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This work contains two items:
* Divrei Torah on the Parasha
There was a famine in the Land… G-d appeared to Isaac and He said: Do not go down to Egypt… live in this land and I will be with you and bless you… (26:1-3).
When Abraham was in similar circumstances, he did indeed go to Egypt. G-d did not show displeasure. Why did He command Isaac not to react to the famine in the same way as his father did?
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 64:3) gives the well-known explanation that Isaac had an additional degree of holiness, as he had been specified to be a sacrifice in the Akeida. Just as a sacrifice is invalidated if it is taken out of holy territory, so Isaac would have been defiled were he to have left the Promised Land.
However the above explanation may be supplemented by looking at the contrasting personalities and circumstances of the two Patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 56:4) implies that the Akeida was also a trial of Isaac. Even though he realised the purpose of his journey to Mount Moriah, he nevertheless went with joy, knowing that he was to fulfil the will of his Creator. In many ways Isaac’s relationship with G-d continued where Abraham’s left off: the Akeida being Abraham’s tenth trial (according to most commentators) but Isaac’s first. Thus, through the teachings of his father, Isaac reached Abraham’s spiritual level much earlier in life – and he continued to develop as his life progressed. However more was expected of Isaac, which may be illustrated by the following discussion in the Talmud:
R. Ishmael says that person should conduct his life according to Derech Eretz – he should engage in worldly pursuits to earn his living, and study Torah as much as possible when he can. R. Shimon bar Yochai disagrees – holding that one should commit one’s whole life to Torah, fulfilling the will of the Almighty, and leave the material needs to Him. G-d will provide! Abbaye remarks that ‘many followed R. Ishmael and succeeded; many followed R. Shimon bar Yochai and did not succeed’. (Berachot 35b).
This discussion gives an insight in the differences between Abraham and Isaac. Abraham went to Egypt at an earlier stage in his own career. He was further away from G-d and spiritual matters. His descent to Egypt was in the spirit of R. Ishmael – responding to demands of earning a living in a natural way – in this case, migrating from more holy conditions of famine to less holy conditions of plenty. Isaac, in contrast, was further along the spiritual path. Such was his relationship with the Almighty following the Akeida that he was in a situation comparable with the ideals of R. Shimon bar Yochai – do His will: live in this land even in famine condition - and He will provide: and I will be with you and bless you…
Isaac said to them (Abimelech and his retinue), “Why have you come to me? You hate me and you sent me away from you”. They said, “We indeed saw that G-d was with you… let us make a covenant with you, that you will not do us any evil, as we have not hurt you, and just as we have done only good to you…” (26:27-29).
Thus Abimelech spoke to Isaac when he came him at Beer Sheva. As the text relates, Isaac had suffered at the hands of Abimelech and his people. Abimelech, who once made a covenant with Abraham not to lie with him or his descendants, converted his nation’s jealousy into action, and he ordered Isaac to be evicted: Go from us, because you are much wealthier than we are” (26:16). Also, Isaac had dug wells during the famine and untapped the natural resources of their country - by providing them with a permanent spring-fed source of water. In return, he was not thanked – but robbed of the fruits of his labors. Then when Abimelech came to him, Isaac rebuked him – Why have you come to me? – You hate me! In his answer he included the words just as we have done only good to you. Surely he lied? And having lied, why did Isaac agree to make a formal treaty with Abimelech?
In looking at these issues, consider the Torah prohibitions of taking revenge and bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18). As the Talmud explains, a person’s refusal to give assistance because of being previously denied help is revenge. A person’s giving assistance, but recalling the other’s refusal is bearing a grudge. As R. Zelig Pliskin illustrates:
Lost and wandering in a desert, Gavrial finally spotted a man leading a herd of camels. Half-crazed from thirst, Gavrial crawled up to the man and begged for water. The camel owner refused and left Gavrial to the elements. Gavrial miraculously managed to get back to civilisation and in a short time became very wealthy. One day, Gavrial’s secretary announced that a camel dealer was interested in obtaining a loan from him for the purpose of enlarging his stock. When the man entered Gavrial’s office, Gavrial immediately recognised the face. It was the person who had refused to aid him in his hour of need.
