Yitzhak is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Torah. It is hard to understand what motivates him and what makes him unique, as he quite literally follows in his father’s footsteps and seems to allow his life to be determined by others. He marries the wife his father’s slave picks for him,1 re-digs the wells that his father had dug,2 and appears to be tricked by his wife and youngest son.3 Yet, Yitzhak is Kabbalistically associated with the quality of gevurah, strength. Gevurah does not seem to be the quality we would associate with Yitzhak based on his Biblical behavior.4 He does not even appear to be the gibor, the hero, of his own story!
Although Yitzhak is not the hero of many midrashim, the Talmud records a story in which Yitzhak outshines our other forefathers. Through understanding this midrash and the insight it gives us into Yitzhak’s unique qualities, we will be able to appreciate Yitzhak’s character. We’ll be able to learn about the love that motivates his life choices and makes him the uniquely strong and supportive father and forefather that he is.
תלמוד בבלי שבת פט:
א"ר שמואל בר נחמני א"ר יונתן - מ"ד כי אתה אבינו כי אברהם לא ידענו וישראל לא יכירנו אתה ה' אבינו גואלנו מעולם שמך (ישעיה סג:טז).
לעתיד לבא יאמר לו הקב"ה לאברהם - בניך חטאו לי!
אמר לפניו - רבש"ע! ימחו על קדושת שמך.
אמר - אימר ליה ליעקב דהוה ליה צער גידול בנים, אפשר דבעי רחמי עלייהו.
אמר ליה - בניך חטאו!
אמר לפניו - רבש"ע ימחו על קדושת שמך!
אמר - לא בסבי טעמא ולא בדרדקי עצה.
אמר לו ליצחק - בניך חטאו לי!
אמר לפניו - רבש"ע בני ולא בניך?! בשעה שהקדימו לפניך נעשה לנשמע5קראת להם בני בכורי (שמות ד:כב). עכשיו בני ולא בניך?! ועוד כמה חטאו? כמה שנותיו של אדם? שבעים שנה! דל עשרין דלא ענשת עלייהו - פשו להו חמשין. דל כ"ה דלילותא- פשו להו כ"ה - דל תרתי סרי ופלגא דצלויי ומיכל ודבית הכסא - פשו להו תרתי סרי ופלגא. אם אתה סובל את כולם מוטב. ואם לאו פלגא עלי ופלגא עליך - ואת"ל כולם עלי הא קריבית נפשי קמך.
פתחו ואמרו "אתה אבינו."
אמר להם יצחק - עד שאתם מקלסין לי קלסו להקב"ה - ומחוי להו יצחק הקב"ה בעינייהו - מיד נשאו עיניהם למרום ואומרים אתה ה' אבינו גואלנו מעולם שמך!
Talmud Bavli Shabbat 89b
Rabbi Sh’muel bar Nahmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: What is the meaning of that which is written: For You are our Father; for Avraham does not know us, and Yisrael does not acknowledge us; You, God, are our Father, our Redeemer Your name is everlasting (Yeshayahu 63:16)?
In the coming future, the Holy Blessed One will say to Avraham, “Your children have sinned against Me!”
Avraham will say before Him, “Master of the Universe, if so, let them be eradicated thereby sanctifying Your name.”
God said: I will say this to Ya’akov [instead] since he experienced the difficulty of raising children, perhaps he will ask for mercy on them.
[God] said to Ya’akov, “Your children have sinned!”
Ya’akov will say before Him, “Master of the Universe, if so, let them be eradicated thereby sanctifying Your name.”
The Holy Blessed One said: There is no reason in elders and no sagacity in youth [i.e. neither Avraham nor Ya’akov gave a wise response].
[God] said to Yitzhak, “Your children have sinned against Me!”
Yitzhak said before Him, Master of the Universe, are they my children and not Your children? At Sinai, when they preceded “We will do” to “We will listen” before You, didn’t You call them, “My son, My firstborn” (Shemot 4:22)? Now that they have sinned, are they my children and not Your children? Furthermore, how much did they sin? How long is a person’s life? Seventy years. Subtract the first twenty years of his life for one is not punished [in heaven] for sins committed then. Fifty years remain. Subtract twenty-five years of nights, and twenty-five years remain. Subtract twelve and a half years for praying, eating, and using the bathroom, and twelve and a half years remain! If You can suffer them all, good. And if not, half of the sins are upon me and half upon You. And if You say that all of them are upon me, I sacrificed my soul6 before You!
