The Life of Isaac

Another D’var Torah I delivered Friday evening at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. It touches on the Torah portions Vayera, Chayei Sarah, and Toledot.

To understand Isaac, we have to go back to the beginning, when his mother Sarah laughed at the idea that she could have him—before her pregnancy. She’s too old. She thinks it’s funny. God says, Why did you laugh? I can do it. She lies to God: I didn’t laugh. God says, No; you did laugh.

Then after his birth and bris, she says, “God brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Kol hasomeya yitzchak li. So that’s his name: Yitzchak. You could say that he was conceived in a kind of doubt of God’s power, followed by a silly lie to God. But he was born in joy. How happy she must have been, after a lifetime of wanting to be a mother. How glad to have been proven wrong. How much she must have loved him.

So he grew up with a name that meant something between a joke and a joy.

Fast forward to the Akedah. Dad says, Let’s go up the mountain and make a sacrifice. Isaac says, Okay, where’s the sheep? Dad says, God will provide. Okay, now he’s tying me up. Now he’s holding a knife over me. I think I’m supposed to just lie here quietly.

Isaac lives. But some rabbis think Abraham failed that test. He should at least have challenged God as he did with Sodom and Gomorah. God never speaks directly to Abraham again. Sarah never speaks to him again. So now Isaac grows up with a name that means laughter and the trauma of almost being killed by his father, for God’s sake.

He grows up to be the kind of man who walks out in the field to meditate in the evening. One night, in the sunset, he sees his bride coming toward him on a camel. She alights, and Eliezer explains who she is. We are told: And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah—who has recently died. Vayikach et Rivka vat’hi lo l’isha. And he took Rebecca for a wife. Vayeh’eh’havehah. And he loved her. And Isaac found comfort after his mother. Acharei imo. We already know that Isaac’s story is one of the great loves between mother and child. Now it’s also one of the great romantic love stories. Vayeh’eh’havehah. Acharei imo.

There are other reasons to understand it as a love story. Of the patriarchs, only Isaac has just one wife. Only Isaac does not struggle with God. Isaac makes peace, not war. Unlike his father and his son, his name never changes. And Isaac stays home.

He and Rebecca do go as far as the land of the Philistines, but God—speaking to him directly—tells him not to go to Egypt. Still, he imitates his father in another way. He lies to the king of the Philistines and says that Rebecca is his sister.

The parallels between this lie and the one his father told about his mother in the same place are stunning. Sarah and Rebecca are so beautiful that their husbands fear they will be killed for them. But the resolution of the lie is significantly different.

One day the king of the Philistines is looking out the window. What does he see? V’hiney Yitzchak m’tzachek et Rivka ishto. And behold, Isaac was playing with his wife. Yitzchak m’tzachek. Some translations say “sporting with,” or “fondling.” Either way the king knows immediately, as we all do in such a case, that this is not the love between brother and sister.

You could also say, “Isaac laughed” with her. It’s the same word as his name. Yitzchak m’tzachek. The love between them is a mirror of his name. It is the essence of Isaac.

Now we fast-forward again to the end of his life. He is old and blind in more ways than one. He is about to make the worst mistake of his life. And Rebecca, the love of his life, knows it. Jacob, the son she loves the way Sarah loved Isaac, must be the one to get the blessing, not Esau. And so there is another lie, the biggest one of all. Rebecca’s love for Jacob triumphs even over her love for Isaac.

Or does it? We could say instead that she lies to Isaac because she loves him, and because at this point in his life her judgment is better than his. She saves him from himself. Isaac accepts this in the end because he has no choice, just as he had no choice when his father bound him on the mountain. But it is also perhaps because he knows she loves him.

Isaac is a lover, not a fighter. He is faithful, not lustful or ambitious. He chooses a good wife who comforts him after his mother’s death, and who in the end in a way becomes his mother. He is in his second childhood. She makes the judgment he is too old and blind to make.

Isaac, of all the patriarchs, is my hero, and I think he is a hero for our time. Terrible things happen to him, but he survives and transcends them. Wonderful things happen to him too, and God speaks to him and blesses him the same way God blessed his father. He has a great life and leaves a great legacy.

See also my previous post on the matter of Isaac, Esau, the birthright, and the blessing, complete with more authoritative (rabbinical) opinions than mine.

3 thoughts on “The Life of Isaac

  1. This is very beautiful, this story of Isaac as you tell it. I am a catholic, and when as a child I first heard of how Abraham almost killed Isaac I thought how terrible! I am glad some rabbis – teachers as Jesus was – thought he should have spoken up. Thank you!

    I came upon this blog because I am a nutritionist and forever grateful for your work and Boyd Eaton´s on nutrition.

    I live in Uruguay. You can´t imagine how many times I name you and Eaton :))

    Thanks from the heart, the mind and the soul


    • Dear Maren, If you write to me (antmk at emory dot edu) I’ll send you the latest Paleo nutrition papers, Mel

    • Boyd and I are working on an update now, to be submitted to the journal Evolutionary Anthropology. Thank you for your kind words, Maren, and please forgive the long delay.

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