By Daniel Oppenheimer
At the beginning of Genesis Chapter 28, Isaac blesses Jacob as he sends him to Paddan Aram to find a wife. Not only is this Isaac’s last interaction with his son; these are also the last words that we hear from Isaac, and this is his last appearance in the story before he dies. His words appear to be a standard blessing, but one can read in them a tragic subtext. Both Abraham and Jacob have tragedy in their life, particularly Jacob. But Isaac’s life is in many ways sadder because it is one of almost unrelieved disappointment. And as he says goodbye to Jacob, Isaac asks God to give Jacob the things that he, Isaac, was not really able to have in his life. Isaac, unlike his son or father, spends his whole life in the Land of Israel. But he is not really able to live in peace – he is harried from pillar to post by the Philistines: they fill up his wells, they expel him from Gerar. Isaac has children – Jacob and Esau. But his is the smallest family of all three patriarchs, and hardly the mighty tribe promised to his father. Esau, despite being his favourite, disappoints him in his choice of wives, and is the grandfather of Amalek, Israel’s great enemy. Jacob, as we know, has many sons, but we are never told that Isaac met them.
Isaac does become rich, the text tells us. But even that is a source of unhappiness for Isaac, unlike the wealth that Abraham and Jacob also achieve in their lives. His wealth arouses the envy of Avimelech and his people, and leads to Isaac being expelled from Gerar, a humiliating sequel to the seeming triumph of God intervening to save him and Rebecca from Avimelech. And the commentator Sforno expands this theme further. After Isaac is expelled from Gerar, God appears to him and says ‘Do not fear…I will bless you’ (Gen. 26: 24). The commentators wonder what Isaac is afraid of. Most think he is disconcerted by the hostility of the Philistines, but Sforno explicitly reads this as economic anxiety – that Isaac’s fear is of impoverishment as a result of Philistine interference, and that God’s promise of a blessing relates specifically to financial success.
With this sad life story in mind, we look at Isaac’s final blessing of Jacob with different eyes. Isaac begins by wishing that God will ‘bless’ Jacob. Strikingly, Sforno, the same commentator, sees this not as a general statement, but as a specific reference to wealth – a hope that Jacob will be rich. Isaac then wishes for Jacob to be the father of many descendants. Then finally he asks for Jacob to have the blessing of Abraham and inherit the land of Israel – and it is hard not to see significance in the precise wording used. Isaac wishes for Jacob ‘l’risht’cha et eretz m’gurecha’, meaning ‘that you may possess the land where you are staying’ (28: 4). It seems as if Isaac is saying, ‘Yes, I lived in the Land of Israel all my life, but I never felt secure there, with the constant harassment by the Philistines. I never felt that my title was secure. I want you to have the security that I never had.’
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue, and a founder of its Assif minyan.