B parashat hashavua b

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On three different occasions we read of one of the patriarchs fearing for his life and deciding to pass off his wife as his sister. This scenario occurs twice involving Avraham, in Egypt (chapter 12) and in Gerar (chapter 20), and once involving Yitzchak – in Gerar (chapter 26). A study of the three instances reveals a development: the first time the wife is taken altogether; the second time she is taken, but the king does not approach her; and the third time she is not taken at all. What is the meaning of these differences?

Concerning the first instance we find – once again – a dispute among the commentators as to how Avraham's act should be viewed. Here again, Ramban (12:10) is unhappy with Avraham's behavior:

"Know that Avraham our father mistakenly committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife before a stumbling block of such iniquity because of his fear that he would be put to death. He should have trusted in God that He would save him and his wife and all that was theirs, for God has the power to help and to save."

The Radak (12:12), once again, defends Avraham:

"He did not rely on God's promise that He made to him, for he thought that perhaps he would be unworthy because of sin. Similarly, Yaakov still feared after God's promise [to him]. It is proper for any righteous person not to rely, in a dangerous situation, upon miracles. He should protect himself by means of any possible strategy. Concerning this Shelomo said: 'Happy is the man who is always fearful,' and the Sages taught that it is not proper to rely on miracles…."

Even if we follow Radak's opinion, the parasha confronts us with a somewhat jarring expression:

"Please say that you are my sister, in order that it will be good for me on your account, and my life will be spared because of you." (12:12)

If there is really no alternative and it is a question of life and death, then the words "my life will be spared because of you" are quite in order. But what is the meaning of the previous phrase – "in order that it will be good for me on your account"? Rashi explains: "They will give me gifts," and it seems that his interpretation is correct, for we are told later on:

"HE WAS GOOD TO AVRAHAM ON HER ACCOUNT, and he had sheep and cattle and donkeys, servants and maidservants, and she-asses and camels." (12:16)

At a later stage in his life, Avraham expresses reservations about accepting money from evil people:

"Avraham said to the king of Sedom: I have raised my hand to the Most High God, Possessor of the heavens and the earth, that I will take nothing – from a thread to a shoelace – of all that is yours, that you shall not say, 'I made Avram rich.'" (14:22-23)

Indeed, the second time Avraham encounters the same situation, he expresses no expectation of receiving any material profit:

"Avraham traveled from there to the land of the Negev, and he dwelled between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar. And Avraham said of Sara, his wife: 'She is my sister.'" (20:1-2)

It may be for this very reason that the Holy One intercedes here:

"…Therefore I have not allowed you to touch her." (20:6)

Here, too, Avraham receives gifts from the king who took his wife, but this time the reward is not for the actual taking of the wife, but rather as compensation for the anguish caused to Avraham and Sara:

"Avimelekh took sheep and cattle and servants and maidservants, and gave them to Avraham, and he returned him Sara, his wife… And to Sara he said: 'Behold, I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your brother; let it be for you a covering of the eyes, to all who are with you….'" (29:14-16)

Yitzchak appears to achieve a complete repair of this scenario, for ultimately his wife is not taken at all:

"And it was, when he had spent a long time there, that Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, looked out of the window and saw, and behold – Yitzchak was intimate with Rivka his wife. Avimelekh called Yitzchak and said… 'What is this that you have done to us? One of the people could easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us!'" (26:8-10)

There seems to be one glaring difference between these three instances. In both of the stories about Avraham, the declaration that the woman is his sister is made immediately upon arrival in the new area:

"When he came near to come to Egypt, he said to Sarai, his wife: 'Look, now – I know that you are a beautiful woman… Please say that you are my sister…'" (12:11-12)

"And he sojourned in Gerar. And Avraham said of Sara, his wife: 'She is my sister…'" (20:1-2)

Yitzchak, on the other hand, waits until he is asked:

"The local people asked about his wife, and he said: 'She is my sister,' for he feared to say, 'my wife'…." (26:7)

It seems, then, that Yitzchak and Rivka lived together there as a regular husband and wife, and only when asked did he respond, "She is my sister." This dedication to the truth allowed Yitzchak to depart from it only at the last moment, under clear compulsion. Obviously, his response sounded suspicious, and it is reasonable to assume that this is what caused the king to look through the window specifically at this point, before taking the woman.

