Parshat Toldot


The Torah portion Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9) is read on Shabbat, November 11
The Power to Bless


In his innermost self, Isaac has never come down from the altar


Dov Berkovits


REPEATED Three times daily in our prayers since kindergarten, the names of our three fathers have been etched on our souls. Yet one of them, Isaac, IS SOME- THING OF A “missing man.” Ten chapters of Genesis describe the towering figure of Abraham — teacher of the  belief in one God, man of unbounded com-passion, questioner of God's  jus-tice regarding the destruction of Sodom, prophet, victor in war, father of many nations.

Jacob, too, though a more complex and troubled figure, captures our imagination — father of the 12 tribes, whose life embodies the tragic quest for innocence in an imperfect world, carried forward by the dynamic of exile and return, in concert with angels and in the mysterious struggle with them to give birth to his children's destiny. BUT Isaac remains a distant and forbidding figure. Elevated to a dimension separate

from our own, he remains on the altar, a sacrifice for all time, the nife in the hand of his father poised at his throat.

Unlike his father and his son, Isaac is for-bidden by God to leave the Land of Israel in time of recurring famine. Rashi under-stands God's command in light of Midrash Bereshit Rabba — “You remain an unblem-ished offering — all your life — the land out-side of Israel is not worthy of you.” Delivered up to God, Isaac is holy not by choice, by free will, as an act of human au-tonomy and responsibility. Isaac is holy as an a priori condition of being. In his inner-most self he has never come down from the altar.

Of the little we learn of Isaac, we know that he enjoys solitude, perhaps in medita-tion and prayer. He seeks out Beer Lehai Ro’i, where an angel appeared in response to the cry of his half-brother, Ishmael, com-petitor for his father’s love and blessing.

Netziv, in his commentary “Ha’amek Davar,” understands that it is Isaac’s awesome, oth-erworldly aura that so frightens Rivkah that she falls from her camel, unable to look di-rectly at her prospective husband. Netziv ex-plains that Isaac's ppearance so awes her, that he remains unapproachable to her during their whole arital life. This, claims Netziv, is what creates the lack of communication between them that will lead Rivkah to confuse her blind husband by replacing Esau with Jacob to receive Isaac’s blessing. Despite Isaac’s seemingly meditative and other-wordly nature, there is something surpris-ingly life-touching and life-giving about him.  

He loves the smell of the field — he loves the smell of the hunter. He is more deeply attracted to the dynamism and uncontrolled passion of Esau than he is to Jacob’s innocence, to the shepherd, the “dweller in tents.” Isaac en-joys tasty food and the heavy animal scents of Esau’s clothing. Perhaps it is this unex-pected integration of opposites in Isaac's being - connecting his unmitigated surrender to God's will with the rich, physical touch of life - that gives Isaac the gift of blessing.

We moderns have some difficulty under-standing the non-discriminatory nature of
the way Isaac passes on the powers of life to those he blesses. Isaac wishes to bless Esau, not Jacob. Can Jacob receive those powers of life intended for Esau simply because the words of the blessing were uttered? To our understanding, a blessing of father to son is a pulse of heart and soul, not an indiscriminate incantation.

Perhaps even more telling is our disbelief in the very power to bless. Can the powers of life be passed from one person to the next? By word of mouth? In the first chapter of Genesis, the power to bless is God's, and it is the power to give others the gift to create life. God blesses the fish and the birds, as well as humans, with the power to propagate physically. God blesses humans with the gift of culture and technology to rule the earth, in order to preserve God’s creation. Finally, God blesses the Sabbath with an undefined life-giving power.

Surprisingly, the Divine power to bless, and by blessing to pass on the power to en-gender more life, is itself given by God to humans. In Genesis God’s chosen among humans are defined by the power to bless, and it is Isaac who most embodies that Divine gift. The power to bless is a condition of be-ing; it precedes the nexus of hoice and will, of autonomy and responsibility. It derives from an unquestioning dentification with God’s will and with the ultimate interests of life embedded in God’s creation. The paradox of Isaac’s power to bless is that bound on the altar, he deeply identifies with God's boundless will for the creation and preservation of life. Upon his return from Mount Moriah he binds prayer and meditation with a passion for the rich touch and scents of physical reality. Isaac’s potent gift to his children is that in living this paradox of surrender to God along with the passionate affirmation of lifelies the human power to bring life to others.


Rabbi Dov Berkovits lives in Shiloh. He is head of Beit Av —Creativity and Renewal in Torah, and is on the senior faculty of Tehudah – Community Leadership in Israel.