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Digging Deeper (Toldot)

The following are some incipient ideas on this week’s Parshah, Toldot, which form part 3 in an ongoing series focusing on the role of Avimelech, king of the Philistines, in Sefer Bereshit. For part 1, “Willful Blindness,” please click here. For part 2, “On Second Glance,” please click here. (For the 2015 article on Toldot, “The Fruit and the Fragrance,” please click here. For the 2014 article on Parshat Toldot, “Isaac and the Great Man Theory,” please click here).


Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been playing a sort of game here at What’s Pshat?—sort of like “Where’s Waldo,” but Parshah style. You might call it “Where’s Avimelech?” The premise of the game is that Avimelech, king of the Philistines, actually plays a role in Jewish history that is much more significant than we usually give him credit for. Though he only appears a handful of times in the Torah—a couple of times he’s quarreling with Avraham over Avraham’s wife and his well of water, and another couple of times he’s having the same fights with Yitzchak—Avimelech is actually the major foil in their lives, and so his influence extends far beyond the limited contexts in which he appears. Indeed, there are a whole bunch of stories in which Avimelech isn’t mentioned even once, but where we can nevertheless spot him hiding “behind the scenes,” if we look closely enough (a fitting exegetical exercise given that, as we have seen, Avimelech represents the “covering of eyes”). The way we find Avimelech in these secondary stories is through textual clues—parallel words, phrases, themes, or plot event—which connect whatever story we happen to be looking at with a story that actually involves Avimelech. These clues hint to us that our current story is in some way anticipating or responding to something that will happen, or has already happened, with Avimelech.

prod_3283281603To date, we’ve “spotted” Avimelech in three stories where he’s not physically present: Avraham’s hosting the angels (Gen. 18); Avraham’s binding of Yitzchak, i.e. “the akeidah” (Gen. 22); and Avraham’s attempts to find a wife for Yitzchak (Gen. 24). Today, I just want to offer a quick post-script that ties together the last two of these three stories (through the medium of this week’s Parshah), and adds another layer to our “Avimelech-analysis.”

In this week’s Parshah, Toledot, famine strikes Canaan, as it had in the days of Avraham, prompting Yitzchak to head to the land of Gerar, where Avimelech and the Philistines happen to have food. From there, Yitzchak sets his eyes to Egypt; Hashem, however, instructs Yitzchak not to head down to Egypt, but to stay instead with Avimelech:

And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that had been in the days of Abraham, and Isaac went to Abimelech the king of the Philistines, to Gerar. And the Lord appeared to him, and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land that I will tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and I will bless you, for to you and to your seed will I give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father. And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and I will give your seed all these lands, and through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world. Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions.” And Isaac dwelt in Gerar. (Gen. 26:1-5).

Listen to the blessing Hashem offers Yitzchak in this passage. Does any of it sound familiar? It should, because it is lined with references to the blessings Hashem had offered Avraham, Yitzchak’s father. In fact, it is almost word-for-word the blessing that Avraham had received after the “binding of Yitzchak:”[1]

And he said, “By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord, that because you have done this thing and you did not withhold your son, your only one, That I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore, and your seed will inherit the land of their enemies. And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world, because you hearkened to My voice.” And Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer sheba; and Abraham dwelled in Beer sheba (Gen. 22:16-19).

 Here’s a quick side-by-side comparison of the two:

Avraham’s blessing, at the binding of Yitzchak

Yitzchak’s blessing, “binding” him to the land of the Philistines

By Myself have I sworn [בי נשבעתי]

 I will establish the oath that I swore  השבעה]   [אשר נשבעתי to Abraham, your father

I will surely bless you [ברך אברכך]

 I will bless you [ואברכך]

And I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens  [והרבה ארבה את זרעך ככוכבי השים]

And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens [והרביתי את זרעך ככוכבי השמים]

And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world  [והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ]

And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world  [והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ]

Because you hearkened to My voice [עקב אשר שמעת בקולי]

Because Abraham hearkened to My voice  [עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקולי]

And Abraham dwelt in Beer sheba [וישב אברהם בבאר שבע]

And Isaac dwelt in Gerar [וישב יצחק בגרר]

(N.B. Gerer is in the same vicinity as Beer sheba and the Philistines of Gerar regularly interact with Avraham/Yitzchak at Beer sheba: see Gen. 21:31, 26:23).

Much can be said about this chart, but in terms of our Avimelech-analysis, the most fundamental point is this: Based on these parallels, it turns out that the blessing Hashem gave Avraham at the “binding of Yitzchak” was fulfilled by binding Yitzchak to Avimelech—that is, by keeping him in Gerar, the seat of Avimelech’s kingdom, where Yitzchak would continue to work the land his father had (and oppose any encroachments by Avimelech), rather than heading to Egypt as he would have preferred. At the climax of the “binding of Yitzchak,” in other words, is a blessing whose effect is to keep Avraham’s descendants interacting with Avimelech into the next generation. In case we needed any more proof (beyond all of the data compiled in our article from two weeks ago) that Avraham’s relationship to Avimelech is central to the “binding of Yitzchak,” despite Avimelech’s never appearing in that episode—surely this is it.[2]

There is, however, one part of Avraham’s blessing that we must return to:

I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore, and your seed will inherit the land of their enemies” (Gen. 22:17, with “שער” translated as “land” as per Radak).

If you look back at the chart above, you’ll notice that there’s no parallel to the underlined portion of this blessing among the blessings Hashem offers Yitzchak in our Parshah. It is the only major portion of the blessing Avraham receives after the “binding of Yitzchak” which is missing from Yitzchak’s blessing this week.

