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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Yitzhak – what did he know, and when did he know it?

Posted by rabbiart on November 28, 2008

Yitzhak – the least of our three forefathers. Almost sacrificed by his father, manipulated by his wife, deceived by his younger son, his older son marrying Hittites and embittering he and his wife,  he hardly seems a heroic figure. Possibly scarred for life by his near-death experience, he lives in fear, for in the moment of his greatest comfort, HaShem appears and tells him not to be afraid. (Breshit 26:24)

As the parshah opens, we learn that not only Rivkah, but Yitzhak himself was barren, perhaps impotent.

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיהוָה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא; וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְהוָה, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

“Yitzhak entreated HAshem opposite his wife, for she was barren. HaShem was persuaded, and Rivkah his wife conceived.”

The Talmud Bavli (Yebamot 64a) articulates: R. Isaac stated: Our father Yitzhak was barrend; for it is said, “Yitzhak entreated HaShem opposite his wife. It does not say ‘for his wife’ but ‘opposite’. This teaches that both were barren. The gemara points out that – according to the wording of the Torah’s verse – it is Yitzhak’s prayer that is effective, and asks why the text does not say that both their prayers were answered. (Apparently interpreting the verse that both Rivkah and Yitzhak prayed – what do you think?). But then it goes on to say that “the prayer of a righteous man the son of a righteous man (Yitzhak) is not like the prayer of a righteous man the son of a wicked man”.

From this we learn that Yitzhak is a righteous man in his own right. But what accomplishments does he have? He receives the promise and the blessing… because of what his father did. When there is famine, he does what his father did (except he does not go down to Egypt), positions his wife as his sister, then reaps the reward of riches.  Conflict over water and wells follows, and then it is time for him to die, bringing on one of the most famous stories in all of the Bible, if not all of literature.

Was Yitzhak deceived, did he acquiesce, or was it all part of his plan for Yakov to receive the blessing and carry the future on his shoulders? Commenting on the opening verse of the episode, R. Abbahu (Talmud Bavli, Yebamot 93a) says: “A man should always strive to be of the persecuted than of the persecutors. There is none among the birds more persecuted (hunted?) than doves and pigeons, but they alone (among birds) are fit for the altar.”

R. Abbahu gets the essence of Yitzhak; he is a sacrificial figure, whose role is to sacrifice for the good of others.  When he first speaks he seems to know more than he lets on, yet he goes along.  Now when he speaks at the end, is it possible he does not know what is happening?  When the food he requests is presented he asks “Who are you my son?” and again “How did you bring it so fast?”  and finally these famous words “The voice is the voice of Yakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav” and finally again “Are you really my son Esav”?

Could Yitzhak not have known it was Yakov who came quickly with his food?  Is his answer to Esav – when he lately appears – genuine, or is it a coverup? Rashi (who else?) has an interesting comment to verse 36: “When Esav started crying, saying “He has already deceived me twice”, his father said to him “What did he do to you?”. Esav replied “He took my birthright.” Yitzhak said “That is why I was troubled and shuddered, for I was afraid that perhaps I had transgressed the line of strict justice, but now that I know that I actually blessed the firstborn, “he too shall be blessed.” (end of verse 33).  Rashi seems to be saying that – once Yitzhak learned that Yakov owned the birthright – Yakov actually was entitled to the blessing of the first-born.

We often see that children know more about their parents – and parents about their children – then either suspects or will say out loud.  Could Yitzhak not have known about the incident of the soup and the birthright? Unlikely! Could Yitzhak not have sensed his father intended to sacrifice him? Most likely.

Some people are alloted fame and fortune, even the genesis of a people.  Others play a smaller role. Perhaps it was Yitzhak’s alloted role to be everybody’s fool and the object of their games.  But, perhaps, all along, he knew exactly what was going on, and more importantly, exactly what he was doing.

Shabbat Shalom

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