This week’s Torah portion, Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9) begins with the words “This is the line of Isaac, son of Abraham”. We might expect what follows to be about Isaac’s life and accomplishments. Instead, the parshah focuses mostly on his wife and children.
Rebecca has difficulty conceiving and Isaac pleads with God on her behalf. But once she is pregnant and experiencing pain, she herself speaks with God and learns that she will give birth to twins, who are already striving within her womb, and who will be rivals throughout their lives. Their competition for the birthright, and Rebecca’s collusion with Jacob to trick Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, dominate the story line. The only glimpse we get of Isaac’s own life is an encounter with Abimelech that almost exactly duplicates the story of Abraham and Abimelech as recounted in Gen. 20. Isaac’s role in the blessing of Jacob instead of Esau casts him not as the leader of the people ensuring their successor, but as a dupe who needs his wife’s machinations to ensure that God’s choice is the son who gets the birthright.
Still, there are important things to be learned from the example of Isaac. He is the bridge between Abraham and Jacob. He keeps faith with God, and carries on the line that will become the people Israel. He is not a natural leader or an out-of-the-box thinker, but he carries on the tradition. A midrash tells of Rabbi Zusya, who, on his deathbed, cried bitter tears. “Why are you crying?” he was asked, “is it because you were not as great as Moses?” “No”, he replied, “It is because I was not as great as Zusya could have been.” Isaac was as great as Isaac could have been. And that is enough.