“And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begot Isaac” (VaEile toledot Izhak) – this is the beginning of the new Torah Portion, Toledot. These very words, VaEile toledot, occur eleven times in the book of Genesis, serving as a heading for its major divisions and “making descent a keystone of biblical history”. Eleven? Wouldn’t you expect it to be twelve? It’s as if some Toledot – some genealogy – is missing there. This feeling is amplified when we realize that we have Toledot of everyone in Genesis—of Adam, Noah and the sons of Noah, Terah (Abraham’s Father), Isaac and Ishmael (Abraham’s sons), Jacob, of Esau and many others—however, we don’t have Toledot of Abraham. There are no Toledot of the most important person in Jewish history, and even though it’s easy for us to follow Abraham’s genealogy, the Torah never says: these are the generations of Abraham… Why? What is the message of these missing Toledot?
Unlike Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Abraham didn’t grow up in a family that knew and worshipped God. The missing Toledot of Abraham makes it very clear: the story and the history of Abraham begin from his personal search and personal revelation. Yes, God builds the whole nation from Abraham, but the beginning of this building is very abrupt, it starts from God’s personal intervention. And this is in fact, the message of these missing Toledot: to everyone – even to those who grew up in completely dysfunctional or atheistic families – Abraham can say, I was just like you!
Like Father, Like Son?
This portion begins right after the death of Abraham, and one might expect that now the Bible’s attention would switch to Isaac. However, it shifts almost immediately to Isaac’s children. Of all the three patriarchs, Isaac’s personality is the least clearly defined, so much in his life looks like a repetition of Abraham’s experience – therefore, in the eyes of many students of the Bible, Isaac is just a link between Abraham and Jacob. However, I personally think that Scripture depicts Isaac as a very real product of real circumstances. He was the child of his parents’ old age and was probably overprotected in his youth. His mother was a woman of strong character, his father’s great status must have appeared almost intimidating to his son. He lost his stepbrother, whom I believe he loved deeply. On top of it all, he was nearly killed by his father. Traumatic experiences seem to have followed him, so it’s no wonder that, as a result of all his sufferings and traumas, Isaac became a reflective, thoughtful, quiet person. Like everything else, it had both positive and negative connotations: He was probably emotional and tender, and that’s what we see in his relationship with Rebecca, but it could also mean that he was a weak person, and that’s what we see in his parenthood.
How do we know that Isaac was a tender husband? There is a verse in our portion that always touches my heart: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer…” This verse provides us a glimpse into this marriage, into this couple’s very close and intimate relationship. Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of their husbands praying for them. Moreover, Isaac’s prayer was very special: the word “prayed” here (in many translations it’s “pleaded”) renders the Hebrew word יֶעְתַּר (ye’etar) and is derived from the same root that is used in the second half of this verse, when “the LORD answered his prayer”. Isaac pleaded (וַיֶּעְתַּ֙ר יִצְחָ֤ק) with the LORD, and the LORD pleaded back in answer to his plea (וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה). This whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation – and yet, it’s precisely this dynamic, this passionate commitment to continue and press on, that brought the desired result: the LORD answered him and Rebecca his wife conceived. Rashi writes: “He (God) allowed Himself to be entreated and placated and swayed by him.”
Was Isaac Really Deceived?
Was Isaac also a good father? Scripture tells us about obvious parental favoritism in Isaac and Rebekah’s family. Remarkably, we don’t find here any judgment or any explanation: the Torah doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t provide any comment at all – it simply states the facts:Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob – and we are left to wonder why. As always, Hebrew can help us here.
While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors”, the original Hebrew text calls him “a man of a field”. This difference is important. Unlike his parents, Isaac was born in the Land, stayed in the Land his whole life, and at some point, he became the first farmer in his family: he sowed and reaped and became extremely blessed in that: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold, and the Lord blessed him.” Probably, that’s why Isaac loved Esau – they were both men of the field: “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.” The field is a symbol of the one who loves the land and nature, and Isaac and Esau probably spent a lot of time together outdoors, in the fields. I believe this is how their special bond was developed. But to see this, one has to know that in the original Hebrew text, Esau is called: “a man of a field”.
Everyone knows the story of Jacob pretending to be Esau and thus, through deceit, obtaining Isaac’s blessing. There have been endless disputes and discussions as to whether such deception was an acceptable means to achieve God’s purpose. Throughout the centuries, artists have painted expressive pictures depicting old, blind, and helpless Isaac, mistakenly blessing Jacob instead of Esau. However, was Isaac deceived?
Before answering this question, let’s read a short verse at the end of Genesis 26: when Esau was 40 years old, he took two local wives and “they were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah”. This expression, “grief of mind”, renders the Hebrew expression marat ruah – literally, “bitterness of the spirit”. Thus, for a Hebrew reader, it’s very clear that these wives were a very serious source of frustration to both Isaac and Rebecca.
However, it was only after Isaac sent Jacob off to Padan-aram to take a wife from there, that the Torah shows us Esau realizing that “that the daughters of Canaan did not please his father Isaac”. Many years had passed since Esau took himself these wives (more than 30 years, according to some calculations), and evidently, over all these years, Isaac was not able to face Esau and tell him how unhappy he was with his choice. Having this special bond with Esau, soft and quiet Isaac is not able to face him with any disappointing or challenging truth.
Thus, we can read the story of the “stolen blessing” in a very different way. Maybe Isaac knows very well that the blessing belongs to Jacob, but he just couldn’t face his beloved son with this message. Jacob’s lie comes as a godsend: Isaac pretends to be deceived, all the while being aware of Jacob’s identity, and blesses the son that was supposed to be blessed!
Water of Life
In this Torah portion, we find another amazing example of the “lost in translation” treasures of Hebrew Scriptures: Isaac reopened the wells of Abraham (“for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham”) and he called them “after the names by which his father had called them,” and then – what did he find there? In English, we read that they found a well of running water or spring water. However, it sounds much more profound in Hebrew.
Surprisingly, the Hebrew words for “running water” here are Mayim Hayim (מים חיים – Living water, or Water of life). True, on a physical level, Mayim Hayim can refer to running water, and in this sense, the translation is correct, but these words also have a deep spiritual meaning, which is completely lost in translation – the significance of the words Mayim Hayim, “Living Water”, cannot be overestimated. Every time these words are used in Scripture, they always refer to the spiritual level—to God’s Spirit, to God’s Water of Life.
 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, NY, 1981, p .29