Gavrial is obligated to grant the loan without recalling the desert incident. This is a true and difficult test of Gavrial’s strength of character, but it is required of him by these two mitzvot. (Story quoted from Guard Your Tongue, by R. Zelig Pliskin, p. 17.)
This gives a key for understanding Isaac’s treatment of Abimelech and his company. Like Gavrial in the story above, Isaac had been treated with extreme selfishness – and in addition, by dishonesty. But – like the camel owner, Abimelech had gone out of his way to approach Isaac cap in hand for something he obviously needed and wanted. And, as the camel owner to Gavirial, Abimelech’s actions were by then no threat to Isaac.
So once Abimelech announced his intentions of making a treaty, Isaac granted him what he wished, with feasting and hospitality. As with Gavrial, this may be seen as a difficult test of Isaac’s strength of character, but it was required of him by the Torah prohibitions of taking revenge and bearing a grudge.
PARASHAT TOLDOT – FOR THE STUDENT AND FOR AROUND THE TABLE
BASIC QUESTIONS ON PARASHAT TOLDOT …
1. How do the following connect with the Parasha?
(a) Meah Shearim
2. How, according to the text
(a) did Isaac and Jacob differ from one another in their youth?
(b) did Esau show that he himself despised the birthright?
(c) did Isaac act differently to Abraham when there was a famine in the Holy Land?
(d) did Isaac lie to Abimelech, King of Gerar?
(e) did Isaac prosper in the land of Gerar?
(f) did Isaac bring benefits to the people of Gerar?
(g) did Esau bring grief to his father?
(h) did Rebecca indicate she did not want Esau to receive the Blessing from Isaac?
(i) was Isaac deceived that Jacob was Esau?
(j) would the blessing been a dangerous thing in Esau’s hands?
(j) did Isaac react when he learnt that Jacob had impersonated Esau?
(k) did it happen that Jacob and Esau left home?
1. (a) ‘Isaac sowed in that land (of Gerar, on the south-west of the Holy Land, to where he migrated because of the famine), and in that year he reaped Meah Shearim – a hundred fold: G-d blessed him.’ (26:12) The Meah Shearim of the Parasha, of course, has nothing to do with the Jerusalem district of the same name.
(b) Rehovot – the third named well that Isaac’s company dug in the area of Gerar. As Abimelech’s company did not lay any counter-claim to the wells, Isaac named it Rehovot - ‘ample space’ – ‘for now G-d has granted us ample space and we can be fruitful in the land’. (26:22) Geographically, it would be in the same region as today’s city that bears the same name.
(c) Beersheba – literally ‘the well of the oath’ – where the non-aggression treaty between Abraham and the people of Gerar was re-affirmed between their mutual descendants (26:33, see also 21:31)
2. (a) Esau was a practical person – ‘a hunter, a man of the field’. In contrast, Jacob was a person of fine character – a ‘wholesome man, living in tents.’ (25:27)
(b) He sold the birthright to Jacob for the mere consideration of being fed and watered. (25:33-34)
(c) Isaac, on G-d’s command, did not leave the Holy Land for Egypt during famine conditions, but remained within the environs of the Holy Land. (26:2)
(d) For security reasons, he made out that his wife Rebecca was his sister. Under the norms of the period, a man would be killed if the local ruler lusted after his wife. (26:7)
(e) Through his success as a farmer: ‘Isaac sowed in that land (of Gerar, on the south-west of the Holy Land, to where he migrated because of the famine), and in that year he reaped Meah Shearim – a hundred fold: G-d blessed him.’ (26:12)
(f) By uncovering the wells that were dug by Abraham’s company in that region during the period of famine – ensuring supplies of fresh water for the local people. (26:15 ff)
(g) By twice marrying into the local Canaanite Hittite tribes (26:35): these women were ‘a source of grief to Isaac and Rebecca’. (26:36)
(h) By instructing Jacob to take advantage of his father’s poor sight to impersonate Esau and obtain the blessing. (27:6)
(i) Jacob bought his father food that passed as venison and covered himself with goatskins so that his skin should have the same texture as his brother Esau (27:19ff).
