This week we have two story lines – the story of Isaac’s twin sons – Jacob and Esau… and the story of Isaac and his wife Rebekah where Rebekah shares, and ultimately sets, the future course of the Jewish people.
I would like to base my comments this week on two statements that were made last week at our Torah study class at Temple Chai in reference to the status of Isaac.
The first statement is one which I have seen in many commentaries…. Isaac is really a rather insignificant character and only serves as a link to the more important patriarchs, Abraham to Jacob.
The second was made by the class’s facilitator, Rabbi Ilana Baden. When we look at Isaac’s place in Torah…. We must also look at Rebekah. They functioned as a team. And it could be said that Rebekah has a greater influence on Jewish history than her husband…. I am paraphrasing what she said by memory. I hope that I am not too far from her ideas.
I agree with Rabbi Baden, if we look at the influence of Isaac, we really must consider the actions of both Isaac and Rebekah. I believe the most significant achievement of this pair was that they continued the concepts of a powerful God … the God of Abraham … forward through another generation…. And then, they passed these ideas on to a third generation through their son Jacob. This is significant because so many great ideas are started by a first generation. Then, forgotten or destroyed by the second generation. Given the events of Isaac’s life – the Akedah and the death of his beloved mother – it is surprising that Isaac followed in the ways of his father.
However, if we look at the lives of Isaac and Rebekah as presented in Torah, we learn that the continuation of the belief in the God of Abraham was more the function of Rebekah.
Early in this week’s parsha God speaks to Rebekah – not Isaac – and tells her that the babies she will have will grow into two nations. “One people shall prevail over the other; the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23) Esau was born first… and Jacob followed holding onto his brother’s heal.
As the boys grew older, Esau became a skilled hunter. “Isaac favored Esau.” Jacob kept to the tents and was closer to his mother. “Rebekah favored Jacob.” (Gen. 25:27-8)
Isaac’s life is summarized in a short 34 verses (Gen. 26:1-34). We learn that Isaac’s life was an almost perfect mirror of Abraham’s. There was a famine in the land and Isaac travels away from home. (Gen. 26:1) Isaac receives a covenant promise from God (Gen. 26:3-5) In a trip to Geer he claims that Rebekah is his sister. (Gen. 26: 8-11) Isaac obtains great wealth in the land to which he and Rebekah had traveled. (Gen 26:12) Isaac redigs the wells that his father had dug and had been refilled by the Philistines. (Gen. 26:18-22) Many commentators have said that the wells represent the knowledge of God. Abraham brought these ideas to the Philistines. When Abraham left, the ideas were repressed. Isaac reintroduced these ideas…. (i.e. redug the wells)
“When Isaac had grown old and his eyesight had dimmed, he called his elder son Esau…” Esau was asked to bring Isaac some game. “Then you can make me tasty dishes such as I like and bring them to me and I will eat, so that I can give you my heartfelt blessing before I die.” (Gen. 27:1-4)
Rebekah heard this conversation and fearing that Esau would receive Isaac’s blessing, she devised a plan where Jacob pretended to be Esau and received the family blessing… as foretold by God before the boys were born. So we see that it is Rebekah’s actions that gave Jacob the blessing of their father. Maybe the reference to Isaac’s eyesight being dimmed might have also referred to his powers of intellect…. After Jacob receives his father’s blessings, Rebekah realizes that Esau might harm Jacob. To protect Jacob, she sends him to Laban’s home … the homeland of both herself, Abraham, and Sarah. It is here that Jacob finds his two wives.
While it is generally assumed that the place of the woman was in the home… and being subservient to her husband. Rebekah found ways to make major family decisions. In many ways it seems that Rebekah has a greater influence on the future than Isaac. Maybe this is why Isaac seems to have a lesser role in our early history.
Artwork “A cross-section of a pregnant uterus containing twins. Courtesy of Engra Wellcome V0014950″ by http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/05/52/0c0f1b0b28c5d6445c51f72bff61.jpgGallery. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.