Isaac. Where is Isaac?
Most often, when we read and study this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, our focus falls squarely on Isaac’s father, Abraham. Abraham’s eager hospitality; his (and Sarah’s) news of impending parenthood in old age; Abraham’s willingness to argue with God over the fate of the residents of Sodom and Gemorrah; and finally, at the end of the portion, Abraham’s being called up to sacrifice his beloved son. Despite Isaac being a central figure in the narrative of the Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac, he is silenced by the text.
Soon, the focus will be almost entirely on Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau. Their story, too, we know well. We know how they competed for blessing and about their separate journeys. We know even more about Jacob: his work, his love affairs, his brood of sons, his struggle with God. But, where is Isaac? What do we know of Isaac?
Born to elderly parents, we know little about his life other than his brother was sent away, and that he was, without being given an option, bound up to be offered as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah by his father. He isn’t treated much better by his own son who, at his mother’s bequest, tricks Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing. Isaac is, for the most part, through all of this a silent character. He isn’t even deemed capable of finding his own wife. A servant is brought in to the narrative for that task. Our Rabbinic tradition, too, isn’t so kind to Isaac, either. For sure, his place among the patriarchs is assured by tradition, and he is viewed as a critical link between the generations. But Maimonides' opinion is reflective of much of the literature. He notes that “there would seem to be no benefit nor any great honor to Isaac.” He didn’t do anything, Maimonides argues, he added nothing innovative or of value.
With all due respect to the RAMBAM, I’d argue differently. I’d argue we’ve let Isaac down. What does Isaac have to say after his father kills the ram and finally unties the binds that held him into place? Abraham offers the ram in place of his son Isaac, God blesses Abraham for his steadfast faith with a promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars above and the sands of the shore. God promises Abraham that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him; and then, the text reads: “Abraham returned to his servants; they got up and traveled to and settled in Be’er Sheva.”
The text begs the question, where is Isaac, and we have failed to provide a compelling answer. The biblical authors, our Rabbinic sages, and we too, have left him silent. His story could have been fleshed out in a manner that allowed Isaac to be strengthened by the capacity to survive this traumatic event. Instead, we’ve ignored his voice. We do not hear from Isaac again until the end of two eventful chapters, when he reappears to witness his future wife, Rebecca, approaching on a camel. The Midrash imagines Isaac as having great concern for his mother’s well being, but where is the concern for Isaac himself?
There is great opportunity to fill in Isaac’s story, to give him a legacy from which we can draw inspiration. He is a figure that survives trauma and disappointment. He is a character that deserves more of a voice than he is given by our tradition. As we read Vayeira this Shabbat, let us be moved to consider what Isaac would have said in response to God’s impossible request. To his father’s dutiful (yet, thoughtless) willingness to comply. Perhaps if we can imagine Isaac’s response, his coping strategies, how he moved forward from this tragic event, then perhaps, we will be less likely to silence those who experience trauma in our world. Perhaps, we will be less likely to ignore their voice.