(j) The blessing ended the words ‘those you curse shall be cursed, and those you bless shall be blessed’. (27:29) An unworthy person would certainly abuse those powers.
(j) He realized that he had done the right thing by blessing Jacob instead of Esau – therefore confirming ‘he (Jacob) shall be blessed’. (27:33)
(k) Jacob left home at the behest of his parents (27:5) – to marry into the same circle as his father, and to escape Esau’s wrath. Esau, seeing the distress his wives caused his father, migrated to Ishmael’s circle, eventually marrying into it. (27:8-9)
From where, following Rashi’s commentary, may it be learnt that:
(a) Rebecca was a righteous person despite the pagan traits of her family background.
(b) The prayers of righteous person from a righteous background have special merit.
(c) Jacob had a legal right as well as a moral right to the birthright.
(d) Appearances do not always tell the truth.
(e) Isaac had a higher personal status than Abraham.
(f) When Jacob impersonated Esau, he was careful not to utter an actual lie.
(g) Jacob’s blessings were conditional on his meriting them.
(h) Esau’s blessings were unconditional – whether he merited them or not.)
(i) The Edomites would only fully prosper when the Israelites would become a nation of sinners.
(a) Rebecca’s background – which is already known from the last Parasha is mentioned again: ‘the daughter of Bethuel… the sister of Laban.’(25:20) This repetition stresses that she was worthy of Isaac despite her former surroundings.
(b) Rashi derives from the text that both Isaac and Rebecca prayed that they should have children, but G-d listened ‘to him.’ (22:21) The prayers of a righteous person coming from a righteous background have special merit.
(c) Rashi brings an argument that twins are conceived in the reverse order to their birth (to 22:26). As Jacob was conceived first, he was the first to be created and thus was the ‘real’ firstborn.
(d) The words ‘ish tzayid’ (22:27) – a hunter – allegorically refer to Esau’s practice of ‘hunting’ his father Isaac with ‘words’ – winning his heart by pretending to be pious, but acting coarsely behind his back.
(e) When there was a famine in Canaan, G-d told Isaac not to go to Egypt, but to remain within the region of the Holy Land (26:2). Rashi, (as elaborated by Mizrachi) explains that he was in effect, a sanctified ‘olah’ – burnt offering, from when Abraham prepared him for his part in the Akeidah – the ‘binding of Isaac.’ A holy offering may not leave holy territory, and in Isaac’s case, that was the environs of the Holy Land.
(f) When questioned by his father of failing eyesight, he announced himself as ani esav bechorecha (27:19) which may technically be construed as ‘It is I (Jacob): Esau is your firstborn’. The text contains other similar examples.
(g) Isaac preceded the blessings to Jacob with the words: ‘May Elokim give you (27:28)– Elokim is interpreted as ‘G-d of Justice’ If Jacob (and his descendants) are worthy they will receive the blessings, if not, they will not. (Although Isaac initially blessed Jacob in the belief he was Esau, it appears that Isaac added this condition under Divine guidance.)
(h) Esau’s blessing had no such above condition tacked on – he and his progeny would receive their blessings irrespective of their conduct.
(i) Esau’s blessing terminated with the words: ‘When you are aggrieved, you may cast of his (Jacob’s) yoke from your neck’. (27:40) This is understood by Rashi to mean the following. If Israel should become a nation of transgressors, and becomes undeserving of dominion, Esau’s progeny will have a right to grieve that Jacob received the blessing. Esau will then become the dominant power – casting the yoke of domination by Jacob from his neck…
1. How, according to Hirsch, did Isaac err in the early bringing up of his sons?
2. Why did Esau reject the birthright according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban? (25:32)
3. Throughout his commentary, the Ramban develops the theme of maaseh avot siman le-banim – the experiences of the Patriarchs are signposts of Jewish history. How does that explain why the Torah recounts the story of the wells in so much detail?
