'Toldot': Isaac's destructive loves
On love, anxiety and eating disorders: First loves in Bible all belong to our forefather Isaac. He is first child described as 'loved,' first man who loved a woman. He loved his mother, loved his wife, loved his son. He also especially loved food
The first loves in the Bible all belong to our forefather Isaac. He is the first child who is described as "loved" and the first man who loved a woman. He loved his mother, loved his wife, and he loved his son. He also especially loved food. But all his loves were destructive. Any more loves like these and we are lost.
(Adapted from Natan Zach's poem 'When God Said for the First Time...')
The first time that God said "love" in the Bible, He sent a father to sacrifice his son. "And He said: 'Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac...and offer him there for a burnt-offering'" (Genesis 22:2).
The first "love" in the Bible collapses under divine demand for human sacrifice and difficult loneliness. At the end of the day the loving father descends alone down the bleeding mountain. The next time that Isaac will meet his father Abraham is when he and his brother Ishmael will be at his funeral, escorting him on his final journey.
(From Hayim Nahman Bialik's poem 'Take Me Under Your Wing')
The second appearance in the Bible of the root word for "love" is dedicated to Isaac. "And Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening and he lifted up his eyes, and he saw, and, behold, there were camels coming. And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she fell from the camel…. And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted after his mother" (Genesis 24: 63-67).
This brief, but charming love story of a young woman who mustered the courage, and against her family's advice, decided to risk it all and proactively travel to a strange man in an unknown land. The gamble seems to have paid off as this appears to be a case of love at first sight.
Rebekah literally falls off the camel upon seeing him. Isaac takes Rebekah to his mother's old tent and immediately finds comfort in Rebekah's company. In those romantic moments the word 'love' emerges to the world for a second time.
The Torah views the building of intimate-conjugal love a task of primary importance. That is why the Book of Books begins with a brief, but specific description of this love. "Therefore a man will depart from his father and his mother, and he will cleave unto his wife, and they will be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).
Erich Fromm, existentialist psychoanalyst (for whom a special place of honor is kept in this column on our weekly Torah portion) addresses at length the just-quoted verse, especially emphasizing its initial verb "depart".
In order to create a mature and healthy relationship, a relationship wherein live two individuals who are not striving to swallow the other or be swallowed up themselves by their relationship), there is a need to precede healthy conjugal life with a departure from the first relationship, the relationship with one's parents.
In between one's relationship with one's parents, to one's relationship with one's spouse, every person is in need of a period of "departure" in their life. In this life stage one would learn to know what makes him or her distinct from the rest of the world. It is a life stage for one to meet the uniqueness of one's existence and the actuality of one's mortality.
Only when one is equipped with these understandings is a person able to build for himself a healthy conjugal relationship. Of course this 'departure' period is not squeezed into a specific time, rather this is an evolving understanding that results from constant reflection and introspection.
However Isaac, who was taken to be sacrificed without his mother's knowledge, and therefore without his mother's protection, and returned from that awful ordeal directly to her death, was not able to properly separate from her. His mother's death was part of a mega-trauma that he experienced, which precluded the possibility of a healthy separation.
A well known, but difficult midrash (expansive, Rabbinic Biblical interpretation) offers, specifically from those terrifying moments of the Binding of Isaac, a perspective on the relationship between Sarah and Isaac, more valuable than gold. The initial picture we can report on is of a conversation taking place at the very moment that Abraham is tightening the ropes around Isaac.
"Isaac said to Abraham: 'Father, don't tell mother when she is standing next to a deep pit or standing on a roof lest she throw herself off and die'" (Tanchuma, Vayeira, 23).
The child is about to be slaughtered by his own father, yet even at this difficult moment he functions like a parental child and protects his mother. In the last few moments of his life, Isaac occupies himself with the question how will Abraham convey to Sarah the shocking news of his slaughter without slaughtering her as well. Sarah did not succeed at saving her son from being sacrificed.
If Isaac will become angry with her, he will become the loneliest boy in the world, a boy abandoned both by his father and his mother. However if Isaac will keep in his consciousness an understanding of his mother as weak, then at least he will not lose her love.
The same Midrash goes onto tell of a meeting between the Satan and Sarah. Here too we get an insight into the relationship between Sarah and Isaac:
"At the same moment of Isaac being bound for sacrifice, the Satan went and visited Sarah, appearing to her in the image of Isaac. Upon seeing him she asked: 'My son, what has your father done to you?!' He answered: 'My father has taken me and brought me up mountains and down valleys. Then he brought me up to the summit of one mountain and built an altar, arranging the wood on it and binding me to the altar. He even took the knife to slaughter me. Were it not for the Holy One, Blessed be He, who said, 'Don't lay your hand on this youth', I would already be sacrificed.' Before the Satan even finished saying this, Sarah's soul departed."
