November 12, 2012 admin

With Eyes Like Isaac

Genesis 25:19-28:9

My article first published on the Odyssey Networks

Everybody knows that Isaac was blind. Why else, in this famous story, would he have allowed Jacob to deceive him and steal the blessings (Genesis 27:19-29) he seemingly intended for Esau, the first-born twin? (If some degree of rivalry is inevitable among siblings, it must be even harder for twins. I recently heard an elder twin say, “Mummy, I had your undivided attention for three minutes!”)

But the Torah doesn’t actually say that Isaac was blind, and the rabbis of the Midrash, who were as unwilling as the sharpest of contemporary political interviewers to let subtleties and ambiguities slip past, carefully noted this fact (Tanhuma, Toldot 8). What the verse actually states is that Isaac’s eyes “were dim from seeing” (Genesis 25:28). This begs the question, “From seeing or having seen what?” The rabbis were not afraid to offer challenging answers.

Don’t take a bribe, enjoins the Torah, “for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous” (Deuteronomy 16:19). Could Isaac’s impaired vision in fact be a form of punishment? It’s a convenient, but often cruel, path to justify suffering by attributing it to some purported moral cause. It saves one from having to feel too sorry; it answers the question “why?” But if we are to ascribe Isaac’s affliction to such lack of integrity in judgement, are we being fair?

What’s he supposed to have done to merit such punishment? The rabbis point to the very beginning of the father-son relationship: “Isaac loved Esau because the taste of hunting was in his mouth (Genesis 25:28).” They point to his failure to love his children equally because of his strange partiality for roasted meat, and thus for the elder of his two boys, as earning him his affliction. As a result, when it really mattered to be able to perceive matters fairly, he found himself unable to see. He blessed the wrong child.

It would be easy to heap together examples of how immediate vested interests prevent us from assessing matters clearly when the moment of destiny arrives for crucial decisions with long term implications. Perhaps no policy suffers from this so much as the attitudes of governments to the environment, though it turns out that so-called “dumb” nature is far from inarticulate, as we are increasingly realizing.

But a second rabbinic interpretation is perhaps even sharper, and certainly more compassionate toward Isaac. This may be why Rashi, the great medieval exegete, offers it in his Torah commentary: “When [Isaac] was bound on the altar and his father intended to slaughter him, at that moment the gates of heaven opened and the ministering angels saw and wept and their tears descended and fell into his eyes.”

This is a graphic description of what we might simply call post-traumatic stress disorder. There are certain events after passing through which we can never see the world in the same way again. I once shared Rashi’s comment with a Christian exegete who had spent time in the Far East. “We met several Vietnamese women who saw their children killed in front of their very eyes. Afterwards some of them literally went blind. They couldn’t bear to see.”

It is a painful and complicated question to what degree, if at all, suffering should exonerate us from the consequences of our subsequent decisions—both on an individual and a collective level. Nations suffer traumas, too. Indeed, it may be considerably harder to bring healing to the collective impact of a painful shared history among an entire people than to that of a specific event upon one particular person. What can be said when much of a population or ethnic group, including many of its leaders and opinion-makers, are affected by the same trauma?

In the case of Isaac, being reminded of what he went through when he saw his father raise the knife as he lay there on the altar (Genesis 22:9-10) inclines us to view his subsequent conduct with pity rather than condemnation. Or maybe the two threads are connected: has his partiality for meat anything to do with the smell of the roasted ram’s flesh he must have inhaled when, released from the altar, he watched with relief as it was offered in his place? The line between our sufferings and our moral weaknesses is often too thin to trace.

But what about governments and nations? It was said during the Balkan Wars that the pain was still alive from defeats and injustices which went back to the Middle Ages. Does that mean that old wounds can never be considered healed? In the case of the Jewish people, both in Israel and elsewhere, fear, well-founded not just on the Holocaust but on tens of generations of marginalization and persecution, leaves many people sceptical about their personal and collective security. “But the world is so different now,” some say. “But how different and for how long?” others retort? Whichever the case, must our own history of suffering makes us blind to that of others, or could it not serve, as indeed it so often has, to open our eyes more widely?

Returning to Isaac, Rashi offers a further possible reason for his weak sight; it’s the simplest explanation of all: “So that Jacob would take the blessings.” Thomas Mann adds his own twist in his famous novelJoseph and His Brothers: Is it not possible that Isaac “feels better in a darkness where certain things can happen which must happen” (p. 130-1). God, we infer, can cause destiny to be fulfilled precisely through human weaknesses.

But one has to doubt if the same can be applied to us. Whether it’s the debilitating effects of past trauma, or simple human weakness, or a combination of both, which makes our eyes dim so that at the crucial moment of decision we are unable to see clearly, it is doubtful whether what happens as a result can be described as God’s intended plan.

Where then are we left? We bear responsibility at all times for doing our best to see clearly, and must to try to heal those wounds, both our own and one another’s, which are liable to cause our eyes to grow dim.   

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