Parashat Todot: Fathers & sons

The question which begs to be asked as we begin the stories of Jacob is why his father, Isaac, favored Esau.

The question which begs to be asked as we begin the stories of Jacob - the most fully described of the patriarchs - is why his father, Isaac, favored ("loved") Esau. The text says it was because "the trap" - the venison - was in his mouth. It could not have been because Esau was a better cook than Jacob; we are dealing here with the heir to the Abrahamic covenant; Father Isaac could not possibly be so impressed by a savory dish, no matter how delectable. So why did he favor Esau? To answer this question, permit me to return to the narrative of the akeda and ask a number of questions tangential to the central one: how could the God of compassion apparently demand such a sacrifice by his beloved servant? I believe these secondary questions, as well as other matters about Isaac emanating from the biblical text and the Midrash, will illuminate the complex relationship between Abraham and Isaac while teaching us a critical lesson concerning the true significance of the birthright. First of all, what happens to Isaac immediately after the akeda? He disappears! The biblical text is very clear, if problematic: "And Abraham returned to his lads" - the two young men who had accompanied father and son to the mountain, but whom Abraham told to remain behind with the donkey while father and son went to worship (Gen. 22:3, 5), "and they rose up and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham [alone!] dwelt in Beersheba" (Gen. 22:19). Targum Yonatan reports that Isaac was miraculously transported to the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber, but the text itself doesn't tell us this. The next time we meet Isaac - when Eliezer is returning from Aram Naharayim with Rebekah, his intended bride - we are told: "And Isaac was just coming from coming from Beer-lahai-roi, and was dwelling in the land of the Negev, and Isaac went out to commune [with God] in fields… and behold, the camels [of Eliezer and Rebekah] were coming" (Gen. 24:63, 64). Apparently Isaac was living neither in Beersheba nor Hebron, but in the Negev near Beer-lahai-roi. Why is he not with Abraham, and why choose Beer-lahai-roi? And indeed, following the burial of Abraham, the text informs us: "And it happened after Abraham died that God blessed Isaac his son; and Isaac was dwelling with [sic] Beer-lahai-roi" (Gen. 25:11). Thirdly, although the text does state that Abraham "gave all he had to Isaac" - to Isaac, and not to Ishmael, to Isaac and not to the children of Keturah or his other mistresses - is it not strange that it is God who blesses Isaac after Abraham dies, and not Abraham who blesses Isaac? And along these lines, there is not one recorded discussion between Abraham and Isaac after the akeda, not even surrounding the search for a wife. Fourthly, the Midrash identifies the two lads who accompanied Abraham and Isaac to the site of the akeda as Eliezer and Ishmael (Gen. 22:3, Rashi ad loc). But Ishmael had previously been banished by Abraham (ibid. 21:10,12)! Why would Abraham bring him back - and for the akeda, no less? And why does the Midrash make Isaac the shadchan, matchmaker, who brings Hagar to marry Abraham after the death of Sarah? (Gen. 24:62, Rashi ad loc); the Midrash identifies Keturah with Hagar, and explains Isaac's comings and goings to and from Beer-lahai-roi as part of his matchmaking. Why even suggest such a connection? And finally, I have previously cited a fascinating Midrash (Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer 30, Yalkut Shimoni 95) which tells how Abraham never stops thinking of Ishmael, and - after three years - sets out to visit him, promising Sarah that he will not get down from his camel. Ishmael is not at home, and his wife refuses Abraham food or drink. Abraham sends a message for Ishmael to change the entrance to his tent - a hint that he find a new wife. Another three years pass, and Abraham again attempts to visit his eldest son. Again Ishmael is not at home, but this time a new wife gives Abraham food and drink without being asked. Abraham prays for Ishmael, the house is filled with blessings, and Ishmael understands that Abraham's fatherly love and compassion extend to him. What is the point of the Midrash? Let me first state that it must have been hard to be the son of Abraham, a dynamic leader who was a wealthy herdsman, a successful general and a path-breaking religious visionary; no one could blame Isaac if he felt inadequate. And indeed, Isaac - at best, the "continuer" - doesn't add anything to Abraham's ethical monotheism, shrinks from any real confrontation with Abimelech, barely succeeds in re-opening the wells his father had dug, and seems completely passive. He is taken to the akeda, a wife is found for him, and the blessings are wrested from him. His nemesis is his older brother - and Abraham's first-born son - Ishmael, the man "whose hand is over every thing" and who is far more Abrahamlike in his ambition and aggressiveness. And Ishmael can't help but feel that Abraham, had it not been for God's intervention, would have preferred him to bear the birthright as the firstborn. After all, had not Abraham requested of God - at the very moment he was informed of Isaac's impending conception - "would that Ishmael live before thee" (Gen. 17:18)? And so Isaac is obsessed with Beer-lahai-roi, the place where God promised Hagar a son who would become a great nation, and continually returns to that place and eventually lives in it - and with it. When Abraham takes him to Mount Moriah and he realizes he is to be the sacrifice - and then sees Ishmael, apparently back from exile, as a participant in the ritual - can one blame Isaac for thinking the unthinkable: that his father wanted him out of the picture so that Ishmael might replace him? Hence Isaac leaves the akeda shaken and angry at the father who had been so ready to slaughter him. Yes, he brings Hagar to be Abraham's new wife, but perhaps only to say: "I always knew you wanted her as your real wife and her son as your real son." Abraham fulfills Isaac's worst fears by not blessing him before dying, and in the Midrash Isaac's suspicions are strengthened when Abraham finds a wife for Ishmael - the expected task of a father for the son he sees as his real heir - and gives special blessings to Ishmael as well. Isaac always believed that his father favored the more aggressive son, and so he favors his more aggressive son - the hunter who goes into the fields with strength and cunning. But God insists otherwise. The birthright of ethical monotheism belongs not to the sons who are most aggressive but rather with the sons who believe most passionately in the Abrahamic mission: Isaac and Jacob, not Ishmael or Esau. The writer is the founder and chancellor of OhrTorah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.