Avraham ascended from Egypt the first time with great wealth that he had received from Pharaoh in return for Sara: "Avram was very wealthy, in cattle, in silver and in gold" (13:2). In contrast, the Torah describes how Yitzchak, following the episode of Avimelekh, achieves his wealth by merit of his own labors:

"Yitzchak sowed in that land and he received the same year a hundredfold, and God blessed him. The man grew great, and he continued to grow until he became very great." (26:12)


Not much time passes, and again Yitzchak is beset with problems – this time from the direction of the Philistine shepherds:

"The servants of Yitzchak dug in the valley, and they found there a well flowing with fresh water. AND THE SHEPHERDS OF GERAR STROVE WITH YITZCHAK'S SHEPHERDS, saying: 'The water is ours,' and he called the name of the well 'Esek' (striving), for they strove with him." (26:19-20)

Again we are reminded of Avraham, who also had to deal with a dispute among shepherds:

"There was a dispute between the shepherds of Avraham's flocks and the shepherds of Lot's flocks" (13:7).

Here again there is a difference. Avraham's way of dealing with the dispute of the shepherds is to propose a compromise:

"Is not ALL THE LAND before you? Please separate yourself from me - if you take the left side then I will take the right; if the right – I will take the left." (13:9)

Lot accepts his suggestion, and chooses the portion of land that pleases him:

"LOT LIFTED HIS EYES and saw all of the Jordan plain, for all of it is well watered… and Lot chose all of the Jordan plain…." (13:10-11)

At first glance, Avraham's suggestion seems to represent a worthy, peaceful solution. However, close inspection of God's reaction points to a certain reservation regarding Avraham's readiness to relinquish parts of the land, which were meant for him, to Lot:

"God said to Avram, after Lot had separated from him: LIFT UP YOUR EYES and see, from the place where you are – northwards and southwards, eastwards and westwards. For ALL THE LAND that you see – I shall give it to you and to your seed forever. I shall make your seed like the dust of the earth, that if a person could count the dust of the earth, so could your seed be counted. Arise, walk about in the land, its length and its breadth, for I shall give it to you…." (13:14-16)

When God repeats Avraham's phrase "all the land," He is hinting that the land Avraham offers Lot is not meant for Lot at all; it is meant exclusively for Avraham and his descendants. It is not Lot who should "lift his eyes" and choose whichever portion he desires, but rather Avraham who should "lift his eyes" and knthat the entire land has been given to him, for all eternity. The land is not supposed to be divided between "left" and "right," but should rather remain, in its entirety, the land of Avraham: from the north to the south, from the east to the west, its length and breadth. A completely different land is destined for the descendants of Lot:

"God said to me: Do not harass Moav nor challenge them to war, for it is not to you that I give of their land as an , but rather to the children of Lot that I have given Ar for an inheritance… And when you come near, facing the children of Ammon, you shall not harass them nor challenge them, for I shall not give of the land of the children of Ammon to you as an inheritance, but rather to the children of Lot that I have given it as an inheritance." (Devarim 2:9-19)

From this perspective, Yitzchak's determination to remain in the land and to fight for it is especially praiseworthy:

"They dug another well, and they strove also over that, and he called its name Sitna. He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not strive over it, and he called it Rechovot ('broad places'), saying: Now God has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land." (26:21-22)

Yitzchak does not offer the Philistines any portion of the land. His determination eventually prevails, and they cease to argue with him.


Although Avimelekh abducted Sara, and almost seized Rivka as well, he ultimately approached both Avraham and Yitzchak, requesting that they enter into a peace pact with him. There are many similarities between the two stories. In both instances, it is Avimelekh who initiates the covenant, after recognizing the Divine assistance rendered to the patriarchs:

"God is with you in all that you do." (21:22)

"I have seen clearly that God was with you." (26:28)

In both cases, the patriarchs respond with a complaint concerning the injustice done to them by Avimelekh's servants:

"Avraham rebuked Avimelekh on account of the well of water which the servants of Avimelekh had stolen." (21:25)

"Why have you come to me, when you hate me and banished me from among you?" (26:27)

At the same time, the encounter eventually concludes with a mutual promise between the patriarchs and Avimelekh, which pertains also to the name of the city – Be'er Sheva:

"Therefore he called the name of that place 'Be'er Sheva,' for there the two of them swore (nishbe'u)." (21:31)

"They swore (va-yishav'u) each to the other… therefore the name of the city was Be'er Sheva." (26:31-33)

A closer look at the relevant chapters once again reveals fundamental differences between Avraham's way and that of Yitzchak. Avraham immediately agrees to Avimelekh's request, and only afterwards mentions the injustice done to him:

"Avraham said: 'I swear.' And Avraham rebuked Avimelekh on account of the well of water which the servants of Avimelekh had stolen." (21:24-25)

Further on, it turns out that although Avimelekh asked Avraham only for a promise, Avraham is prepared to go even further – to forge a covenant:

"'And now, swear to me by God…' And Avraham took sheep and cattle and gave them to Avimelekh, and the two of them forged a covenant." (21:23-27)

This point is of great significance. A promise is merely an undertaking, while the forging of a covenant expresses partnership and a qualitative connection between the two parties. Avraham's readiness to make a covenant with Avimelekh, after the latter had previously taken his wife (even though his intention had not been to take a married woman), and after hearing Avimelekh's questionable apology for the episode of the well ("I do not know who did this thing, nor did you tell me, nor had I heard of it until today") is most surprising. The covenant is executed through an act of expressing good faith, and an attempt to sort out the issue of the well on the basis of mutual undertaking:

"Take the seven sheep from me, that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well." (21:30)

Chazal criticize sharply this act by Avraham:

"'Avraham took sheep and cattle, and gave them to Avimelekh. Avimelekh said to Avraham: What are these here seven sheep?' – The Holy One said to him, 'You gave seven sheep without My desiring it; by your life, I shall postpone the rejoicing of your children for seven generations. You gave him seven sheep without My desiring it; by your life, corresponding to this they will kill seven righteous men of your children, and these are they: Chofni, Pinchas, Shimshon, and Shaul and his three sons. You gave him seven sheep without My desiring it; correspondingly, his sons will destroy seven of your children's Sanctuaries, and these are they: the Ohel Mo'ed and Gilgal, Nov, Giv'on, Shilo, and the two Temples. You gave him seven sheep without My desiring it; correspondingly, My holy Ark will remain in the field of the Philistines for seven months." (Bereishit Rabba 54:4)

Yitzchak, interestingly, acts in exactly the opposite manner. First he presents his complaints to Avimelekh, and only after the latter is forced to admit that his approach is motivated by personal interests, does Yitzchak agree to negotiate with him.

"Yitzchak said to them: Why have you come to me, since you hate me and banished me from among you?" (26:27)

Avimelekh then asks of him what he never asked of Avraham: "Let me make a covenant with you," but Yitzchak will agree only to a mutual promise; he will not enter into a covenant with a man such as Avimelekh. Although Yitzchak offers the proper hospitality to Avimelekh and his men, he actually gives them nothing.

This different approach is reflected in the different results. The pact made with Avraham is violated after Avraham's death:

"All the wells that the servants of his father had dug in the days of Avraham were blocked up by the Philistines and filled with dust." (26:15)

The agreement reached with Yitzchak, on the other hand, concludes with the Torah reporting that "they departed from him in peace," and we hear no more of any disturbances. It is specifically through highlighting the moral distance separating Yitzchak from Avimelekh – leaving no possibility of a covenant – that Yitzchak achieves a "cold peace" with him, which turns out to be more effective than the covenant made by his father.

