Parashat Toldot: Fathers and sons

To what extent will psychological baggage and haunting family memories influence Isaac's decisions?

As Abraham, the path-breaking founder of a new nation and religion, passes from the scene, it falls to his heir Isaac to establish continuity of leadership and begin setting down the majestic guidelines necessary if Abraham's descendants are to bring God's words into the world.

Which are the most important talents for such a task? To what extent will psychological baggage and haunting family memories influence Isaac's decisions? And the question of questions; why does Isaac seem to favor (and even love) the aggressive Esau over the introspective Jacob?

In order to answer our question, we must not only concentrate on what the Bible says and doesn't say, on what is written and what must be read between those lines, but we must also attempt to understand the storyline, especially when it seems to be out of "sync" with logical expectations. For example, our portion of Toldot opens (from the middle of Genesis 25) with the birth of twin sons to Isaac and Rebekah, and the elder Esau selling the birthright to his younger brother for a dish of lentils. We then (Chapter 26) read what seems to be a departure from the main topic of sibling rivalry - Isaac goes down to Gerar, the land occupied by the Philistines, and has adventures there - only to return (Chapter 27) to the struggle over who will receive the birthright. Why not join the deception for the birthright with the sale of the birthright, and then tell the story of Isaac and the Philistine king Abimelech? Surely such an orderly description would make more sense!

The first verse of Toldot reads: "And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham. Abraham gave birth to Isaac" (Gen. 25:19). Isn't it strange that the text describes the generations, not from Isaac's children (the usual biblical style), but from Isaac's forebear?

But perhaps that is the whole point: Isaac's relationship to his sons - and his choice for future leadership - is a direct result of what he perceived to be his relationship with his father, and his father's brand of (and choice for) leadership.

Abraham was a founder - with all the dynamism, initiative and courage we would expect of a founder. He not only follows his God but even bargains with Him; in order to save Lot, he wages war and wins, and he succeeds in educating the next generation "to guard the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice" (18:19). Isaac's father was a larger-than-life, aggressive and forceful "Type A" personality.

Isaac himself, however, is much more passive and introspective, the legacy of living in the same house with such a daunting figure. Isaac never initiates: he is "taken" to the binding, a wife is found for him. And although he has been marked by God as the heir to the birthright of Abraham, "for through Isaac shall be called your seed" (21:12), he can never forget that his father didn't really want Ishmael banished, and that when God first promised Abraham a son, the patriarch's reaction was, "Would that Ishmael will live before You" (17:18).

And Ishmael is indeed more aggressive and powerful than Isaac - a man "whose hand wins over everything and everyone," (16:12), and perhaps even more fitting for leadership and more beloved in his father's eyes. Isaac's "obsession" with Ishmael causes him to constantly return to Beer-lahai-roi, where the Almighty saved Hagar and blessed Ishmael (24:62; 25:11), and perhaps it is his own feeling of inadequacy which leads him to choose the more dominating Esau over the seemingly passive Jacob, who reminds him too much of himself.

These feelings are only reinforced in Gerar, where Isaac calls Rebekah his sister, just as Abraham referred to Sarah a generation earlier, and where Isaac is chased away from an area in which Abraham and his descendants had been permitted to live by treaty. And he leaves quietly, without even a complaint, merely re-opening the wells dug by Abraham which Abimelech had blocked after the patriarch's death. Moreover, Isaac is forced into another treaty with Abimelech, since "he was treated well [by the Philistines] who merely banished him from the area but did not harm his person" (26:29). No wonder the passive Isaac is then moved to call upon Esau to receive the birthright (Genesis 27).

It is up to the wise Rebekah, who had not been part of the complex dynamics between Abraham and Isaac, to understand how Isaac's willingness to participate in the "binding" (22:6, 9) and his commitment to the Land of Israel (26:12, 13) entitled him - and not Ishmael - to the birthright, as did his whole-hearted studiousness and his deeper appreciation of what the birthright meant. In the final analysis it is this ability to understand the Reality behind "reality," the Ethical Will behind the world, rather than mere aggressive ambition, which must define leadership for the seed of Abraham.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.