The [Jewish people] began to say to Yitzhak, “You are our father!”
Yitzhak said to them: Before you praise me, praise the Holy Blessed One. And Yitzhak points to the Holy Blessed One before their eyes. Immediately they lift their eyes heavenward and say, You, God, are our Father, our Redeemer Your name is everlasting.
This is a story that teaches you not to underestimate Yitzhak. In this story Yitzhak is passed over at first; God goes from Avraham directly to Ya’akov. Only once Avraham and Ya’akov fail, does God approach Yitzhak. However, Yitzhak is the only one whose interests align with God’s and who wants to vindicate the Jewish people. On the surface this is a story about Yitzhak which is reflective of the larger midrashic and liturgical traditions about Yitzhak: he redeems the Jewish people through his willingness to sacrifice himself at the Akeidah. Whereas Avraham and Ya’akov both suggest that their children die al kiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name, Yitzhak is able to say that he has already died or was willing to die sanctifying God’s name, so the Jewish people’s sins can be neutralized on Yitzhak’s account.
However, a closer reading of the story and the way it implements the verse from Yeshayahu proves that this is actually not a midrash about martyrdom; this is a midrash about fatherhood. Avraham and Ya’akov have failed as fathers—they do not stand up for their children—whereas Yitzhak is such a powerful paternal voice that he is almost considered to be a greater father than God Himself. The moment of the story when Yitzhak proves himself and saves his children is in fact not when he references the Akeidah. Instead, it is when Yitzhak asks God rhetorically, “Are they my children and not Yours?!” Yitzhak forces God to acknowledge that one cannot abandon or sacrifice one’s children. If one’s children are sinning, even if “eradicating” them seems like the most likely consequence, another solution must be found. And if the sin needs to be borne, then a father should bear it. Either an ancestral father or a Father who is in Heaven, but the children need be loved, and they need be taken care of.
In an oral tradition, R. Meir of Premishlan7 suggests that part of the key to Yitzhak’s victory here is not only the force of his argument, but the force of his character. Yitzhak makes his point through the fact that he has a son whom he loves despite the fact that the son has sinned. Yitzhak has a son who is challenging, who causes his parents and others anguish, who might even be called evil, but Yitzhak still loves him and does not give up on him.
When the Torah describes the parental love shown by Yitzhak and Rivkah to their two sons, Esav and Ya’akov respectively, the language used to describe this love is not quite parallel. Not only do Yitzhak and Rivkah love different children, they love them in different ways.
וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם ישֵׁב אֹהָלִים: וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו כִּי צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת יַעֲקֹב:
The boys grew up, and Esav became a man who knew how to hunt, a man of the field. And Ya’akov was a calm man, dwelling in tents. And Yitzhak loved Esav, for there was game in his mouth, and Rivkah loves Ya’akov.
The description of Rivkah’s love is uncomplicated. There is no reason or qualifier given for her love, and it is stated in the present tense, Rivkah simply loves Ya’akov. This love is natural and unconstructed. The verb form of Yitzhak’s love, וַיֶּאֱהַב, is slightly more emphatic. It indicates that he loved his son as an act, rather than merely inhabiting a state of loving. Yitzhak willingly loved Esav. Recognizing this opens up the possibility of reinterpreting the phrase for (ki) there was game in his mouth. The word ki is usually rendered here as “because” but it can also mean “when.” Maybe Yitzhak doesn’t love Esav because of his predilection for hunting, but rather despite or merely alongside it. He loves Esav even when he is hunting, even when he is exhibiting a personality, character, or behavior that feels at odds with the way that Yitzhak had planned for his eldest son to be.8
When we think of the great romantics and great representatives of love in the Torah, Yitzhak might not be the first person we think of. However Yitzhak is the first person who is described as loving, and the first one who is described as being loved. Yitzhak is the referent for when God tells Avraham to take the son that he loves to be sacrificed,קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק,9 the first man to love his wife is Yitzhak, וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ,10 and the first man to love his son in an active way is Yitzhak again, וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת עֵשָׂו.11
Yitzhak’s strength, his gevurah, is tied to this, that Yitzhak is someone who loves even, or especially, when it is hard. Yitzhak could have given up on his son, but instead he chose to love him harder.
