Michal Kohane

The Wells of Yitzchak – Parashat Toldot

I must admit: it took me a long time to appreciate and even like Yitzchak.

He’s seemingly such a “personality-less”, weak, passive person: his mother decides who he plays with and, more so, who he not. His father, one day, gets up early in the morning, carries him up the mountain to bring him up as an ola offering, and he just lays there, bound on the rock without a word. Avraham’s servant brings him a wife he finds by a distant well. The wife manipulates which son he blesses. The continuing son disguises himself and deceives him… Come on, is this one of “the” ancestors of “the” Jeiwsh people, the chosen and holy one?

But there is one verse that suggests that perhaps, after all, a man of great stature is standing before us:

And the man grew, and grew more, until he was very grown” Genesis 20:13). I know, the English translations use “get richer” and “very wealthy”, but I wanted to stick to the Hebrew, because in the Hebrew, there are 9 words, and in a third of them – the root G.D.L., for becoming big, i.e. the man is growing and growing until he is very grown!

What happened that he because so great? The priori verse says:

Isaac sowed in that Land and reaped a hundredfold during that year, and Hashem blessed him”.

Surprise! Isaac, the one lacking personality, who is passive and weak, does not do what almost the whole family does. He is not a shepherd, like his father, his son, and many others, but – a farmer, and even – a very successful farmer!

The midrash says that the words “in that Land” and “in that year” tell us that the land was hard, and the year was hard; that there was a time of famine, and yet, Yitzchak manages to reap a hundred times more than was expected!

So maybe not such a wimp?

Still, how do we explain everything else?

Abraham is considered a man of chesed, kindness. Isaac, like Sarah, is considered a representative of the measure of din or gevura, justice, bravery. Abraham’s personality is that of an initiative, and he works in the world. Isaac has a more tolerable personality. He understands the world differently than his father. If Isaac had understood the world the way his father understood it, he might have smashed his father’s idols, as Abraham did to Terach, and we wouldn’t be here today… but Isaac knows how to continue, which is one of the most difficult tasks in life. And he knows which factors to get influence from and how, and also, from which not. His passivity does not come from laziness, but from an active, strong and faithful choice. True, he contains a lot, but he does so from strength and inner peace. And amidst all of this, he is also the first man in the Torah, after quite a few generations, on whom it is written that he loves his wife.

Ok, you say, let’s go for it, but what about the blessings for Esau and Jacob?

In the same difficult event, which we read about in our parasha, Yitzchak says the famous verse:

The voice – is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau” (27:22). Here! Is this not a conclusive proof that he is an old, blind, weak, senile man who does not distinguish who and what is in front of him? What, he doesn’t know who his sons are?

It is fascinating to see the kind of emotions that arise when we meet Yitzchak. Anger. Shame. And more. Do we have no respect for someone who has vision problems? or a weakness? Or does it remind us of parts of ourselves that we have not yet dealt with? I’ll leave that for now, and offer, rather, a different reading:

Instead of rushing to correct Yitzchak who “embarrasses us”, we can ask, is it possible that he is trying to tell us something else? Perhaps precisely in his supposedly passive moments, he shows faith and confidence. He has no doubt that the right thing will happen: that he lives in the right Land and never leaves it; that he lives with the right woman and does not add wives and maidservants even when life between them is very challenging; and that the right son will receive the right blessing. This is also his way of expressing his idea, that the one who should receive Abraham’s blessing (after all, it is not his own private blessing), is someone who answers to the following description – “The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau”, that is, the blessing will be received by the son who has the internal – spiritual – character traits of Jacob, along with the external – body and matter – of Esau.

But, he doesn’t have a son like that??!!

Ah, yes, but he will!

Wait, what? I’m confused. He only has two sons?! It’s this or that! It can’t be both!?!

Maybe. Maybe in our eyes “it can’t be”. But Yitzchak, according to his name (which means – he will laugh), does not live in the present, but in the future. And Yitzchak – despite his blindness, sees things we don’t, yet.

Because one day, Jacob, his son, the “wholehearted man, a tent dweller” (25:27), the one who prepares lentil soup and does what his mama says, sets out on his journey, where he will succeed against all odds, and will also fight an angel, an angel who, per the midrash, is Esau’s minister, and Jacob will be able to fight him and stand his ground. Jacob will then receive a new name – Yisra’el, the name of the entity that outwardly is rough, sometimes rude and insolent, as it needs to be able to deal with Esau, with this world, with injustice and evil and wickedness, cheating, war, and other troubles. But on the inside, he will continue to be the same “wholehearted man, a tent dweller”, studying Torah, loving kindness, and doing good.

How is it possible for these two to be together within the same person? Yes.

This is the continuity required of Isaac’s son. And from us. And a great man, who grows and grows, until he has grown a lot, like Isaac, is the one who, out of his blindness and old age, sees this and aims for it. He is the man whom the Philistines, the people of the Land at that time, envied, and there is no way that they would envy a weak and incapable man. But precisely because in his quiet work, in his love, faith and confidence, he succeeds in his ways.

Yitzchak was born miraculously, the first miracle that occurs in the Torah, a hint to the people of Israel, their role, their status, their miraculous existence throughout history. There is a story about a Pope who asked his wisemen for a proof of the existence of Gd in the world, of the presence of something above and beyond the “natural”. After looking here and there, they came back and said, ‘the Jews, your majesty’. All of this would not have been possible without Isaac. Perhaps it’s no wonder that we always read his story near the beginning of the month of Kislev, a month in which we pray (and sing and dance) “al hanisim”, “about the miracles”, so needed precisely during this time.

Wishing you a good new month, and Shabbos Shalom.

About the Author
Currently a "toshevet chozeret" in Israel, Rabbanit Michal Kohane, trained chaplain and educator, is a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat and teacher of Torah and Talmud in Israel and abroad, and soon, official tour guide in the Land of Israel. She holds several degrees in Jewish / Israel studies as well as a PsyD in organizational psychology, and has been a leader and educator for decades. Michal’s first novel, Hachug ("Extracurricular") was published in Israel by Steimatzky, and her weekly, mostly Torah, blog can be found at