PARASHAT TOLDOT

Torah Genesis 25:19-28:9

Haftorah Malachi 1:1-2:7

 

 

“Abraham begot Yitzchak

 

And these are the generations of Yitzchak, son of Abraham; Abraham begot Yitzchak. (Bereshit 25:19)

 

This verse introduces the parashat, focusing us on the “generations” of Yitzchak – his activity and role as Abraham’s successor. He is referred to as “Yitzchak, son of Abraham,” but the text then goes on to note, “Abraham begot Yitzchak.” The reader is perplexed: is this statement of lineage not a reformulation of what has just been said? Indeed, on the level of objective fact, it says exactly the same thing. In terms of inner essence, however, the focus is quite different. In the phrase, “Yitzchak, son of Abraham,” the subject is Yitzchak, and these words serve as an introduction to the description of his life and works. The fact that he is referred to as “son of Abraham” points to his direction, his source of inspiration. However, the text does not suffice with this statement of lineage, but invites us, as it were, to view the matter from a different perspective, where the subject is Abraham. It is Abraham who is dominant; it is he who bore Yitzchak and molded his character.  A powerful paternal presence emerges from this description. In this shiur, we will embark on a journey through the text to locate the roots and essence of this presence.

 

We will first examine the units that present the son as following in his father’s footsteps.

 

The Father’s Impression on the Son

 

The first unit that we will examine, a most central and formative event, is the birth of Yitzchak:

 

And the Lord remembered Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Yitzchak. And Abraham circumcised his son Yitzchak, being eight days old, as God had commanded him. And Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Yitzchak was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me, so that all who hear will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah should give children suck? For I have born him a son in his old age.” And the child grew, and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Yitzchak was weaned. (21:1-8)

 

Over and over again, the text emphasizes Yitzchak’s connection to Abraham. Sarah is described as having born Abraham this son in his old age; Abraham is described as naming his son, whom Sarah bore him. The circumcision, too, is performed by Abraham, in accordance with the divine command to him, and so on. These descriptions would appear to be the first signal of the dominance of the father in the son’s life.

 

The second event in which Yitzchak is mentioned is the akeda. The story of the akeda is recounted from the perspective of Abraham, not of Yitzchak. The very fact that the text is silent as to Yitzchak’s thoughts and emotions is tantamount to stating that the more significant moment is happening in the consciousness of Abraham. Yitzchak does not represent or create any new position. Only once does he initiate: he speaks, thereby revealing all that the Torah tells us concerning his state of mind:

 

And Yitzchak spoke to Abraham, his father, and said, “My father,” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (22:7-8)

 

Yitzchak understands that they are on the way to offer a sacrifice, and he wonders: where is the animal that will be offered? His formulation of the question reflects an enveloping trust. We know that Abraham is his father, but the text nevertheless repeats this twice. It appears once in the narration, thereby framing the question as one posed by a son to “his father.” Then the text continues, “And he said, ‘My father…,’” reflecting the psychological position from which he speaks. Correspondingly, Abraham answers him: “And Abraham said, ‘God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’” Abraham points to God as the proper and ultimate address for the question, and once again emphasizes that Yitzchak is his son. Indeed, the attribution of Yitzchak as his son represents the entire basis for the mission on which he has embarked: “And He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak…’” (22:2). Now Yitzchak is with him, and “they went both of them together.” They walk together, alongside one another, ready and willing to fulfill Abraham’s mission. From this point onwards, the text returns its focus to Abraham.

 

The third event that we encounter is Abraham’s dispatching of his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak (chapter 24). The Torah records in detail the conversation between Abraham and his servant concerning the woman, but there is no involvement on the part of Yitzchak at all. He has complete faith in the decisions that his father makes and executes. He takes no active role in the entire process,  but rather sits by and waits for its results.