Or is it? Well, consider—

After Yitzchak receives his blessings from Hashem, he remains in Gerar, as commanded, and begins to sow the land of the Philistines. In short order, he grows tremendously successful; so much so, in fact, that the Torah recounts:

And Isaac sowed in that land, and he found in that year a hundred fold, and the Lord blessed him” (Gen. 26:12).

Now, there’s quite a bit getting lost here in translation. But let’s place this verse—in the Hebrew—next to Yitzchak’s “missing blessing,” and see what we get:

Hashem’s blessing to Avraham (Yitzchak’s “missing blessing”)

Hashem “blesses” Yitzchak in the land of the Philistines
I will surely bless you… and your seed will inherit the land of their enemies

[ברך אברכך…וירש זרעך את שער איביו]

And Isaac sowed in that land, and he found in that year a hundred fold, and the Lord blessed him

[ויזרע יצחק בארץ ההוא וימצא בשנה ההוא מאה שערים ויברכהו ה]

Without all the other parallels between our Parshah and the blessings Avraham receives at the “binding of Yitzchak,” I wouldn’t propose this final connection. But once we’ve established that our Parshah is indeed the place where Avraham’s blessings from that time are fulfilled (as our first chart makes quite clear), it becomes extremely appealing to view Yitzchak’s “hundred-fold sowing” in this light as well. The key-words are there in both: זרע, שער, ברכה. Granted, they do not map directly—שער literally means “gate” in Avraham’s blessing, and most likely refers to “land,” while in our Parshah, it refers to an agricultural “measure” (=“a hundredfold”); זרע means “seed” in both contexts, but with genealogical connotations in the first passage, and agricultural ones in the sections. Nevertheless, the intended outcome is produced: through Yitzchak’s sowing, Avraham’s “offspring” do indeed “inherit” the “land” of his “enemies.”[3]

And if that’s the case, then there’s another blessing we need to return to: the blessing Rivkah’s family offers Rivkah, Yitzchak’s wife-to-be, as they send her off with Avraham’s servant, in last week’s Parshah:

And they blessed Rebecca and said to her, “Our sister, may you become thousands of myriads, and may your seed inherit the cities of their foes” (Gen. 24:60).

With a couple of slight variations, this is almost word-for-word the blessing Avraham receives after the “binding of Yitzchak.” In Hebrew, Avraham’s blessing reads: וירש זרעך את שער איביו. Rivkah’s reads: ויירש זרעך את שער שנאיו. The only real difference lies in how the adversaries are labelled: Avraham’s has איביו, and Rivkah’s has שנאיו. It is like distinguishing between “foe” and “enemy,” in English. Otherwise, it is the same, highly specific blessing: a blessing which, as we have shown, predicts that Avimelech—the king who abducted Avraham’s wife and stole his water—would one day find himself “inherited” by Avraham’s children.

The upshot of this, of course, is that at the climax of Avraham’s “search for Rivkah” (Gen. 24)—just as at the climax of the “binding of Yitzchak” (Gen. 22)—we have, once again, a prophecy concerning Avimelech. So we can say of the former scene the same thing that we said of the latter, above: In case we needed any more proof (beyond all of the data compiled in our article from last week) that Avraham’s relationship to Avimelech is central to his “search for Rivkah”—despite Avimelech’s never appearing in that episode—surely this is it. For those keeping score: this makes one more point for us in our game of “Where’s Avimelech?”

That’s all for this week. Until next time

Shabbat shalom!


Notes

[1] This is not itself a novel observation. In fact, it may be precisely what Rashi alludes to it in his terse gloss on our verse: “”Because Abraham hearkened to my voice” (Gen. 26:5)—that is, “when I tested Him” (רש”י בראשית כו:ה ד”ה שמע אברהם בקלי).” The verb Rashi uses for “I tested,”נסיתי,” appears in only one context in the book of Bereshit—in the introduction to the “binding of Yitzchak:” “And it came to pass after these things, that the Lord tested [נסה] Abraham” (Gen. 22:1).

[2] Of course, there’s a larger insight being communicated by these textual parallels, worthy of more consideration than we can give it in the context of our limited “Avimelech analysis.” In a nutshell, it is that the akeidah, the “binding of Yitzchak,” doesn’t end at the akeidah. Yitzchak may step off the altar, at the end of that episode, but for the rest of his life, he remains bound to what that altar represents—bound to serving God, bound to carrying forward his father’s legacy. Yitzchak begins his adult life planning to leave the land of Canaan, only to have Hashem tell him—in the very same language used at the end of the akeidah—that he may not do so. Yitzchak must stay in this land. He is bound to the land, no less than he was bound to the altar—and he is bound to Avimelech, too, his father’s lifelong foil, with whom he must now contend as well. This is the “full story” of Yitzchak’s “sacrifice.” What is demanded of him—and indeed, of all people who dedicate themselves to a cause, a parent, a partner, a family…—is more than merely a singular act of supreme devotion, or even a series of such acts, however powerful these may be. This is because true commitment is not communicated through flashy expressions of allegiance offered during moments of intense inspiration. It is something that needs to be developed, nurtured, and constantly reaffirmed, carefully and consistently, and with great patience, over the course of a lifetime.

[3] On whether Biblical prophecy is given to such ambiguity, see R. Shalom Carmy’s English audio lecture, Yodea Da’at Elyon, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ article on our Parshah, “Toldot: Between Prophecy and Oracle.” Both are cited in a What’s Pshat? article on this topic, Yitro’s Visit Revisited II (Mishpatim).


1 Comment

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thanks for the insights Alex, you are a soulful detective my friend. Hope you and Blima are doing well. Shabbat Shalom! 🙂

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