Parshat Toldot – פרשת תולדת

Parshat Toldot – פרשת תולדת

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Toldot – פרשת תולדת

November 6, 2021 – ב כסלו תשפב

This essay is dedicated in memory of Benjamin Karbowitz Z”L.

Isaac’s Blindness

In his old age, Isaac sought to confer blessings upon Esau. “And it happened when Isaac was old, that his eyes grew too bleary to see, and he called to Esau his elder son (Genesis 27:1).” Isaac’s plans were frustrated when Rebekah and Jacob conspired to deceive him and have him unwittingly confer upon Jacob the blessings intended for Esau.   Rashbam, who generally hewed to the plain meaning of the text and eschewed fanciful embellishment, explained Isaac’s blindness as a natural and expected consequence of his old age. He cited the example of the high priest Eli who lost his vision late in life (I Samuel 3:2). Bachya, too, understood the plain meaning of Genesis 27:1 to be that Isaac’s impaired vision was a product of his hoariness. He cited the examples of Jacob (Genesis 48:10) and Ahijah the Shilonite (I Kings 14:4), who went blind in their senior years. He noted that Moses’ perfect eyesight on the day of his death at age 120 was a miraculous occurrence, thus meriting an explicit Scriptural mention (Deuteronomy 34:7).   For some (more secular) readers of Scripture, however, Isaac’s blindness seems a bit too convenient. They may conclude instead that the Bible wanted to tell a story about a son conniving to steal blessings and to do so through the mechanism of an impersonation -- made plausible by positing a visually impaired father.   Yet it is not only literary critics or academic scholars who assert that Isaac was blind so as to make it easy for Jacob to steal the blessings. The rabbis of the Midrash made the same suggestion (Genesis Rabbah 65). But whereas the critics would regard Isaac’s blindness as no more than a literary technique, the rabbis saw it as an historical fact wrought by the Almighty. They cited the verse: “Many things hast Thou done, O Lord my God; even Thy wonderful works and Thy thoughts toward us (Psalms 40:6).” A late Aggadic text explained that God brought upon Isaac several unpleasant experiences so that his ocular powers would be compromised by the time of the stolen blessing incident (Sechel Tov Genesis 27).   Isaac’s blindness was important grist for the Aggadic mill. But while some explanations cast Isaac in a favorable light (as might be expected for homiletic treatment of a Patriarch), other explanations offer negative assessments of Isaac and regard his blindness as deserved punishment. Still other explanations offer no moral judgment of Isaac, instead depicting him as unlucky or as a victim of circumstance.   The most damning interpretation of Isaac’s blindness is that God punished him for taking bribes from Esau (Genesis Rabbah 65). Scripture warns: “And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous (Exodus 23:8).” That warning was directed towards trial judges and spoke of figurative blindness. In Isaac’s case, figurative blindness prevented him from seeing Esau’s moral failings, while physical blindness prevented him from discerning one son from another. Scripture mentions the particular form of bribery to which Isaac was most susceptible: “Now Isaac loved Esau because he did eat of his venison (Genesis 25:28).”   Midrash Hagadol ascribes Isaac’s blindness to the fact that Isaac loved Esau, who was hated by God; and hated Jacob, who was beloved of God. Heavenly hatred of Esau is made explicit later in Scripture: “And I hated Esau, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage for the jackals of the wilderness (Malachi 1:3).”   Another Midrashic text states that Isaac personally saw Esau offering incense to idols. Isaac should have had Esau executed for committing that capital crime. Instead, he showed his son unjustified mercy and let the transgression go unpunished. For that inappropriate granting of clemency, Isaac was punished by having smoke from Esau’s idolatrous incense enter his eyes and blind him (Sechel Tov Genesis 28). Alternatively, Isaac’s blindness brings to a fitting conclusion the story of Abimelech’s encounter with Sarah. When the king of Gerar returned Sarah to Abraham, he also gave Abraham one thousand talents of silver as a “covering of the eyes” (Genesis 20:16). What was initially only a metaphor connoting a hush payment became for Isaac a literal reality.   