When It All Falls Apart
Parashat Toldot 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
When It All Falls Apart
Rosh haShanah seems like a lifetime away as we are inching towards Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. On the first evening of Rosh haShanah, I gave a sermon exploring what kind of Jews we would hope to be, bringing in three Biblical patriarchs as my paradigmatic proof-text. I spoke about Abraham ‘ha’Ivri’, the boundary-crosser. Jacob, ‘Yisrael’, the God-wrestler and Judah, ‘Yehudah’, the grateful one. These men represent the first, third and fourth generations of the Abrahamic mission respectively. And perhaps you are wondering what I left out.
During Rosh haShanah, we want to posit our boldest visions of what we hope to be. Rosh haShanah is aspirational. We aspire to remake ourselves, to shape our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, to set ourselves newer and loftier goals, to become the best versions of ourselves. The High Holidays are the days for the spiritually audacious, where each one of us is challenged to escape the mediocrity of our human condition and reach for the stars.
Abraham, Jacob and Judah were, in a sense, all representatives of that ageless striving for human betterment. They were the disruptive innovators, the revolutionaries, the leaders. Abraham, that great missionary who cast his vision far and wide. Jacob, the existential wrestler who plunged the depths of his own soul in response to his naked ambition. And Judah, the moral exemplar who, despite not being the first-born, would carry the mantle of his family both as a moral and political leader. From him, ultimately, the Davidic lineage would stem, bridging the origin myth of the Jewish People with universal redemption through the Messianic promise. There is an all-encompassing totality in these three larger-than-life figures, two of which we will encounter more intimately over the next number of weeks.
Yet, one generation, one man was conspicuously omitted: Isaac.
Isaac, that second-generation spiritual immigrant, was co-opted by his father’s innovations. As we read Isaac’s story, he strikes us as passive, perhaps even traumatized by his father’s zeal. His father orchestrates the momentous moments in his life, either directly as in the Akeidah or by proxy, as in his marriage to Rebecca. We are left wondering how much agency Isaac has and what we ought to make of his character.
Now, Isaac isn’t an abject failure – either by the Torah’s standards or our own. His marriage to Rivka, for all intents and purposes, is a success: they are in love and maintain a strong relationship despite marital challenges, such as infertility. He is economically successful: he even ventures into a new industry (agriculture) not yet practiced by his family and excels in it.
Isaac proves adequate and competent when it comes to conflict resolution as he makes peace with the inhabitants of Gerar over the wells of Abraham. He even produces male progeny, no small feat in a Bronze Age patriarchal culture. At first glance, he appears as an honorable heir to Abraham and Sarah’s legacy and as a respectable forebear to his own sons, Jacob and Esau. Yet, if we dig a little deeper in the narrative, another picture starts emerging: that of a restless middle-aged man trapped between the ambitions of his father who has to resolve the conflicts with those around him, conflicts which he possibly inherited from Abraham. And then it all seems to fall apart.
It is Chapter 27 that sets the stage. ‘Vayehi ki zaken Yitzchak vatichenah einav merot…’ – ‘It was when Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see’. The competent man of yore has become vulnerable in his declining years. Only one verse before we read that his son Esau married two Hittite women at age forty – Judith and Basmat and that ‘vati’hiyenah marot ruach le’Yitzchak ul’Rivka’ – ‘they were a bitter spirit [source of bitterness] to Isaac and Rebecca’ (Gen. 26:35).
This seems to be a pivotal moment in Isaac’s story arc. The Rabbinic tradition attaches special significance to the juxtaposition of verses and chapters, seeing this as an ‘asmachta’, a hint for deeper learning. What was the source of bitterness with their two daughters-in-law? How did this dynamic poison the well of their previously harmonious family life?
(The Midrash offers us answers which Rashi brings: either they were rebellious or they were idolatrous: in any case, Esau and his wives were seen as endangering the Abrahamic mission of Isaac).
And then we encounter a much frailer, much diminished Isaac. This is no longer the steady and honorable man we once knew; he seems to be given over to his impulses as he requests on his deathbed something as frivolous as delectable food. When Rebecca manipulates Jacob into stealing his twin’s blessing as she feels called by God to do so, it sets in motion a self-fulfilled prophecy that would echo across the generations. From then on, pain, sadness, loss and anger marks this family. Esau is distraught, expressing his distress in some of the Torah’s most poignant passages (‘When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Barcheini gam ani, avi!’ - “Bless me too, Father!”… “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” And Esau wept aloud.’ – Gen. 27:34 and 38). Meanwhile, Jacob is banished to find a way among the Terachite clan, his own ancestral family.
The arc of the story does not yet bend towards a redemptive resolution: this will not happen until Parashat Vayetzeh. Instead, we are left with the rubble of a broken family relationship and we are left to wonder: how did it all fall apart? Was it because Isaac was not remarkable enough? Or was it perhaps because he exerted pressure upon his family that broke them.
There are two ways in which we can see Isaac. We can see him as mediocre, as the dull connector between brilliant generations. He is passive and unimpressive; he doesn’t generate great insight or vision. Yet there is another possible reading: he is steady, balanced and whole. He prioritizes those things that are important for all of us who are householders: neighborly peace, marital harmony and contentment; the seemingly simple things in life that are not to be underestimated. What is compelling about our story is not whether Isaac undergoes a midlife crisis or not but rather how he responds to it and how we responds to the trials of family lives in our own plane of existence.
We can learn from Isaac by example: both from his frailty and from his quiet courage. Relationships with our loved ones can break but they can also be healed; the wells of our lives can be stopped up but also cleared again. We can find contentment in the love within our tents, in the meals we share and the blessings we give to the children we love. Sometimes we do not need to be an Abraham, a stormer of the gates of Heaven, or a Jacob, a shaper of destinies. Sometimes being an Isaac is good enough – a legacy not to be underestimated.