This is the story of Isaac,” begins this week’s Torah portion, “son of Abraham.” After weeks of stories that star Abraham and Sarah, it seems as though Isaac will finally have his 15 minutes of fame. This promise doesn’t bear out, though. Instead, Isaac (arguably the least dynamic of our forefathers) is led from place to place. Even in the section that declares itself his story, he isn’t the protagonist.
It starts strong — with two decisive actions on Isaac’s part. He takes Rebekah for a wife in Genesis 25:20 (although she was chosen for him by his father’s servant) and pleads with God for her to conceive in the following verse. From there onwards, the reins remain firmly in someone else’s hands.
God says not to go to Egypt, so he stays put, instead contending with King Abimelech of the Philistines. Like his father before him he lies to the king, saying that Rebekah is his sister. “The men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful,” he thinks in Genesis 26:7. Just like with Abraham, this plan does not work out — Isaac is a clumsy spy and is caught “fondling” his wife in public just one verse later. King Abimelech is outraged and declares that no one should come near the family. Nevertheless, he prospers, acquiring “flocks and herds and a large household.” Not thanks to his hard work, the text reassures us. This wealth is brought by God’s blessings.
Isaac’s attempt at deception, albeit very unsuccessful, famously comes back to haunt him. Once again at the mercy of others, Isaac is fooled by his own wife and child into leaving his legacy in the hands of his younger son, Jacob. It’s a particularly tragic turn of fate: Having been metaphorically kept in the dark as a child by his father and his God as they led him to the altar to be sacrificed, he is now conned by his own wife, who uses his old age and subsequent physical blindness to take him for one last ride.
What a way to bookend a life.
There’s plenty I hope my kiddo takes with him from his Judaism — a sense of justice, a connection to a divine power, a connection to an ancient spirituality, a love of challah and chicken soup. But when I think about Isaac, I am summarily uninspired by what he offers. And maybe I shouldn’t be. Who ever said that patriarchs or role models have to be perfect, after all? Shouldn’t I regard Isaac with the same compassion and humanity we all should hope for?
What if Isaac was just a less forthright kind of guy, who got a little lost, and was surrounded by people with boundary issues?
If that was so, then the trauma of being tied to an altar by his dad as a child probably didn’t help him get to a more assertive and confident place.
Speaking of assertiveness and confidence, that’s something I’m trying to figure out how to work on with our toddler. It seems that our pandemic baby doesn’t quite know how to navigate a world in which there are other kids who might have different wants and needs than his. He doesn’t know how to stand up for himself.
Just this past weekend, we went to a friend’s birthday party at a nearby playground. It was Sunday afternoon, Halloween, and the play structures were packed with kids of varying ages in colorful costumes climbing, shouting, all hopped up on that sweet, sweet sugar-high.
A kid who looked to be about nine years old pushed past my toddler to go down the slide. My baby’s face crumpled, and his tears welled up in his eyes. He froze.
To be clear, another child cutting in line at a playground is not a big deal. The nine year old was just doing what kids do — being exuberant, and joyful, and a little inconsiderate. It happens all the time. It’s not awesome, to be sure, but not a tragedy. To our little one, though, it was an unbelievable occurrence. Why would anyone do something so hurtful?
For the rest of the time at the playground, he didn’t want to go on any structures that already had kids on them. “Yesh sham yeladim, Mama,” he told me (there are kids there, mama) and stayed put.
This made enjoying the playground a little tricky.
I don’t know if this is happening because most of his life has been overshadowed by the pandemic, or just because he’s two and hasn’t handled these situations before. Or maybe he’s just the kind of person who prefers the path of least resistance. Who knows?
Whatever the cause of this tricky moment, taking the recent events alongside the biblical text in this week’s portion provides an interesting juxtaposition. I sure don’t want my son to end up wandering aimlessly in the world, a victim of circumstance, the way Isaac seems to be. And it’s not all (or even mostly) in my hands. If anything can be learned from Isaac’s story, though, it’s that giving a child space, compassion, and agency — especially when they feel nervous about taking the bull by horns — can go a long way.