Isaac, Disability and Aging in Parshat Toldot
“It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and he said to him, “My son,” and he said to him, “Here I am.” Genesis Chapter 27:1
Isaac’s problem with his vision is the first time that we confront an overt disability in the Torah. (The first mentioned disability is infertility, but this is a “hidden disability”). So it’s not surprising that there have been a number of different responses to Isaac’s blindness and explanations proffered about how and why Isaac was afflicted in this way. In these responses we can see a range of different perspectives on disability that are commonly held and which inform the various ways we view disability.
The first explanation of Isaac’s blindness is that his disability is a natural consequence of the diversity of the human condition. The information about Isaac’s vision is delivered with no fuss or fan-fare. Not really very differently from the way we are presented with the fact that Esau was born hairy or that he acquired the nickname “Red” (Adom – Edomites) as a result of eating red lentil soup. Because of the richness of our tradition it would be impossible for anything to pass on such a simple level – but we should not forget the Pshat, just because it is so obvious.
A second explanation for Isaac’s blindness is that disability is a normal part of the aging process. We are all too familiar with our parents and grandparents becoming frail and infirm, losing skills they previously had and needing support to do things that they previously could manage independently. We consider it natural that as one ages, the body ages too.
There is a midrash that tells us that prior to Isaac’s birth everyone was born as Adam and Eve were, as fully developed adults. Every person who was born after the creation immediately developed into a fully grown adult, and that is how they remained the rest of their life. This helps to explain the midrash that teaches that Rebecca was only three years old at the time that Eliezer met her at the well, as related later in Parshat Toldot.
The midrash centres on the relationship between Abraham and Isaac. While we could be sure that Sarah was Isaac’s mother, the paternity could have been open to question. After all, Abraham was almost 100 years old when Isaac was born. So in order to ward off the town gossip and the aspersions that a younger, more potent man must have impregnated Sarah, God created Isaac as an exact replica of Abraham. They were like “two drops of water”.
However, there was a downside to this. As the two men were so alike, no one could tell if they were talking with Isaac or Abraham – there was role confusion and the two men wished to each leave their own stamp on the world. So the midrash has it that Abraham requested that there be outward signs of old age.
There are two reasons why aging was seen to be desirable. First, aging allows parents to receive the filial obligations due to them as transmitter of life and tradition. It is a Biblical command that the younger generation honour the elder. The second reason is that the difference between young and old will facilitate the child understanding that he or she has an obligation to add his or her unique contribution to improving the world. Neither a child nor a parent should think of themselves as carbon copies of the other, for each is a unique individual.
Midrash Bereishit Rabbah tells us that when Abraham requested the appearance of old age, God replied: “By your life, you have asked a proper thing, and it will commence with you.” God answers Abraham’s prayer and never again would a 120 year old man be confused with his 20 year old son. Hence: we are told in Genesis 24:1 that “Abraham was old, well-stricken in age”.
Isaac takes this one step further. He is reported to have felt that not only should man age, but that there should be affliction accompanying aging. The Midrash continues “Isaac asked for affliction, pleading thus: “Master of the Universe! When a man dies without affliction, Judgment threatens him; but if You afflict him, Judgment would not threaten him.” Said God to him: “By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you.” Thus… And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dimmed (Genesis 27:1).
Rashi has a different explanation for Isaac’s visual disability, which is suggestive of the idea that people with disabilities have higher souls than the rest of us. He writes that: When Isaac was bound on the altar, and his father was about to slaughter him, the heavens opened, and the ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears fell upon Isaac’s eyes. As a result, his eyes became dim.”
While this explanation raises questions about how angels weep and why their tears would do damage, it is clear that this explanation puts Isaac in a category of people who have a special relationship with heaven. Of course the Akeida (the story of the Isaac’s almost sacrifice) puts him in a qualitatively different position to the rest of us. Nonetheless this explanation of disability does suggest that there is something exceptional about being a person with a disability.
The problem here is that this assumption has the potential to lead to abuse of people with disabilities. If they are “special” already, they should accept their struggle and not burden the rest of us. As “special” people they are assumed to have “special needs” – not the same needs as the rest of us. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the needs and desires of people with disabilities are any different from everyone else’s needs and wants. There is only evidence that others have far lower expectations for people with disabilities and are prepared to tolerate far lower conditions for people with disabilities than they would accept for themselves.
Another explanation of Isaac’s blindness, also offered by Rashi, is that Isaac is punished with physical blindness because he failed to see Esau’s behavior as bad and that he effectively sinned as a parent by not teaching his child properly. Just looking at Esau with love, rather than recognizing evil, was enough to cause Isaac’s eyes to dim. Added to this was the smoke from the sacrifices offered to idols by Esau’s Hittite wives, which blew into his eyes. Spiritual blindness leads to physical blindness. Isaac’s disability is therefore a punishment for his sins.
Unfortunately this explanation results in the assumption that a person with a disability is responsible for that disability. The person is being punished – and only have themselves to blame. So they cease to be worthy of our support and empathy. This is a very difficult position to take when it is a new born child with a disability, a person who has not had the possible time to sin. In this case, it is suggested that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. To my mind this is not an acceptable position to take, but one that nonetheless is a common response to disability.
A final explanation for Isaac’s blindness is that it is not literally a disability, but is a metaphor or perhaps simply a literary device to explain how it is possible for Jacob to receive Isaac’s blessing. Perhaps this was included as a way of having us understand how it was that once again a second child was favoured over the first – something unimaginable then and through the ages. Did Rebecca have to deceive Isaac to promote Jacob over Esau? After their earlier devotion and mutual respect, that resulted in each praying for the other so that Rebecca conceived, was there really such a difference of opinion? The fact that Isaac was blind to what was going on around him made it seem that he must have a physical blindness to complement that fault.
So how should we respond to Isaac’s disability? Perhaps our first step should be to accept that the ultimate reason for a disability is less important than the way we react to a person with a disability, both as individuals and as members of Jewish communities. People with disabilities are made in God’s image, just as are people without disabilities. Our challenge is to ensure that we treat all people with equal respect and dignity.
Isaac’s blindness reminds us that a physical limitation did not prevent Isaac from being one of the greatest figures in our history. This means that what is preventing people with disabilities from achieving their potential may be something other than the fact of the disability.
In Talmud Bavli, Megillah 24b, R. Jose tells the following story. Once I was walking in the darkness and I saw a blind man who was walking with a torch in his hand. I asked him, ‘My son, why do you need this torch?’ He told me, ‘As long as this torch is in my hand people can see me and save me from thorns and ditches.’
We need to acknowledge that among the Jewish people there are many people with disabilities. If you don’t have people with disabilities in your community you need to look to see what thorns and ditches may be imposing barriers to full participation. It is incumbent on us to examine the way our communities operate, and our own actions, with respect to people with disabilities. Blindness did not disable Isaac from being a learned, spiritual, sensitive individual and a leader amongst men. We need to do our best to ensure that our actions do not result in imposing further barriers to the full inclusion of all members of Klal Yisrael.