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And What of Isaac? Prof. Moshe Benovitz on Identifying with his Forefather

Sometimes, when asked to talk about who I am and what I am to people who do not know me very well, I talk about how I identify with our forefather Isaac. I cannot identify with Abraham, who takes possession of the land of the Canaanites  for himself and his descendants. But I am also unwilling to make do with the life of Jacob, the hired man and resident alien, a man who felt unwelcome both in his own land and in exile, and depended upon others in order to survive, and often had to resort to manipulation.  Of all our forefathers I identify most with Isaac, who achieved what he achieved naturally, with serenity, as inheritance and/or windfall; without resort to conquest, self-deprecation or manipulation.

At first glance it may seem that God loves Isaac less than he loves Abraham or Jacob. God talks to Isaac only twice, and in each case God blesses Isaac not for his own sake, but “because Abraham heeded my voice” (26:5) or “for the sake of my servant Abraham” (26:24).

And Isaac, too, is completely indifferent to God’s plans for his world. As is well known, the divine plan was to bestow upon the younger sons in Genesis the status of primacy and primogeniture. “My firstborn son, Israel”, the chosen people, is primarily descended from younger sons: Isaac, Jacob, Judah and Joseph, even Ephraim. Had God not preferred Isaac over Ishmael, or Jacob over Esau, it is likely that all of Abraham’s descendants would have been considered a single people, united in their dedication to fulfilling God’s will on earth.

Abraham was not very happy with God’s intervention in his relationships with his sons, and their division into “many nations”, but he acquiesced when it became clear to him that that was God’s will. Jacob actually initiated the preferential treatment accorded Joseph and Ephraim over their brothers, and the displacement of Reuben as firstborn. Only Isaac refused to play along. Shortly before he first met his wife Rebecca, we are told that he “came back from going to the well Lahai Roi”  (24:62), the well of Hagar and of his brother Ishmael; that is to say: Isaac made an effort to live with his elder brother Ishmael alongside the well discovered by his mother Hagar, in order to create, along with Ishamael, a single great family of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac himself being ready and willing to serve as the younger brother. Only after this attempt failed does he move on from there.

And what happens next? Once again Isaac tries to avoid carrying out the divisive divine plan. Isaac too must have heard God’s oracle to his wife Rebecca: “the one people shall be stronger than the other, and the elder shall serve the younger” (25:23). Nonetheless, unlike Rebecca, he was unwilling to grant primacy to his younger son over the elder, or to play along with a divine plan that was destined to fill the world – and his own children and descendants in particular – with strife. Rather than trying to change the world in accordance with the divine plan – an endeavor that many of us refer to as tiqqun olam, “repairing the world”, Isaac preferred to adhere to the natural order of the universe. Isaac was unwilling to “repair the world”, not even in order to create the divine kingdom on earth, as we pray God will do in the Alenu prayer. Isaac believed in accepting the world as is, making his peace with the universe, with human nature, and with reality as it unfolds. Isaac, too, wished to acquire a homeland, but only that which came to him peacefully and naturally, as is clear from his experience with the wells: first he tried to restore the wells he inherited from his father which had been blocked up by the Philistines. When that failed, he dug his own wells, but if his ownership was contested, he retreated. He made use only of those wells his ownership of which remained unchallenged. So too with his other posessions: he received the capital as an inheritance from his father (25:5), sowed seed, and he “found in that year a hundredfold” (26:12); the verb “found” implies a surprise windfall. All of Isaac’s life was a windfall, having been saved from the Aqedah, and it seems that he was the only one of our forefathers who was happy in marriage, in parenthood, and in his life as a whole.

Isaac refused to cooperate with the divine plan, and preferred to live his life in accordance with nature and reality, and this is the secret of his happiness. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say that Isaac was not a worshipper of God. On the contrary, in a certain sense Isaac was more religious and more spiritual than anyone else in Genesis, including his father and son. Isaac was the “perfect whole offering”, the only one of the forefathers who actually agreed to give up his life for God. If Abraham worshipped God with all his heart, and Jacob with all his might, Isaac worshipped God with all his soul. But Isaac worshipped God “by means of” the natural world and reality that God created, not by attempting to “fix” nature or reality. Isaac “went out to meditate in the field before sunset” (24:63); the Rabbis said he instituted the afternoon service. Now there are verses from which the Rabbis derive that Abraham prayed the morning service and Jacob the evening service, but only in Isaac’s case does the rabbinic homily concur with the plain meaning of the text. Isaac went out to meditate in the field, to lose himself in nature, to talk to himself and/or his God without the presence of others; not as a demonstration of religiosity but as an actual act of religion.

Since Isaac’s worship of God was a natural part of his life, and not an attempt to control nature or history, his worship was not predicated on receiving a reward. If God had blessed Isaac for Isaac’s sake in exchange for Isaac’s worship, the perfect simplicity of this worship would be marred. That is why God was careful to specify when blessing Isaac that this blessing was not in exchange for Isaac’s own perfect worship – a worship so perfect and pure that any recompense would be to its detriment – but rather “for the sake of my servant Abraham”.

For these reasons Isaac is the forefather and biblical character I love most. I pray that God grant me a life similar to that of our father Isaac, the perfect whole offering, who avoided conflict and managed to live a life of serenity.

Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

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