Haye Sarah: Seeing Isaacs weaknesses and strengths

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Haye Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:18

I Kings 1:1-31

Commentators and interpreters of the Bible have been apologetic, or at times merciless, when analyzing the life of Isaac, the patriarch featured in Haye Sarah, this week's Torah portion.

Isaac is often portrayed as a passive individual manipulated by his father, wife and child. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Torah Commentary, said the historicity of Isaac cannot be doubted because no people would invent a tradition with so weak an ancestor.

Great achievements are attributed to his progenitor and descendants. His father's fame came from being the first monotheist. Son Jacob's struggle with God's angel resulted in his name change to Israel, the name by which the entire Hebrew nation is known. Grandson Joseph saved the Israelites from famine. No such accomplishments are attributed to Isaac.

One might think that Isaac was the object of laughter and the butt of jokes. His name Yitzhak, means "he will laugh." Laughter appears to play a major role in his story. Two verses reveal that both Isaac's parents laughed upon hearing that at their advanced age they would finally become parents (Genesis 17:17, 18: 11-13).

Once Isaac was born, the question raised is, why did Sarah declare: "God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me" (Genesis 21:6)?

It is difficult to explain why a woman who longed for a child would speak so disdainfully. Medieval commentator Rashi saidSarah's laughter signified joy, but Targum Onkelos said her reaction was of ridicule.

Some commentators even suggest Isaac might have had limited ability. The text says: "Sarah saw the son, whom Hagar the Egyptian had born to Abraham, playing" (Genesis 21:9). The text uses the Hebrew word metzachek, which can appropriately be translated as "laughing," instead of "playing." Just after that Ishmael was expelled from Abraham's home at Sarah's insistence, leading one to speculate that however Ishmael treated Isaac, in play or laughter, it was not just child's play, because it so enraged Sarah. Although Ishmael could well have been laughing at Isaac, some say he was laughing at Sarah, given her older age at the time of Isaac's birth. Midrash Rabbah commentary on Genesis 21:9 says that Ishmael not only took advantage of Isaac, but threatened his life. Sarah found both acts intolerable.

Other evidence points to Isaac's limited ability. The story of the binding of Isaac points to an overly obedient son who did not protest his own sacrifice. In spite of his age at that point, approximately 37, the text refers to Isaac as a na'ar — the Hebrew word for a lad — an odd term for an adult, unless he was simple and childlike.

That the question of procuring a wife for Isaac did not arise until after the death of Sarah also raises questions. He is the only one of the patriarchs that does not "take a wife"; rather, one is chosen for him, as if he were incapable of the decision. Abraham's servant, Eliezer, selected Rebekah because of her kindness to animals (Genesis 24:19-20).Therefore, she could be kind to anyone. The text also intimates that Rebekah might have been a mother-substitute for the recently deceased Sarah (Genesis 24:67).

Although there is ample evidence that Isaac was a simple soul, we might also consider him a transitional character in early Israelite history, living in between a famous father, an extraordinary son and an even more powerful grandson. Although the Bible does not portray Isaac as entirely unsuccessful (Genesis 26:13-14), there may be little else to say about him, because he lived in a time without major conflict, famine or upheaval.

Isaac may have been a quiet, shy person who sought to avoid confrontation and strove for reconciliation and consensus. For example, the text indicated that Isaac lives in the Negev Desert, in Ishmael's territory (Genesis 24:62; 25:11). Perhaps he was there to try to reconcile with his brother, Ishmael.

Disputing Abimelekh over the digging of wells, Isaac withdraws, seemingly to avoid conflict. Eventually, Abimelekh seeks Isaac to make peace with him. Isaac responds: "Why have you come to me, seeing that you have been hostile to me and have driven me away from You?" (Genesis 26:27). But ultimately, Isaac agreed to peace, "made them a feast, and they ate and drank" (Genesis 26: 30).

A final interpretation of Isaac's greatness comes from Elie Wiesel in "Messengers of God." Wiesel asks why Isaac, the most tragic patriarch, has a name that means "laughter." Wiesel says that as the first survivor, Isaac teaches future survivors of Jewish history that one can suffer and despair an entire lifetime and still not lose the art of laughter.

Isaac's life bids one to think that most people are complex. It is important to see past Isaac's frailties and focus on his greatest strengths. If we can apply this focus to Isaac, perhaps we can apply the same perspective to all of our relationships.