from his father. Isaac was not only similar to Abraham in appearance or in behavior and character. Isaac's whole life is a direct continuation of Abraham's. "These are the chronicles of Isaac, son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac."