Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Issac. Marc Chagall 1958
Isaac, son of Abraham, is one of the most tragic figures in the Genesis narratives. When he was just a boy, he suffered the loss of his older brother Ishmael, when Ishmael and his mother Hagar were expelled from the household into the wilderness by Isaac’s mother Sarah. Then, sometime after this, Isaac walked for three days with Abraham his father up to Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, only to be set upon the sacrificial altar. There he lay, as his father took the knife in his hand and raised it up, until at the last second, an angel shouted from the heavens, “Abraham, Abraham, do not lay your hand upon the lad; do nothing to him; for now I know that you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me!” (Genesis 22.11-12)
Now, in the frailty and blindness of old age, Isaac bestows upon Jacob the blessing intended for his older son Esau.
The great midrashic scholar Avivah Zornberg characterizes Isaac as a “survivor of unbearable trauma.” It would seem that Dr. Zornberg is spot on. The trauma that a boy would suffer from such a shocking and horrifying near-death experience, at the hand of his own father, would be deep enough to scar anyone for life. Dr. Zornberg explains: “In recent times we have become painfully familiar with the notion of a response to trauma that is delayed, repressed, and that emerges in psychosomatic dysfunction. Just such a repression is implicit in the notion of Isaac’s delayed blindness. Imprinted deep in Isaac’s consciousness is the spectacle of his own death. In old age the vision explodes in fatal bloom: his awareness of death fills every moment of life. ‘Look now, I am old, and I don’t know the day of my death . . . . Let me bless you, before I die (Genesis 27.4).’ Death haunts his imagination, the angst of one who nothing else in an eternal moment of his youth. (Isaac in fact lives sixty years after this ‘death bed’ speech!)”(Excepted from Dr. Zornberg’s book “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis,” Knopf, 2011.)
I am moved and pained by the level of trauma that Isaac suffered in his early life. Very often the deep wounds of profound trauma stay with us throughout our lives, and are never very far from our consciousness. Certainly survivors of the Shoah have testified to this, but also any of us who has suffered any sort of profound shock to our sense of equilibrium in life. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Isaac’s life after Moriah was not a total loss – not in the least. He managed to sustain a marriage and raise two sons. He owned and cultivated land, and herds of sheep and cattle. He had many servants, and dug many wells. By material definition, he was a very wealthy man, and became the envy even of the Philistines. As with his father Abraham before, God appeared to him and promised him blessings and numerous descendants.
While the scars of deep trauma may remain within us throughout our lives, we human beings are also endowed with great power to live our lives well despite it. We can find a way to integrate pain into the totality of our lives and not lose ourselves altogether. While Isaac may be a particularly tragic figure, he also owns his own place of great significance in the saga of our Matriachs and Patriachs, and in the formative history of the Jewish People.