Other Midrashic texts suggest that Isaac suffered from blindness because he had previously misused his power of sight. The Talmud teaches that it is forbidden to gaze upon the visage of an evildoer. Because Isaac regularly cast a loving gaze upon Esau he was stricken with blindness (Megillah 28a). Alternatively, during the Akedah episode Isaac looked up at the heavens and caught an illicit glimpse of the Divine presence or the Seat of Glory (Pseudo-Jonathan).   Interpreting Isaac’s blindness as punishment for iniquity is relatively easy given how undesirable it is for a person to lose his sense of sight. But for those homilists who preferred to avoid besmirching the reputation of a revered Patriarch, it was necessary to expand the narrative beyond the details found in the text and somehow to turn blindness into a favorable condition. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah theorized that God took away Isaac’s vision as an act of mercy. Had Isaac been a fully functional person, he would have gone out to the marketplace and found people pointing at him and saying “There is the father of a wicked man.” To avoid that embarrassment, God disabled Isaac, effectively confining him to his own home (Genesis Rabbah 65). Alternatively, Isaac was distraught by the sight of his heathen daughters-in-law offering incense to idols. To spare him the pain of having repeatedly to see acts of paganism performed by family members, God took away Isaac’s sense of sight (Tanhuma Toldot 8). A later Aggadic text offered this parable: A great man who lived in a palace had neighbors who were burning stubble and straw just outside his window and ruining the air quality with the smoke produced. The great man reacted by closing his windows (Yalkut Shimoni Toldot 114).   Another explanation is that Isaac wanted to be blind. The Midrash claims that, before Abraham, nobody showed signs of old age; before Isaac, nobody experienced physical suffering; and before Jacob, nobody experienced terminal illness. Isaac requested from God that people be afflicted with this-worldly suffering so as to erase their iniquity before they faced Heavenly judgment after their deaths (see Yoma 86a).   Isaac's ineffectual parenting is also regarded as a reason for his blindness. The Midrash lists three factors that cause a person to age prematurely.  One of them is chastising one’s children and household retinue to no avail. Isaac berated Esau and his wives; they ignored him (Otzar Midrashim Eisenstein p. 506). A related explanation is that Isaac became enraged by Esau’s choice of wives, and that being perpetually angry can cause vision loss (Midrash Aggadah Genesis 27).   Yet another Aggadic passage ascribes Isaac’s blindness to bad luck. The angels cried during the Akedah incident and their tears happened to fall from heaven and land in Isaac’s eyes (Genesis Rabbah 65). This interpretation is consistent with a broader theme about Isaac’s life: His fate was largely out of his hands. The major developments in his life occurred because of decisions and actions taken by others. He was a passive stick-figure, in sharp contrast to the fleshed-out personalities of Abraham and Jacob.   Why did the sages offer so many competing theories about why Isaac went blind? Possibly because Scripture is quite short on details about Isaac’s life. His blindness presented a rare opportunity for exegetes and commentators to expound on the essential nature of one of the Patriarchs.   The negative assessments described above almost all relate to Isaac’s close relationship with Esau. Since the rabbis turned Esau into a stock villain and implacable enemy of Israel, it became difficult if not impossible to reconcile the presumed righteousness of a forefather to his intimate association with an unsavory son. Still, Isaac’s status as one of the Avot made it necessary to offset the negative interpretations with some charitable readings of the text, however strained the latter might seem to be.   However, it is also the case that some readers of rabbinic literature might be unsettled by the explanations of Isaac’s blindness discussed in this essay. Disability, including blindness, strikes many people. We are as a rule not inclined to look to the moral worthiness of the stricken person to seek reasons for his or her medical predicament. Isaac was old; the elderly tend not to see as well as when they were younger; and, as Rashbam generally believed, the plain meaning of the Biblical text is often to be preferred.