This week’s Torah portion Toledot is about Isaac, the second of our Patriarchs. And yet the Torah portion never really tells us much about it him as it does about the people surrounding him. We only get glimmers of who Isaac is. We learn of his marriage to Rebekkah and the subsequent way he intercedes with prayer to God to help her conceive. But much more time is spent on her worries about her children. We learn about the twins subsequently born to Isaac and Rebekkah and the way they fight all their lives. We have several stories about Jacob and Esau and their interactions.
We learn about Isaac and Rebekkah’s sojourn to Egypt to escape a famine only to encounter a similar experience as his father and mother. They become entangled in a lie to the ruling king about the status of their own marriage. And yet we don’t really have any reflections by the character of Isaac that he is reliving the same scenario!
Throughout this portion dedicated to the life of Isaac we learn little about Isaac himself.
We learn little about how he feels and little about his thoughts. Isaac is more a foil for all the people around him.
Perhaps the most difficult moment in this week’s Torah portion is the anguish of Isaac’s son Esau. After his younger brother, Jacob, outwitted him for the birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing, Esau cries to his father, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father.”
Isaac does offer words of blessing but it is clear that the older brother, Esau shall serve the younger brother, Jacob. This is a pattern that began with Isaac and his older brother Ishmael.
Isaac in some ways was never his own man. He was always someone’s son-close to his mother Sarah. Comforted by his wife Rebekkah, Isaac perhaps scarred from the experience of near death on Mt. Moriah beneath the knife his father held kept him from being able to stand on his own and stand up for his own ideas.
We are all products of our families as Isaac was of his. He saw the strife between Hagar and Sarah. He was bound to an altar by his father only to return to his mother. He saw the infertility of his wife and then the subsequent constant trouble between his twin sons. Isaac was always caught in a storm.
Ironically his name has to do with the laughter of his mother when the angel’s announce his impending arrival. And yet Isaac’s life is not filled with laughter. Perhaps that is a reminder to all of us: to look beyond the ways our family destiny keeps us entwined and to work spiritually and psychologically to break free from that which holds us from becoming fully liberated and empowered human beings. We don’t divorce our families but growing up and maturing is really about the ability to take the good of our families and the not so good and grow beyond them while integrating what’s best. Onward to the task together.