“Isaac, the Man of Commitment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we once again learn that a famine, like the one in the time of Abraham, afflicts the land of Canaan, forcing Isaac to relocate to Gerar.

In Genesis 26:1, the Torah informs us, “Vah’yeh’hee rah’ahv bah’ah’retz, mil’vahd hah’rah’ahv hah’ree’shohn ah’sher hah’yah bee’may Avraham; vah’yay’lech Yitzchak el Avimelech, melech Plishtim, G’rah’rah,” There was famine in the land, aside from the first famine that was in the days of Abraham; and Isaac went to Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, to Gerar.

Isaac’s father, Abraham, who had also faced the challenge of famine, left the land of Canaan and relocated to Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). On a second occasion, Abraham left Canaan for Gerar (Genesis 29). Although there were certain similarities between Abraham’s experiences and Isaac’s experiences, Isaac’s treatment in Gerar was entirely different from Abraham’s.

Like his father Abraham before him, Isaac experiences famine, and must relocate in order to provide for his family. Like Abraham, Isaac tells the local residents of Gerar that his wife (Rebecca) is really his sister, for he was afraid to say that she was his wife, lest the men of the place kill him because Rebecca was fair to look upon.

Unlike Abraham, who goes to Egypt when faced with a famine, Isaac is specifically told by G-d not to leave the land of Israel. In Genesis 26:3, G-d tells Isaac, “Goor bah’ah’retz hah’zoht, v’eh’yeh eem’chah, vah’ah’vahr’cheh’kah, Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and bless you. So Isaac settles in Gerar, which is part of the land of Canaan.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) explains, that because of Isaac’s near death experience on Mount Moriah, he was considered an “olah temimah,” an “unblemished offering.” It would, therefore, not  be appropriate for such a holy man to leave the land of Israel.

Again, unlike the experiences of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt and in Gerar whose kings took Sarah to their palace, the king of Gerar does not take Rebecca to his palace. Instead, after seeing Rebecca and Isaac, sporting together from his window, King Abimelech berates Isaac for stating to all that Rebecca was his sister, rather than admitting that she was his wife. Perhaps, after the bitter experience with Sarah, when the people of his palace were stricken with a plague, Abimelech was much more cautious this time. Caution notwithstanding, Abimelech still expresses his anger by saying to Isaac (Genesis 26:10), “What is this that you have done to us? One of the people (meaning himself) has nearly lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us!”

Unlike Abraham, who was rewarded with abundant gifts by Abimelech and Pharaoh the king of Egypt, Isaac receives no gifts but is permitted to remain in Gerar. Subsequently, scripture tells us in Genesis 26:12, “Vah’yiz’rah Yitzchak bah’ah’retz hah’hee, vah’yim’tzah bah’shanah hah’hee may’ah sh’ah’reem; vah’y’vahr’chayhoo Hashem,” that Isaac sowed in the land, and in that year he reaped one hundred-fold; thus had G-d blessed him. As a result of Isaac’s great wealth, the Philistines envied him, and stopped up the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father, Abraham. Soon, Isaac was expelled from Gerar.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, in his comments on the weekly parasha, attempts to explain why the king of Gerar treated Isaac differently than his father, Abraham during his sojourn there. Rabbi Firer points out that the experiences of Isaac in Gerar were intended to serve as a sign for future generations. From Isaac’s actions, future generations will learn that it is a special mitzvah to remain in the land of Israel, even when faced with great challenges. Famine is not enough of a reason to leave the land of Israel, even temporarily.

Why is Isaac selected to be the bearer of this important lesson rather than Abraham? Rabbi Firer suggests that since Isaac was the one who demonstrated his ultimate devotion to G-d by being prepared to give up his life at the Akeidah, he was also selected to serve as an example of unstinting commitment to the land of Israel by never leaving the land. Not only is it a mitzvah for a Jew to express full commitment to G-d, but it is also a great mitzvah for a Jew to express his full commitment to G-d’s land, even to the point of placing one’s life on the line for sake of the land.

Isaac’s commitment does not go unacknowledged. In fact we see, that by expressing his unstinting commitment to the land, the land returns Isaac’s favor and produces one hundred-fold.

Rabbi Firer explains that because Rebecca was not taken to the King’s palace, it was not necessary for G-d to punish the residents of Gerar as he had done to the residents of Egypt and Gerar in the times of Abraham. Similarly, since there was no supernatural intervention, Isaac did not receive the abundance of gifts that Abraham received. Instead, everything that Isaac received was through his own hard work, and not through Divine help. In fact, not only did Isaac not get gifts from the King of Gerar, to the contrary, Abimelech’s shepherds harassed Isaac and his staff, and tried to prevent Isaac from achieving success. Time and again, Isaac dug wells and the shepherds of Gerar repeatedly sealed them (Genesis 26:18-21).

This, explains Rabbi Firer, is Isaac’s bold message to the world. It is Isaac who teaches that most success is the result of one’s personal efforts. Isaac has no need for help from other mortals, or their gifts. That is why the commitment that Isaac showed the land, was rewarded with the ultimate blessing, the eternal blessing of G-d.

May you be blessed.