Torah Reading for Week of November 24-30, 2019
“What Can We Learn from Isaac?”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ’04
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
The scene where Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau is a pivotal point in the history of our people. Jacob, with that blessing, is destined to become Israel, the namesake of our nation, the one who wrestles with God. Usually that scene is discussed as one of intentional deception, perhaps part of a Divine plan to make sure that Isaac’s blessing was bestowed upon the ‘right’ twin. According to some commentators, deception for the sake of the future of the people might be excusable, if it were part of God’s plan. That leads to an important question: “Was Isaac really deceived, or did he know what he was doing when he blessed Esau instead of Jacob?”
Recall that Isaac had some personal trauma earlier in his life. It certainly must have been deeply disturbing to be the subject of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac Genesis 22:1-19), that distressing tale of when God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Abraham agrees, but then is stopped at the last minute when God sends an angel who tells him to sacrifice a ram instead. According to Rashi, the Akedah shaped who Isaac would become, that the traumatic effects of the almost-sacrifice left permanent scars on Isaac’s psyche. Avivah Zornberg suggests that Isaac’s blindness is a delayed reaction to the Akedah. The biblical text does not talk about the Akedah after it occurs; but the event lives on, large, within Isaac, who is haunted by his own death….the death with which he was threatened at the Akedah and the one that he imagines is near at the time he gives the blessing to Jacob.
Who was Isaac at that time? He was haunted by his past, worried about his death, and also blind, the blindness being perhaps both literal and metaphorical. He is once again the dependent character in the story, trusting others to lead him (his father Abraham on the mountain) and to feed him (his wife and sons). His autonomy is compromised. Impatient, psychologically frail, he needs to believe what he is being told.
Isaac tries to trust his senses to determine whether this is really Esau or Jacob: touch, hearing, taste and smell. “ At first Isaac is suspicious when Jacob claims that he is really Esau (Gen 27:18-20) “He hears the voice of his son and asks “Who is it”? Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
Still unconvinced, Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” Isaac accepts Jacob’s answer “The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied “.
Isaac is still dubious. “Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied. (Gen 27:21-24).
Isaac hears the voice of Jacob and doubts that it is really Jacob, once again questions his own perceptions, and then appears to accept the deception. He touches skin, feels it to be hairy, as he has been told it is Esau. Does he really confuse hairy goat skin for the skin of his son?
He asks his son to come close, depending on his sense of smell, and interprets the smell of the goatskins with which Rebekah has draped Esau “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.” (Gen 27:27) Interestingly, the Hebrew begins this sentence with the word “R’ay’, literally “See”, which Isaac cannot do in his blindness. (Note that this word R’ay is translated as “Ah!” by the JPS translation and “Surely” by others). This may be a kind of synesthesia, a substitution of one sense for another.
Isaac is skeptical, perhaps having learned earlier in his life that trust can be misplaced, or violated. He seems to overcome his skepticism, not trusting what his senses are telling his. Why?
Our senses can fool us when we want to be fooled, or need to believe that reality is different than what we actually perceive. This is especially true under duress, when fear can color our sense of reality and distort our thinking.
Esau allowed his fear of death to color his actions; he was morally blind to the implications of his decision to sell his birthright. His hunger fed his fear of death, clouding his thinking. Isaac too was so blinded by his fear of immanent death, that he felt he needed to give his blessing immediately and was thus unwilling or unable to believe what his senses told him to be untruths. Was Isaac’s burning desire to give his final blessing on what he believed to be his deathbed stronger than his doubts about the recipient of that blessing? Or was he, like many other older people, vulnerable, frail, and burdened by traumatic memories…thus a ready victim, ripe for exploitation?
There are sadly, today, many older people who are like Isaac, blinded by fear of death, their perceptions dulled by challenges to their vision, hearing, mobility or cognition, making important decisions under pressure, susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm. Their vulnerability increases their need to believe in miracle cures, invest in get-rich-quick schemes and revise their wills to benefit questionable beneficiaries. Fragile elders, dependent on others who may take advantage of their frailty, are vulnerable to financial scams and a wide variety of elder abuse scenarios.
Isaac lives on many decades after this incident, but had to live with the implications of his decision. We need to do the same. Have we thought carefully about who to trust if we became ill or incapacitated? Are we and our family members clear about our wishes about who to guide and protect us if (or as) we become more vulnerable? Do we have Advance Directives? Are our wills in order? Do our loved ones know our final wishes? Do we have funeral plans?
May all of us, who are aging and who care about others who are aging, learn from Esau and from Isaac, and be mindful and patient about the implications of the decisions we make under duress, when our senses and our sense may not be perfectly aligned.