Every time that I read this Midrash, I want to cry. Every time I read this Midrash I feel how every mother's anxiety, in every generation and in every place, is concentrated into these short sentences: "My son, what has your father done to you?!" And how can we know before he acts? And how, if at all, will we be able to stop him and prevent him? And how can we bring children into this world as long as their fathers will keep sacrificing their children?
Isaac joins with Rebekah his wife without properly separating from his mother's love. Rebekah enters Isaac's life like baby-formula that replaces mother's milk. This love is charming but ultimately impossible. A woman cannot be a mother for her husband, and just as well a man so wounded may not be able to thusly love his wife for a long time with all the challenges that the years will bring. Isaac and Rebekah's life will be twisted with the birth of their twins and they quickly find themselves in a manipulative and quarrelsome relationship.
The third "love" in the Bible also belongs to Isaac, and this time to Rebekah as well. This love is their parental love that bears an unfortunately resemblance to war: "Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob" (Genesis 25:28). Did we mention the substituting baby-formula yet?
It seems to me that as Isaac gets older and his wounds remain untreated, his loves recede and are replaced with the earlier needs of his childhood. Isaac that tried to bear the burden of his mother's life and his father's grief, Isaac, the first man of whom the Bible says that he loved his wife, could not succeed at escaping the jaws of being sacrificed. As he matures, his loves become more and more childish.
In his adulthood and in his twilight years, Isaac loved whomever fulfilled his physical needs, his son Esau who filled his mouth with hunted meat. It seems to me that the "mature" Isaac is looking for someone to sweeten, or at least take the pain out of childhood wounds inflicted on him by a father willing to sacrifice him and an absent mother. As Isaac ages his longing deepens and intensifies from longing to worry and defense of his mother.
In this week's Torah portion, "Toldot" – (Isaac's) Generations, we are witnesses to the farewell ceremonies and death preparations of Isaac who died at the ripe old age of 118. As throughout all his life, and even more so at moments such as these, the root word "love" is awarded a central place in the story.
Within only 10 verses it is significant that the root word "love" is mentioned three times. However in his twilight years Isaac's love disengages from people and is entirely devoted to food. Genesis 27:1-14:
"And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said unto him...'Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death. Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I LOVE and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die.' And Rebekah heard when Isaac spoke to Esau his son. And Rebekah spoke unto Jacob her son, saying: 'Behold, I heard thy father speak unto Esau thy brother, saying: Bring me venison, and make me savory food, that I may eat, and bless thee before the LORD before my death. Now therefore, my son, hearken to my voice according to that which I command thee. Go now to the flock, and fetch me from thence two good kids of the goats; and I will make them savory food for thy father, such as he LOVES; And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother; and his mother made savory food, such as his father LOVED."
It would be anachronistic to speak of eating disorders in the Biblical period (although interpreting the Bible is inherently anachronistic...) nevertheless, we won't call what Isaac had an eating disorder, rather we will speak of a situation in which food assumes a central role in life, and this centrality of course is a substitute for an unmet emotional need.
The elderly and blind Isaac is prepared for his death. The threefold repetition of the word "love" for hunted meat, at an event that could have been gentle and sensitive, transformed it into a vulgar, even grotesque one.
The child who was desired and loved, and became a desiring and loving husband, was dragged to his death with the capacity to love only food. And not just any food, but specifically meat. Isaac finishes his life in terrible misery, all though he is not really to blame. Isaac was inflicted with crippling wounds from his father's betraying love and from his mother's disappearance at a critical moment in his life.
He tried, he really tried, to put things right with Rebekah, but his childhood wounds overcame his adult love. The conjugal relationship and parenting of Isaac and Rebekah, that began as pure and simple love, deteriorated until it crashed. The final picture of Isaac's life, is one of a blind, elderly man sitting alone, who was a sacrificed youth, now eating his heart out in one final meal, one final meal made up entirely of self-deception.
On Monday there will be a festive and special prayer of the Women Of the Wall,
celebrating 25 years of the organization's activism. As it is known, I am not a member of the organization and never have I desired to stand next to the Western Wall in order to pray to God. I want to believe that God as well is not interested in the Western Wall.
However, the struggle of the Women Of the Wall has become a struggle for human rights, and that is of interest to me. On matters of human rights we are all responsible.
Hundreds of women, among them a good number of female Reform rabbis, arrive this week from the United States to Israel to support the Women Of the Wall, and in so doing support religious freedom in Israel. Thank you all, our visiting friends, for the sense of responsibility and partnership and welcome to Israel.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
to read this article in Hebrew