6: Isaac and the Search for the Father
Thursday 8 November 2018
Dear D –
This week’s reading (Gen. 26:1–28:9) contains some of the best-known episodes in the Torah. Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage (25:27–33). Jacob covers himself with a sheep’s pelt (chapter 27.) He tricks their blind father, Isaac, into believing he is Esau and steals the blessing of the firstborn. Framing these episodes, the text raises deep questions about the fraught legacy of sons and their fathers. For good or for ill, our identification with our fathers is inescapable. And it lasts a lifetime.
“And these are the generations of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac” (Gen. 25:19.) The Midrash says Isaac looked exactly like his father, so that people recognized Isaac was unmistakably Abraham’s inheritor. But what was Isaac’s point of view?
God repeatedly reassures Isaac, not for his own sake, but by referring to Abraham. God blesses Isaac (Gen. 26:5) “Because Abraham listened and obeyed my voice and he kept my observances and my commandments and my statutes and my laws.” Again (26:24) “…I am God of Abraham, your father. Do not be afraid, because I am with you, and I shall bless you, and I shall multiply your seed for the sake of Abraham my servant.”
This is the same Abraham who held a knife to Isaac’s throat. Isaac might legitimately challenge God on this point: “You say you will bless me for the sake of my father. But I was the one who laid my own head on the altar; I was the one who stretched my neck to reveal my throat, making a clear path for the knife in my own father’s hand. It is no thanks to my father that I am still alive. Don’t I get any credit at all?” Isaac is a protagonist only briefly; the spotlight swings to his twin sons, Esau and Jacob — a replay of Cain and Abel. Indeed, there is a Cain / Abel theme underlying the Binding of Isaac itself, in the murderous tension between father and son. Thinking to bring an offering, Isaac becomes himself the offering, only to be reprieved at the last minute — though not because his father thought better of it.
What does it mean to inherit a legacy? And why does God invoke Abraham instead of blessing Isaac on his own merit? While the rest of the world acknowledges Isaac as Abraham’s successor, God is saying, “Yes — but you’re not ready yet.”
As men, we must recognize that our fathers reside at the core of our identity. For those of us who grew up with a strong father, that can mean adopting positive attributes and coping effectively with negative situations. For those of us who grew up with a weak father, or with a terrible father, it can mean a life mired in self-loathing and negativity, ultimately destroying others, before finally destroying ourselves — though if we are blessed with the right mother, teachers and friends, it can mean identifying negative influences and resolving never to allow such behavior, such uncontrollable urges, rages, or passions to rule our lives.
For men who grow up without a father, the quest for identity is stymied by having no tangible point of departure, and many fatherless men spend their lives in a painful and frustrating search for a foothold.
Ultimately, regardless of how strong we are, we are none of us very good at being alone. We all need human society. And it is largely how we relate to the image of our fathers that determines the quality of our relationships. As successful and independent as we may become, we constantly return to the quest for our origins, whether inspired by the desire to live up to the example set by our fathers, or plagued by the fear that we may repeat their worst sins.
When famine breaks out, God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt, as his father had done — and as his son and grandsons will do (26:1–3). During the time of famine, Isaac is blessed (26:14) with “… flocks of sheep and goats, and herds of cattle, and many servants, and the Philistines were jealous of him.”
“All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in Abraham’s time, the Philistines stopped them up and filled them in with earth” (26:15.) Starting at verse 18, Isaac digs anew the wells dug by his father, giving them the same names his father called them. Isaac’s servants continue digging where Abraham dug. When they find water, fights break out between them and the locals. Finally (26:22) Isaac relocates and digs a new well — his own, not one that his father had dug previously. There, Isaac is able to establish himself. He names the well Rehoboth, meaning “open spaces” and encamps there. He has dug through his past, through all the dirt left behind by his father, blocking him from getting on with his life. Now Isaac is ready to move on and tap into his own source of water. Rehoboth — open spaces. He has freed himself from his past by confronting it head on.
We shall never be grown-up until we step out from our father’s shadow. When we live in the shadow of another, we can never cast our own. Can never impose our imprint on the world. The fundamental definition of success is being in control of our environment and especially of how we interact with forces beyond our control. Our lives are dominated by images of our parents. But we are not they, and so we need to get out into the sunlight. We need to dig through our past, however difficult. Only then can we pitch our tent; only then can we establish our own identity.
So much happens to Isaac in the time he spends on the stage. He is nearly murdered by his own father (and you thought you had problems…?), tricked by his son — with the encouragement and connivance of his beloved wife. Yet he seems at peace. Why?
Because Isaac courageously undertakes the therapeutic process of examining the past to see what it is made of. The process of digging anew the old wells dug by his father is a metaphor for introspection; for coming to an understanding of his past, in order to be free to move forward. Digging through the dirt. Psychoanalysis, in modern terms. Note how this starts: (26:18) “Isaac returned and he dug up the wells that they had dug in the days of Abraham…” unlike the surrounding verses, Isaac himself does the digging, not his servants. Isaac takes shovel in hand and courageously digs right into the mess that his father left him. The outcome is not guaranteed, but without forcing the confrontation, he will never advance in life.
I look just like my father?! Isaac asks, looking at himself in the mirror. But, he says, I am not my father, and what my father did to me, I do not have to do to my own children. What my father did to my mother, I do not have to do to my wife.
At the beginning of the portion (25:21) Isaac prays for his wife Rebecca to become pregnant. This is in contrast to Abraham, who is not interested in Sarah having children of her own, and to Jacob, who will react angrily when his beloved wife asks him to pray for her to have a child. The Hebrew word used here meaning “he prayed” comes from the root meaning to dig with a shovel. Isaac, who will define his own life by digging wells, starts by digging deep for God’s mercy and grace on behalf of the woman he loves. And he receives it in double portion.
Our fathers reside at the core of our identity, whether we like it or not. For men who grow up without a father, the image of the absent father is in many ways more powerful than the presence of an actual father eve could be, haunting their lives, sometimes ruining them. Our job in life is not to expel our fathers — whether memories of our actual father or the ghost of an absent presence. Our fathers are immutably part of who we are. It is rather to learn to live independently. To build around that core like reinforced concrete, making it a framework for the structure of our lives. Those of us who never come to terms with our own fathers are like so many rickety half-finished buildings: uninhabitable, with rusted, broken rods jutting aimlessly, poisoning the air. We are our fathers’ heirs. They form our core. It is up to us to build solidly around it.
After Isaac frees himself (26:23–25) God appears again, promising to protect and guard Isaac and to make him and is descendants prosperous… “for the sake of your father Abraham.” Again? But now Isaac’s response is to build an altar and worship God. Because being free from the negative overhang of our fathers’ influence doesn’t mean they cease to exist. We often wish we could obliterate the past. But those who succeed in life are the ones who come to terms with their past. Who unearth the painful parts and work through them. Our past makes us who we are; now, through bravely delving into our past, we have the God-given power to make ourselves who and what we shall become.
We men live in the shadow cast by our fathers. And that shadow is fraught with conflict. All men build themselves in the shadow of their fathers. Men with strong fathers often fear they will fall short, men with weak fathers often fear they are doomed to failure, while men without fathers are swept along like small boats without an anchor. Whatever our situation, our unresolved relationship with that father image generates tremendous frustration and rage — the two most destructive forces that dwell within our breast. Without acknowledging the impact of the lifelong image of our fathers, we have no way of knowing where the shadow ends; the struggle against darkness lasts a lifetime — or until we confront it.
As Isaac teaches: it’s not what we inherit, but what we do with it that makes all the difference.
Yours for a better world –