Toldot – D’var Torah
By Rabbi Marge Wise
It is very interesting to note that Parshat Toldot is the first portion in the Torah which contains the themes of disability and aging. Specifically, we will examine how these themes affected Isaac’s parenting and, in the process, changed the trajectory of the lives of Rebecca and Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau.
“It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and he said to him, ‘My son’, and he said to him, ‘Here I am.’” (Gen. 27:1)
Much has been written about Isaac’s vision difficulties and whether they were physical or metaphorical. One explanation is that everyone is known for some particular characteristic. Isaac’s vision issue is presented matter-of-factly, similar to how the Torah notes that Esau was “ruddy in appearance.”
Another explanation is that since the word “old” appears in the verse directly before the dimness in Isaac’s eyes, that it was likely accepted as a condition due to aging. We can relate to this in our lives because we witness and experience various changes as we and our loved ones get older.
On the other hand, although we read that Isaac was old, the lifespans at that time were likely measured differently from the way we think of years today, so “old” is a relative term. Furthermore, we all know people whose cognitive abilities have not dimmed with age. Advanced age and dimness of eyesight don’t have to go hand in hand.
In a fascinating midrash about Isaac and Abraham, we are told that Gd made Isaac to be the spitting image of his father. People couldn’t tell them apart (Midrash Tanchuma, Toldot 1:4). Since this prevented each of them from being “his own person,” Abraham prayed to Gd that He cause him to visibly age so that at 120, he looked–appropriately–older than his 20-year old son.
Midrash Bereishit Rabbah tells us that when Abraham requested the appearance of old age, Gd replied: “By your life, you have asked a proper thing, and it will commence with you.” Gd answers Abraham’s prayer. In addition, Genesis 24:1 told us, Avraham zakeyn, ba bayamim, “Abraham was old, well-stricken in age,” again, the first mention in the Torah of age-related issues.
Isaac takes things one step further. He is reported to have felt that not only should a person show age, but that there should be affliction accompanying aging. The Midrash says that Isaac asked for affliction, pleading: “Master of the Universe! When a man dies without affliction, Judgment threatens him; but if You afflict him, Judgment would not threaten him.” Gd responded: “By your life, you have asked well, and it will begin with you.” Therefore, we read, “And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim…” (Genesis 27:1).
Almost all commentaries attribute the success of Rebecca’s birthright-switching plan to Isaac’s being blind and old, but let’s explore whether his eyesight issues could have been at least partly metaphorical. I think that various answers to this question reveal and reflect more than the physiological realities of who Isaac was.
Some commentators believe that Isaac knew what he was doing in blessing Jacob, who was disguised as Esau, and that he agreed–perhaps somewhat reluctantly, because he loved Esau so much–because he knew in his heart that Esau was not a candidate for the role of patriarch of the Jewish people.
On the other hand, there is the belief that irrespective of any vision issues he may have had, that his insight was faulty. He didn’t “see” what Rebecca saw and heard–namely, the nevuah, “prophecy,” she received that the younger, Jacob, would rule the older, Esau (Gen. 25:23). His affection for Esau may have clouded his judgment, preventing him from realizing that Jacob, not Esau, was fit to perpetuate Abraham’s covenantal relationship with Gd.
In another reference to Isaac’s eyesight, Rabbi Yechezkel Lifschitz, in Hamidrash V’HaMa’aseh, explains this in a different way. He says that Isaac’s devotion, when he was nearly sacrificed by Abraham (the Akeidah), was greater than Abraham’s; Abraham was commanded directly by Gd, while Isaac obeyed out of his faith in his father. From a young age, Isaac had a kind of otherworldly purity and was not aware of deception in the world. Because of this lack of awareness, Isaac could not see what Esau was doing and thought that Esau was more deserving of the blessing.”
From this parshah, may we see the importance of choosing ways to relate to our loved ones and to our friends which will transcend our deficits–whether they are physical or spiritual. Amen.