 

In our parashat, there is a series of events in which the son continues his father’s path: there is a famine in the land and Yitzchak goes to Abimelech, king of Gerar (26:1), whom he knows thanks to Abimelech’s contacts with Abraham, his father (26:20). In Gerar he fears that he will be killed for his wife:

 

And the men of the place asked of his wife, and he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “She is my wife,” lest the men of the place kill me on account of Rivka, for she was of good appearance. (26:7)

 

In so doing, Yitzchak adopts the same response that his father had implemented in the same situation, in the same place:

 

“And Abraham journeyed from there towards the Negev, and dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah, his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah. (20:1-2)

 

Yitzchak then leaves Gerar and dwells in Nachal Gerar, where Abraham had previously dug wells, and he digs them over again since they have been filled by the Pelishtim:

 

And Yitzchak went from there and pitched his tent in Nachal Gerar, and he dwelled there. And Yitzchak dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Pelishtim had stopped them up after the death of Abraham, and he called their names like the names by which his father had called them. (26:17)

 

Here, Yitzchak’s task and destiny to continue his father’s work is clear. He reconfirms the names that his father had given to the wells, thereby giving new life to his father’s endeavors. Over and over, the text refers to Abraham as “his father,” in a reflection of Yitzchak’s psychological and spiritual perception of his own strength and potential as resting on the foundation of his connection to his father.

 

Differences Between Yitzchak and Abraham

 

Thus far, we have reviewed illustrations of the similarity between the son and the father, indicating Yitzchak’s path and self-perception as the continuer of his father, his work, and his world-view. However, if we consider inner workings of the consciousness of each of these two characters, we encounter a paradox. How is it possible to continue the path of someone who is altogether an original, ground-breaking, one-of-a-kind non-conformist who forges new paths? For this is what Abraham was – an individual who initiated something new in the world, who severed himself from his homeland and his father’s house, who initiated and revolutionized. If Yitzchak were to imitate this inner movement of Abraham, then it would logically seem that he must sever himself from Abraham and his way, just as Abraham had previously severed himself from Terach. Thus, his actions will be very different from those of Abraham. If, on the other hand, he chooses to perform the same outward actions that Abraham had instituted, then they will have to proceed from a very different inner consciousness.

 

Yitzchak chooses the second option. Indeed, a review of his life shows the great disparity between himself and Abraham. Paradoxically, the more meticulously he follows his father’s path, the greater the disparity between them, between the revolution and innovation of the father and the continuity of the son, between the creative and the conservative.

 

“Get yourself from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (12:1), says God to Abraham, and at these words Abraham uproots himself from the life circles in which he is ensconced, responding to God’s outstretched hand, as it were, inviting him into a sort of partnership and destining him for greatness. Again and again, God speaks to him, and his life is full of movement, shifting from place to place, encounters, and covenants.  Abraham is elevated above the level of ordinary people. He is a “mighty prince,” a “prince of God,” in the words of the Bnei Chet. Malki-Tzedek exclaims, “Blessed is Abram of the Most High God, Possessor of heaven and earth.”

 

Yitzchak’s life, from beginning to end, is very different. He is born to a father who is a hundred years old and a mother aged ninety. There is almost no evidence of God ever speaking to him (a revelation is described in the wake of the famine, when Yitzchak goes down to Gerar, in chapter 26). Yitzchak is born into an existing reality; his movement within that reality is limited, and he is not called upon to revolutionize or innovate anything.

 

To illustrate the discrepancy between Abraham and Yitzchak, let us consider one of Abraham’s most prominent traits – his ability to contain, to include. This is reflected within his family circle; he is prepared to view Ishmael as his successor, despite the fact that his mother is Hagar, the Egyptian bondwoman.  The same trend continues throughout, with Abraham regarding Yishmael as his son, expressing opposition to Ishmael’s rejection – in contrast to God and Sarah, both of whom refer to him as “the son of the bondwoman” (21:10; 21:13).

 

Yitzchak has two sons, and he loves one of them: “And Yitzchak loved Esau, for he relished his venison, but Rivka loved Yaakov” (25:28). In time, this love is consolidated as a blessing that he intends for Esau, while Yaakov is seemingly not destined to receive a blessing. “Bless me, me also, my father!” (27:34) pleads Esau, and Yitzchak answers, “Your brother came with cunning and has taken away your blessing” (v. 35). Esau does not give up; he asks, “Have you but one blessing, my father?” (38) – and a look at the blessing that remains is enough to show that indeed, this is the case. How far removed this favoritism is from Abraham’s approach towards his sons!

