Dialogue on Isaac
Toldot | Genesis 25:19-28:9
Student: Teacher, what is the point of Isaac? Abraham was the first Jew. Jacob became Israel. Why bother with Isaac?
Teacher: Maybe just because he existed; as the bridge generation between Abraham and Jacob, the Torah had to include him.
Student: But the Torah often leaves things out. Last week’s parsha, for example, was called “Life of Sarah,” but it said virtually nothing about Sarah’s life. The Torah always reports selectively. So it cannot be accidental that Toldot begins, “These are the generations of Isaac.” Why “Isaac,” who, truth be told, is easily forgettable? The Torah even says next, “Abraham bore Isaac,” as if it assumes we need reminding.
Teacher: Come on, who could forget Isaac? What about the Akeda, the binding of Isaac? How many people are almost sacrificed by their father?
Student: Actually, the Torah overlooks that point altogether here. It tells us, “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” but not how old he was at the time of the Akeda.
Teacher: Maybe recollecting the Akeda was just too traumatic. Better to move on to Isaac’s marriage and the birth of Jacob.
Student: But teacher, we spend every Rosh Hashana remembering the Akeda. Had our tradition wanted just to move on, we would have some other Rosh Hashana reading. No, in some way even “easily forgettable” Isaac must be important enough to warrant saying, “These are the generations of Isaac.” Why?
Teacher: The rabbis asked that very question — so do what they did. Read on. Let the Torah provide its own answer.
Student: There isn’t much to read. After finding out that “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” we get nothing of importance.
Student: Nothing. Only that “Isaac prayed to God because his wife could not become pregnant,” and then, that he gets rich and settles in a comfortable oasis — like someone today who prospers and moves to a fancy uptown address.
Teacher: You call that nothing?
Student: Compared to Abraham and Jacob, who are monumentally heroic? Abraham intercedes to save the whole city of Sodom. Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder connecting heaven to earth. How important, by comparison, is praying for your wife, going into business, or moving to a new neighborhood?
Teacher: You miss the point. Isaac’s story matters precisely because of its ordinariness. Of all our patriarchs, only Isaac is a real person with real problems. The Akeda teaches him how little we human beings are in charge of our lives, and how much of life we spend simply trying to muddle through. Sure, his business prospers, but look at his record as a husband and father. He lies about Rebekah in order to save his life, and he gives his blessing to the wrong son.
Still, he loves his wife enough to pray for children on her account — better than Abraham, by the way, who prayed for a child only so he could become a father of multitudes. And upon hearing the unlikely news that Sarah will finally become pregnant, Abraham laughs; he should have cried, either for joy on Sarah’s behalf or (if he didn’t believe it) out of sympathy for her anguish. Isaac, by contrast, feels Rebekah’s pain and puts aside everything to pray for her.
Then years later, he messes up the blessings. He is properly aghast, however, and when Esau cries out for at least some blessing, Isaac duly provides it. Isaac is any of us on our death bed, looking back at the messy business of trying to be human.
Real people love, but make mistakes; they alternately succeed, then fail, then try again. Isaac is you and me, consumed with life’s day-to-day struggles. He is imperfect, but his very imperfection supports the Torah’s claim that we are indeed “the generations of Isaac.”