4. Why, according to (a) the simple explanations of Rashi and (b) the Sforno, did ‘the eyes of Isaac become dim’? (27:1)
5. What, according to Hirsch, was the underlying purpose of Jacob’s having to use deceit in order to secure the blessing?
1. Using the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 63:14), he highlights the tradition that Jacob and Esau received the same education until they were thirteen years old, and afterwards they separated. Quoting ‘train the youth in accordance with his way’, (Proverbs 22:6) Hirsch develops the theme that each child needs an education that is compatible with his individual character and temperament. The education Isaac gave to his sons was identical; it suited only Jacob and not Esau.
2. ‘Behold I am going to die, so of what use to me is the birthright?’ (25:32) Rashi understands the birthright as referring to the privilege and duty of what was to become the priesthood – performing the korbanot – the offerings. According to Rashi, Esau thought he would die for any mistake in the complicated processes involved in the korbannot. The Ramban takes the above verse more literally. As a hunter, Esau felt he was going to die anyway: he faced constant danger, and could not look forward to a long life…
3. According to the Ramban, the three wells closely described one after another (26:20-22) correspond to the three Temples: the two that were destroyed, and the third that is to be built. The first well was named Esek – contention – alluding to the First Temple that fell victim to the strife of the nations that eventually destroyed it. The second well – Sitna – hindrance, enmity – a very much greater degree of hatred, alluded to the destruction of the Second Temple, whose aftermath brought a much longer exile and virulent hatred of the Jews. The third well – Rehovot – spaciousness – alludes to the future Temple, when strife and hatred will be things of the past.
4. Rashi states that Isaac’s eyes became dim so that Jacob’s ruse to obtain the blessings should succeed. The Sforno claims that it was a divine punishment for Isaac’s failure to restrain Esau’s wickedness.
5. The purpose of the deceit was a lesson to Isaac – to make him confront reality, and to show him that people in general are not as straightforward as they might appear. If Jacob was able to use Esau’s clothes to deceive his father, why should he not believe that Esau was always ‘wearing a disguise’, when he acted as an obedient and innocent person? The outcome of the deceit did indeed make Isaac see things with open eyes. He realized that Isaac was indeed worthy of the blessing: ‘He shall be blessed’ (37:33)
1. The Haftara opens with the following words: ‘I have been loving you (the Israelites)’ said G-d, ‘ But I hated Esau, and I made his mountains a desolation, and his heritage for the desert serpents.’ (Malachi 1:2) Thus, in his opening prophecy, Malachi includes the message that although Esau was Jacob’s brother, G-d loves (the nation of) Jacob, and hates Esau. Why does G-d explicitly express His hatred for Esau in the Prophets and not in the Torah?
2. The Book of Esther states that Mordechai, one of Jacob’s descendants, cried loudly and bitterly on hearing that Haman had successfully persuaded Ahasuerus to massacre the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. As the text relates: ‘Mordechai found out what had happened. He… tore his garments and wore sackcloth and ashes… and he cried a very loud and bitter cry.’ (Esther 4:1)The Midrash (Esther Rabba 8:1) brings the tradition that Mordechai’s anguish in weeping a ‘very loud and bitter cry’ many generations later was in turn for the distress that Jacob caused Esau, which had similarly caused him to weep a ‘very loud and bitter cry’. Jacob certainly hurt Esau. Yet he also caused his aged father to experience considerable suffering in the same incident. For Isaac ‘trembled exceedingly’ (27:33) when he realized how his original intentions had been frustrated by Jacob’s impersonating Esau to get the blessing. The Midrash relates that at that moment he saw Gehinnom open underneath him (Gen. Rabba 67:2). What was special about Esau’s distress, rather than Isaac’s, that had to be compensated in this way?
*Please note – My own attempts to deal with the issues related in #2 may be found in the archives for 5762 on Shema Yisrael – on Parashat Toldot.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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