 

A great chasm separates the relationships that Abraham maintained with those around him, the inhabitants of the land of Cana’an, and Yitzchak’s contacts with them. Let us start by comparing their respective dealings with Abimelech, king of Gerar. God reveals Himself to Abimelech and warns him:

 

“Now, therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live; and if you do not restore her, now that you shall surely die – you and all who are yours.” (20:7)

 

Abimelech informs his men, and their response is one of great fear. Thereafter,

 

Abimelech took sheep and oxen and menservants and maidservants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife. And Avimelekh said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell wherever it pleases you.” And to Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is to you a covering of the eyes, to all who are with you, and to all others” – and thus she was reproved. So Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maidservants, and they bore children. (20:14-18)

 

Abimelech restores Sarah to Abraham, invites Abraham to dwell in his land, and even makes monetary restitution to Sarah. Abraham, for his part, offers a prayer for the recovery of Avimelekh and his entourage. 

When Yitzchak finds himself in a similar situation, God does not appear to Abimelech, and the discovery of Rivka’s true identity comes about differently:

 

Abimelech, king of Pelishtim, looked through a window and saw and saw, and behold, Yitzchak was sporting with Rivka, his wife. (26:8)

 

After confronting Yitzchak he issues an instruction:

 

And Abimelech charged all his people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.” (26:11)

 

This suggests that in the absence of such a warning, Yitzchak would indeed be in mortal danger. In contrast to Abimelech’s friendly relations with Abraham, a conflict develops between him and Yitzchak:

 

And Yitzchak sowed in that land and received in the same year a hundredfold, for the Lord blessed him. And the man grew great, and went forwards, and grew until he became very great, for he had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and a great store of servants, and the Pelishtim envied him. For all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Pelishtim had stopped them up, and filled them with earth. And Abimelech said to Yitzchak, “Go from us, for you are much mightier than we” (26:12-16).

 

Yitzchak’s relations with the Pelishtim and with Abimelech go sour owing to their jealousy of him, and they ask him to move away.

 

Yitzchak’s next station is Nachal Gerar, and here too he encounters hostility (sitna) and hatred. The text offers an interesting description:

 

And Yitzchak dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Pelishtim had stopped them up after the death of Abraham, and he called their names as the names by which his father had called them. (26:18)

 

As long as Abraham lived, the Pelishtim did not touch his wells. Only after his death did they stop them up – offering further proof not only of Abraham’s status in his life, but also of the fact that Yitzchak fails to fill the void left by his father.

 

Yitzchak’s Destiny

 

What, then, is Yitzchak’s own, independent destiny? The answer to this question would seem to lie in God’s words to him. The context is introduced as follows:

 

And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Yitzchak went to Abimelech, king of the Pelishtim, to Gerar. (26:1)

 

The verse notes a famine, and then relates it to the first famine, which had been in the days of Abraham. This explicit connection seems to invite a comparison: how did Abraham cope with the famine, and how does Yitzchak, his son, cope with a similar situation? Abraham goes down to Egypt: “And there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt, to sojourn there, for the famine was acute in the land.” Yitzchak moves, as a first stage, to Abimelech, king of Gerar – his father’s ally. But then he receives a prophecy: “And the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt’” (26:2). This instruction indicates that Yitzchak had indeed intended to proceed to Egypt – like his father before him. God stops him and tells him:

 

“Dwell in the land which I shall tell you of; sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and I will bless you, for to you and to your seed I will give all these countries, and I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father, and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these countries, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” (26:3-5)

 

Unlike Abraham, who wanders from place to place throughout the land – and, where necessary, even outside of its boundaries – Yitzchak is commanded to dwell “in the land which I will tell you of.” He must not venture elsewhere,  and even within the land he wanders little.  Unlike Abraham, to whom the land was promised “to your seed,” God speaks of Yitzchak’s permanent dwelling in the land as a stage in its being given to him personally and to his descendants.  No new, revolutionary vision is at stake here; no new actions are required. The vision has already been established by Abraham, and what is needed now is that it be maintained and inculcated in the recesses of human consciousness as well as in reality.

 

It is with these words that God appears to Yitzchak and gives him his life’s mission. He invites him to join and continue the great endeavor that has been set in motion – this time, from a different angle. His task will be to approach the great vision from an inner state of permanence, continuity, and internalization. This, now, is the service that is required. Yitzchak will adhere and devote himself to his task, and God promises him, “I shall be with you and I shall bless you.”