Eleh tol'dot Yitzhak ben Avraham ....... so opens our portion for this week...... these are the ‘tol'dot’ of Isaac the son of Abraham.
But what are ‘tol'dot’? The Hebrew comes from the root of the verb yalad - to give birth or to generate and so we get the common translation of ‘generations’ - the story of each wave of births or begettings. Each time we meet the word in Genesis we know we will be treated to an elaborate family tree, which like most family trees are meaningless to all but the immediate descendants.
But Isaac’s is different. He is introduced to us as the son of Abraham. The text continues. Avraham holid et Yitshak - Abraham fathered Isaac. While every other tol'dot goes on to describe the subject’s children, this one describes the subject’s father. Two verses later, and we are into his sons. Isaac disappears from the text, just as he probably disappeared in life. Isaac is the biblical ‘Mr Cellophane’ - you can ‘see right through him, walk right by him, never know he is there.’
He was a typical son of a famous father - and we have many contemporary examples. Fame often leads to neglect - or maybe Abraham was disappointed in a son that did not have things come so easily to him - who showed no intimate relationship with God, nor even the power to move and inspire people. Did Abraham neglect his son as he pursued his calling? Offering hospitality to all who passed his tent while ignorant of Isaac’s welfare and wellbeing? Was Isaac simply a tool for Abraham - the sign of God’s good faith in the keeping of the covenant?
Many sons in this situation would turn delinquent - the more outrageous the behaviour, the better in order to attract their father’s attention. Others try desperately hard to win their father’s approval going to extremes to show their obedience and devotion. It is this latter pattern that Isaac seems to have followed. When faced with a famine he does exactly what his father did and goes down to Gerar, passing his wife off as is sister.
When earlier in life he is bound upon the altar, ready to be sacrificed his passivity, even encouragement of his father seems rather extreme.
The mediaeval poet, Yehuda Shmuel Abbas has Yitzhak urging his father to do the dreadful deed;
"Because of the knife my speech falters, yet sharpen it father. Have courage and bind me strongly. And when the fire has consumed my flesh, take with you the remains of my ashes and say to Sarah ‘Behold! this is the savour of Isaac.’ "
(Piyyut for Rosh Hashannah)
Not the most normal of sentiments in the circumstances! Yet Isaac does not show any long-lasting psychological trauma because of his ordeal. On the contrary, his life remains exceedingly ordinary.
He continues to honour his father in sharp contrast to the way he is treated by his own sons. After Gerar, he decides to reopen the wells dug by his father and only then attempts to dig his own - attempts that arouse the hostility of the Philistines. Every time they challenge his right to the water, Isaac leaves. He is not a fighter. He will not take a stand or challenge his enemies. Yet Isaac increases enormously the wealth left to him by his father and God blesses him ‘for the sake of his father.’
The well digging incident parallels what happens in the first verses of this parashah, where Isaac is only mentioned incidentallly. Most of it concerns the wells of his father. When he sets out on his own, he is initially unsuccessful. But when he finally succeeds, straightaway, we move on to the story of Jacob.
Isaac the ordinary, stands between two very clever men.
Abraham who alone understood the nature and existence of God - a charismatic who convinced people to follow his faith. Few are like this in life. We are privileged to meet such men, but rarely do.
Jacob, his son, was clever in a different way. He reached his ends through devious means. Such a person is exciting to be with, but not one to trust - and not one to whom to leave the day to day running of life.
For this, you need an Isaac. The sort of man no one takes much notice of but who gets on with things. Who patiently keeps on digging the wells until the opposition tires and goes away.
It is such a person that brings the stability and security necessary to every family including this patriarchal one.
Yitzhak more than his famous father and famous son represents the ideal of tol'dot; that of continuity, of persistence, and of security. Tol'dot does not represent a history of the past, but a description of the future. Isaac’s is the future we would all wish. Prosperous, secure and, for the sake of our ancestors, one full of God’s blessing.
Sybil Sheridan - from an article she wrote for Learn Torah With…. Torah Aura online 1997