The great modern commentator, Aviva Zornberg, in the introduction to her book on Genesis, writes about Rashi that, “even in his most - apparently - fantastic citations from the midrash. His commentary works as a dreamtext, suggesting many alternative - but not exclusive - facets of reality.” This week, we encounter one of the most fantastic - and most beautiful - of Rashi’s midrashic citations, and it will offer us an alternate, dreamlike reading of a classic story.
Our setting is the famous scene in which Jacob pretends to be his twin brother Esau, in order to steal Esau’s blessing from his father Isaac. Commentators for centuries have struggled to untangle the conflicting moral threads of this story. Because on the one hand, Jacob (aided and abetted by his mother Rebecca) is the clear villain: he lies to his aging father and supplants his apparently innocent older brother, all for personal gain. But on the other hand, Esau is generally understood to be the more savage, less responsible brother - a man unfit to carry the Abrahamic covenant and lead the family. Some traditions even suggest that he was violent - a murderer and a rapist. So maybe it’s good that Jacob comes along and deposes his unstable brother before he can wreak havoc and ruin the family name.
But if that were true, why would Isaac be so insistent on blessing Esau to begin with? If Esau is such a known scoundrel, how could Isaac have trusted him to assume the mantle of this sacred family mission? Isn’t Isaac wise enough to sense who is good and who is evil? What is he thinking?
We may have a small clue into Isaac’s state of mind in the language at the very beginning of the chapter:
When Isaac was old, and his eyes had dimmed from seeing, he called in his older son Esau…(Gen. 27:1)
So Isaac is getting old, and going blind. And maybe those details are just meant to tell us that Isaac is increasingly enfeebled, perhaps even losing some mental capacity, and so his judgment is not to be entirely trusted.
But many of the commentators wonder if this blindness represents something more than just the loss of a physical capacity. The Netziv, the last head of the of great Volozhin Yeshiva, puts it as follows:
“His eyes had dimmed…” - It is not that his aging caused this, because he was not at the end of his life. He lived many more years after this. Rather, the cause was from heaven, and many answers are given in the midrash…
He is assuming there is some spiritual significance to the blindness, that the Torah is telling us something more about what is going on with Isaac. And he alludes to various possibilities given in the midrash.
Among these possibilities, the most striking one of all - the one I wanted you to see - is recorded by Rashi:
When Isaac was bound on the altar, and his father wanted to slaughter him, at that moment, the heavens opened up, and the angels saw what was happening, and began to cry. Their tears came down and fell into Isaac’s eyes. And that is why his eyes became dim.
Here we have the power of Midrash, in all its fullness. The imagery alone is so rich - and so tragic. But meanwhile, as usual, the midrash is also dealing with a textual problem. The verse that told us about Isaac’s blindness said that his eyes had become dimmed “from seeing.” The phrasing is awkward; it’s too wordy. From seeing what, exactly? Now we have an answer: he saw the angels crying for him.
But the real power of this midrash is that it links Isaac’s blindness back to the great horror of his childhood: his being bound on the altar by his father Abraham, to be slaughtered and sacrificed - only to be spared by God at the last moment. This was the defining moment of his life, one that we suspect must have changed him forever. So the image of angels crying into his eyes, and somehow scarring them permanently, gives us a tangible metaphor for some more profound, internal scarring. Whatever happened to Isaac up there on the altar, when he came back, he was never the same. Something in his vision of the world had become fundamentally distorted. He would never see things clearly again.
Now this is - thanks to Rashi - a very well-known midrash, and I am not the first to suggest that it can be read on this deeper level, as a metaphor for psychological trauma. But we might still ask, why this particular imagery? Why does he see, of all things, angels crying into his eyes? And furthermore, to return to our story in the Torah, what does all this have to do with the blessings of Esau and Jacob? Why would his experiences on the altar affect which of his sons he wanted to bless?
Some surprising answers to these questions might be found in an earlier midrash from the same collection,Genesis Rabbah. This one is appears back in the Binding of Isaac story itself, which we read a couple of weeks ago. It is less well-known but, as you’ll see, the imagery is remarkably familiar:
“And Abraham reached out his hand…” - He reached out his hand to take the knife, and his eyes dripped with tears, and the tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. These came from the compassion of a father. But even so, his heart was happy to do the will of his Creator. (56:8)
In this rendition, it was Abraham who cried above Isaac, Abraham whose own tears fell into his son’s eyes. And these tears that Isaac felt dripping upon him were the tears of fatherly love. Abraham, caught up in the throes of a terrifying act of violence, suddenly, for just a moment, flashed a face full of compassion for his beloved son. And then, just as quickly as the moment came, it passed, and Abraham recommitted to the task at hand.
But when Isaac looked up, for that one moment, he thought he had seen an angel appear before him. The man who had become his killer was suddenly his father again, eyes full of love and tears, heart full of pity.
He had thought he was about to die. He thought his father had abandoned him, that his father had become some kind of monster. But no. Look at that. This angelic figure would never harm him. He would be safe. He would be safe.
And then, suddenly, he was.
Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not reach out your hand against the boy, or do anything to him… (Gen. 22:12)
And Abraham put down the knife. Untied his son. Maybe he held him.
It was over.
The angel had saved him. Or was it his father? Yes, that’s it - his father. His father had wept over him. Or was that the angels? Now it was all a blur, all a bit jumbled up in his memory.
Just as the images are all jumbled up in these midrashim. But if we read them together, then one thing we get that we didn’t have before is Abraham’s compassion. There was trauma, yes. But in the midst of that trauma, also an awareness that there was something good and loving in Abraham that never left him. Isaac will never forget those tears. They are a reminder that no one can be fully overtaken by violence. A fundamental human compassion always remains.
So now, he is told that his own son Esau has become a violent man, a bad man. They say he should push him out of the family, bless his younger son instead. Be careful of Esau, they say. He’s a killer.
But no. Not his son, whom he loves. His son who loves him, who dotes on him, and brings him the food he likes. He’s a good boy. Okay, so he can be a little rough sometimes. And some of things we’ve heard about him are… unnerving.
But he’ll be alright. You have to believe he’ll be alright. Things always turn out okay, in the end.
Isaac’s eyes welled up with tears. And he called out for his son.
Questions for Further Discussion:
1. Aviva Zornberg says that Rashi’s commentary provides us with a “dreamtext.” What does she mean by that?
2. Do you think the midrash about the angels crying into Isaac’s eyes is meant to be taken literally or metaphorically?
3. Which image do you prefer: the angels crying into Isaac’s eyes, or Abraham crying into Isaac’s eyes? Why do you think, based on the Biblical text itself, that these are the two versions of this story?
4. Challenge Question: Rashi gives two other possibilities for why Isaac went blind: a.) Because of the smoke of these [wives of Esau] (who would burn [incense] to the idols. b.) To enable Jacob to take the blessings. Why does he include these other answers? How do they paint a different picture of Isaac’s mindstate?