We can see many of Yitzhak’s choices through this lens and see his strength displayed in them. It has been noticed by many that Yitzhak and Avraham never appear to speak or interact with one another after the Akeidah. But Yitzhak’s choice to live his life as his father did, to follow in his father's footsteps and re-dig his wells can be seen as Yitzhak’s refusing to abandon the father who almost killed him. Yitzhak could have rejected the ways of his own father, but instead chooses to follow in his footsteps, exhibiting his strength and at the same time becoming even stronger. And perhaps his strength in the Akeidah was not his willingness to be slaughtered at God’s behest, but to call his father “Avi, my father,” even as he begins to suspect that his father is about to harm him and to walk yahdav, together with him, even once those suspicions are confirmed.12
Although there is a significant strain of Rabbinic interpretation that argues that Yitzhak was charmed by Esav and blind to his faults,13 a straightforward reading of the text does not require us to think that Yitzhak was so oblivious. Right before Yitzhak invites Esav to bring him some meat to eat, and thereby earn a blessing, the Torah tells us a seemingly unrelated fact:
וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה אֶת יְהוּדִית בַּת בְּאֵרִי הַחִתִּי וְאֶת בָּשְׂמַת בַּת אֵילֹן הַחִתִּי: וַתִּהְיֶיןָ מֹרַת רוּחַ לְיִצְחָק וּלְרִבְקָה:
Esav was forty years old, and he took Yehudit, the daughter of Be’eri the Hittite, and Basmat, the daughter of Eilin the Hittite, as wives. And they were a source of bitterness for Yitzhak and Rivkah.
Both Yitzhak and Rivkah are displeased that Esav chose Hittite women as his wives. And it is immediately on the heels of telling us that Yitzhak does not approve of this major life choice that his eldest has made that Yitzhak invites Esav to redeem himself and earn a blessing.
Understanding this about Yitzhak, that he sees Esav fully, recognizing both his failures and his potential successes, can help explain one the most perplexing moments in the parashah. Ya’akov, with his mother’s assistance, brings his father a special meal before Esav is able to produce one himself. Ya’akov dresses up as his brother in order to trick his father, but it is unclear if his father is convinced by his disguise when he says, הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב וְהַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו the voice is the voice of Ya’akov, though the hands are the hands of Esav (Bereishit 27:22). Despite the conflicting evidence, Yitzhak is willing to bequeath the blessing onto Ya’akov. This could indicate that Yitzhak does not necessarily need to give the berakhah to Esav; he just wants to give Esav a fighting chance. He wants to give Esav a task that he can excel at and in that way channel his hunter’s hands and bloodlust into something that might earn him his father’s approbation and blessing.
Yitzhak is aware of Esav’s less savory qualities, but he chooses to love his son anyway. Yitzhak may be blind, but his love is not. His love is strong. Yitzhak is loyal and steadfast. This kind of love is not poetic, and this kind of love can make Yitzhak seem weak, uncreative, and uninteresting. But Yitzhak is strong. He is aware that loving his family requires certain sacrifices, certain flexibility, and certain life choices that he might not have made otherwise. Selfishness is weakness, but Yitzhak is selfless.
Love is not always pleasant and love is not always optional. We do not always choose whom we love, and we are not always free to abandon them when they displease us. And though this love is not easy, it is important, and it can be defining. Loving someone who is difficult to love can be the hardest path that we take and may require all of our strength. Our loving father Yitzhak models both its importance and its possibility.
1 Bereishit 24.
2 Bereishit 26:18.
3 Bereishit 27.
4 One of the primary ways that Yitzhak is associated with gevurah, is less in the sense of brute strength and more in the sense of restraint. When Yitzhak is willing to allow himself to be bound and likely sacrificed by his father, he displays gevurah in this second meaning.
5 Cf. Shemot 24:7.
6 This midrash presumably accords with the opinion that Yitzhak was 13 or almost 13 at the time of the Akeidah, so it is reasonable for him to say that the 12.5 years of the Jewish people’s sinfulness be exchanged for the life he was willing to bring to an end at 12.5 years.
7 1703–1773, Ukraine. See Aharon Ya’akov Grinberg, “Parashat Toldot,” in Itturei Torah, Vol. 1, 217.
8 Cf. Bereishit 26:34-35, as will be discussed later.
9 Bereishit 22:2.
10 Bereishit 24:67.
11 Bereishit 25:28.
12 Cf. Bereishit 22:6-8.
13 See Rashi on Bereishit 25:27, where Rashi explains that Esav tricks his father by asking him pseudo-halakhic questions about how to tithe salt and straw.