Isaac: Why Is This Patriarch Different from All Other Patriarchs?
By Rabbi Bruce Kadden
This week’s Torah portion begins with the phrase, V’eileh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, “This is the line of Isaac son of Abraham” (Genesis 25:19), indicating that the text is now going to focus on Isaac, the second of the Patriarchs of our tradition. And, indeed, he figures prominently in the stories of this portion.
However, he still seems to play a subordinate role to his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob. In the stories of two of the major incidents of his life, the Akeidah (Genesis 22) and the blessing of his sons (Genesis 27) he is not even the central figure. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut notes that “Of the three patriarchs, Isaac’s personality is the least clearly defined” and he is primarily “the bridge between Abraham and Jacob, the essential link in the chain of greatness” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition [New York: URJ Press, 2005], pp. 184-185).
While it is easy to overlook Isaac and his role in the biblical narrative, we can learn quite a lot from three aspects of his life that distinguished him from both his father and his son:
- Isaac never leaves the Land of Israel
- he only has one wife and only fathers children with one woman
- his name is not changed
Abraham was born in Ur and—after arriving in the Land of Israel—goes down to Egypt because of a famine. Though Jacob was born in Israel, he escapes the wrath of his brother, Esau, returning to his mother’s native land, and ultimately dies in Egypt. Isaac, on the other hand, lives his entire life in the Land of Israel. In fact, the Torah twice warns that Isaac must not leave the Land. When Abraham’s slave suggests bringing Isaac to the Land of Abraham’s birth if the woman the slave finds to be Isaac’s wife refuses to come to Israel, Abraham warns, “Take great care not to bring my son back there!” (Genesis 24:6). (I prefer this stronger translation of the Hebrew text, “Don’t you dare bring my son back there.”) Later, when Isaac travels to Gerar because of a famine, God warns him not to go down to Egypt: “Stay in the land and I will be with you and bless you” (26:3) God promises him.
While Abraham and Jacob reflect what will become the tradition of the “Wandering Jew” that has characterized so much of our history, Isaac can be viewed as the Jew who will not need to wander from place to place, but will be able to call one place home. That place is Israel, which makes him a role model for Zionists. But all Jews can appreciate that residing in one place allows one to establish roots and develop a sense of home that is not possible when one moves from place to place as is so common today.
Isaac is also different from his father and his son in that he only has one wife, Rebekah and only fathers children with her. When Rebekah is barren, Isaac does not have a child with his wife’s concubine (as does Abraham); rather, he “pleaded with the Eternal on behalf of his wife” (25:21). God answers his plea and they soon become parents of twins. Isaac’s loyalty and commitment to Rebekah are admirable, especially in a culture that encouraged men to take multiple wives and increase their progeny at almost any cost. He serves as an example not just for couples who stay together when they are not able to bear children, but for any man or woman who remains committed to his or her partner despite significant challenges.
The third distinguishing factor of Isaac’s life is that his name is not changed. Whereas Abram becomes Abraham and Jacob becomes Israel, the new names symbolizing important transitions in their lives, Isaac remains Isaac. One reason that his name is not changed is that God names him: “Nonetheless, your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, whom you shall call Isaac” (17:19). His name, of course, means “he shall laugh,” reflecting Abraham’s reaction when he hears that he and Sarah would become parents at such advanced ages (17:17). But it seems that Isaac remaining Isaac also indicates a certain stability and consistency of character. Abraham and Jacob had to go through significant changes in their lives to become the persons that they needed to be. Isaac, on the other hand, required no such change. He has the same basic character and essence throughout his life.
What are we to make of these three differences between Isaac on the one hand and his father Abraham and son Jacob on the other? Abraham and Jacob seem to characterize the realities of this life: wandering from place to place with no place to call home; the need to reinvent oneself because of the challenges one faces; the difficulties of life when faced with barrenness or other realities. Abraham and Jacob represent this world, the challenges that we face as individuals and as a people, life in all of its messiness.
Isaac, on the other hand, represents the ideal, the messianic world we strive to become: a person (people) with a place to call home; the ability to be true to oneself (ourselves) and not need to reinvent oneself (ourselves) because of circumstances beyond our control; the ability to remain faithful and loyal to one person. In the midst of all the challenges of the Israelites in the ancient world, and in the midst of the all too real challenging stories of Abraham and Jacob, the Torah offers a glimpse of what it will be like some day when we have mastered the challenges we face to be able to live where we want to live and be true to who we are.
The Rabbis refer to Isaac as “Master of Suffering,” (B’reishit Rabbah 94:5, translation, Rabbi Bruce Kadden) due to his ability to overcome the many trials that he faced from the Akeidah to losing his vision in old age. His ability to overcome these challenges should inspire us to deal with the many challenges that we face so that we might create a world where the ideals of Isaac’s life become a reality.