“The Personality of Isaac: the Passive Patriarch”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we learn of the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, our matriarch, at age 127.

According to tradition, Sarah’s soul flew from her body and she expired when a messenger came to tell her that Abraham almost sacrificed her beloved son Isaac at the Akeidah. The Midrashic interpretation, which maintains that the Akeidah led directly to Sarah’s death, is based on the immediate juxtaposition of last week’s parasha, Vayeira, which concludes with the Akeidah, and this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, which begins with the death of Sarah.

In both last week’s and this week’s parashiot, we learn quite a bit about the personality of the patriarch Isaac. He is born to two parents who are well-on in years. Sarah is ninety and Abraham is 100 years old when Isaac is born. Both parents can hardly believe that after so many years of longing, a biological child is actually born to them. They clearly celebrate every step of Isaac’s development.

Sarah becomes a very doting and seemingly over-protective mother. When she sees Ishmael taking advantage of her Isaac, she demands that Ishmael and Hagar be expelled from the house. (Some commentators suggest that Ishmael actually tried to sexually molest Isaac.) Surely Sarah does not want the negative influences of Hagar and Ishmael in the home where she is raising her very special child.

Perhaps because of the fierce bond of the doting parents towards their son, Abraham is tested by G-d and instructed to give up Isaac by offering him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Ultimately, after a few days of excruciating tension, a ram replaces the child as the sacrifice. While it may be coincidence, the Torah does not record any further conversations between Abraham and Isaac after the Akeidah. Could it be a that a profound estrangement resulted between father and son because of Abraham’s attempt on Isaac’s life? Are there perhaps other scars and wounds which are a result of the Akeidah? Can this also be the reason why Isaac is portrayed as being so extraordinarily passive throughout Parashat Chayei Sarah, or could this passivity be the result of living in the shadow of such a great, dynamic father, Abraham?

Further signs of Isaac’s retiring nature are evidenced in Abraham’s decision to send his servant, Eliezer, back to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. Isaac seems to have no say in the matter. Genesis 24:63 reads: “Va’yay’tzay Yitzchak la’soo’ach ba’sah’deh lif’not arev,” Isaac is out passively meditating in the fields, and sees a caravan coming towards him. Rebeccah, who is part of the caravan and has no clue who is the person approaching, is told that it is the master, her future husband, and modestly covers herself. Isaac, appears totally oblivious to the fact that Eliezer has gone to fetch a wife for him, and thus requires a full briefing.

The servant tells Isaac everything that has happened in Haran and announces that Isaac is going to be married. Genesis 24:67 says: “Va’y’vee’eh’ha Yitzchak ha’oela Sarah ee’mo,” and Isaac brings Rebeccah into his mother Sarah’s tent, “va’yee’kach et Rivkah,” and he takes Rebeccah, that is, he betroths her, “va’t’hee lo l’ee’sha,”and she becomes his wife, “Va’yeh’ah’veh’ha,” fortunately, he loves her. “Va’yee’na’chem Yitzchak a’cha’rei ee’mo,” the Torah informs us that Isaac is finally consoled after his mother’s death, underscoring how deeply attached Isaac was to his mother, and that he never really overcomes her loss.

In the forthcoming parasha, parashat Toldot, Isaac appears to be even more passive. He is completely deceived by his son Esau, the great hunter, and fails to appreciate the goodness of Jacob. Rather than blazing new trails, Isaac spends most of his time retracing his father’s steps: Just like Abraham, his father, during a local famine Isaac goes down to Gerar, and, just like Abraham, he says to Abimelech, the King of the Philistines, that Rebeccah is his sister rather than his wife.

In Genesis 26:12, the Torah tells us: “Va’yiz’ra Yitzchak ba’aretz ha’hee, va’yim’tzah ba’shana ha’hee may’ah sheh’arim, va’y’var’chay’hu Hashem,” Isaac plants in the land, and reaps a hundredfold. G-d blesses Isaac and he becomes very wealthy. He acquires flocks and herds and many businesses, until the Philistines become jealous of him and chase him out of Gerar. Isaac proceeds to dig the same wells that his father had dug. To spite Isaac, the Philistines fill up the wells with earth. Isaac grows old, becomes partially blind, and so unaware that he cannot even tell the difference between Esau and his son Jacob, who deceives him by dressing up as Esau by placing goat-skins on his hands.

How does this apparently thoroughly passive person become the great Isaac, a member of the mighty triumvirate of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the renowned patriarchs of the Jewish people? Perhaps we find it so difficult to regard Isaac as a leader because of our own contemporary standard for a hero, probably based on the Roman and Greek legacy, which always regards the hero as a dynamic person, the gifted poet, the indefatigable soldier. While Jewish tradition also recognizes and values the physical prowess of a person, Jewish tradition far more deeply appreciates the spiritual strengths of people.

The bottom line of this story is that Isaac achieves his greatness not because of his activity, but perhaps because of his passivity, perhaps because he was the only one of the patriarchs who never left the land of Israel. He was an “olah tamim,” considered since the Akeidah as a pure sacrifice meant for G-d.

It may not be easy to appreciate, but Isaac, in his passivity, accomplishes as much, if not more, than the others in their dynamism and their dramatic activity. In Jewish tradition, the gibor, the hero, is not necessarily the one who attracts the cheering crowds and inspires poets to write sonnets in his/her honor, but rather the quiet person who achieves what he/she is supposed to achieve, and “simply” accomplishes what he/she is supposed to accomplish. Holding on to the land of Israel–that was the foremost accomplishment of Isaac, and perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all the patriarchs.

Yes, Isaac was the patriarch who took hold of the land of Israel; and if we have a land today, it is probably because he, as opposed to Abraham and Jacob, never left the land. He toiled the land, he worked the land, he plowed the land, and harvested the land. He loved the land! He embraced the land, and gave it to us as a gift.

Isaac was not at all passive. He was just quiet, and in his quiet perseverance, he achieved more than many others accomplish with much noise and bravado.