The story of the encounter between Yitzchak and Avimelekh occurs within a clear literary framework. At the outset we are told:

"The servants of Yitzchak dug a well there. And Avimelekh came to him from Gerar…" (26:25-26)

Throughout the story, we are in suspense as to whether any water will be found in the well. Symbolically, it is only after the encounter has ended, with Avimelekh and his cohorts returning home without a covenant, that the water bursts forth:

"They departed from him in peace. It was on that day that the servants of Yitzchak came to him and told him about he well which they had dug, and they said to him: We have found water!" (26:31-32)

This difference between the two stories also emphasizes the difference in the description of how the city came to be called "Be'er Sheva." This name was given to the city in the wake of the covenant that Avraham made with Avimelekh:

"Therefore the name of that place was called Be'er Sheva, for there the two of them swore." (21:31)

However, is it proper that a city be named after an unwanted covenant, given in place of a promise? This explanation for the name of the city was only temporary. The explanation that will remain forever valid is actually the oath by Yitzchak:

"They swore each to the other… Therefore the name of the city is Be'er Sheva TO THIS DAY." (26:31-33)

Yitzchak's oath, representing the avoidance of a covenant with a person such as Avimelekh, is what will be memorialized eternally in the name of the city. (Thanks to my student Raphael Yanniger for pointing this out to me.)


The final point that I shall address concerns a comparison noted by the Midrash: "Avraham had a righteous son and a wicked son, and likewise Yitzchak." What was the difference between Avraham's attitude towards Yishma'el and Yitzchak's attitude towards Esav?

Actually, the Torah does not record a single conversation between Avraham and Yishma'el. The father's feelings for the son are discernable only at the end, after Yishma'el's sin has brought about – with God expressing agreement with Sara – the need to banish him from his home:

"Sara saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian woman, whom she had borne to Avraham, making sport. She said to Avraham: 'Banish this maidservant and heson, for the son of this maidservant will not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak.' THE THING WAS VERY BAD in Avraham's eyes, on account of his son. God said to Avraham: 'Let it not be bad in your eyes over the boy and over your maidservant; all that Sara tells you – listen to her voice, for your seed will be called through Yitzchak.'" (21:9-12)

In contrast, Yitzchak reveals his feelings for his son Esav from the very outset:

"Yitzchak loved Esav, for the hunt was in his mouth." (25:28)

Yitzchak is well aware of Esav's character:

"Esav was forty years old, and he took as a wife Yehudit, daughter of Be'eri the Hittite, and Basmat, daughter of Elon the Hittite. They [the women] were a source of bitterness to Yitzchak and to Rivka." (26:34-35)

Still, Yitzchak does not change course regarding his son:

"It was, when Yitzchak grew old and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esav, his elder son, and said to him: 'My son!' And he said to him, 'Here I am.' And he said, 'See here, I am old, and I do not know the day of my death. Now, please take up your weapons – your quiver and your bow – and to out to the field, and hunt me some venison. Prepare me tasty dishes, such as I love, and bring it to me and I shall eat, in order that my soul may bless you before I die.'" (27:1-4)

How beautifully the Midrash explains this relationship of Yitzchak towards Esav:

"'And Yitzchak loved Esav' – did Yitzchak then not know that Esav's actions were bad? Yet we are told, 'Shall I not hate those who hate you, God?' (Tehillim 139:21). Why, then, did he love him? In truth, he showed love for him only to his face, in order to draw him closer. For if, when he loved him, Esav's actions were evil, how much more evil would they be if he hated him and distanced him! Our Sages taught: The right hand should always draw near and the left hand push away. Therefore the Torah says that Yitzchak loved Esav." (Midrash ha-Gadol, Bereishit 25:28)

Yitzchak's plan - to bless Esav with blessings of material success while granting Yaakov the blessing of Avraham – was not successful, because of Rivka's intervention. The scope of this shiur does not allow for a discussion of whether Rivka was correct in intervening, and what would have happened if she had left Yitzchak to act in the way that he intended to. But even after Rivka brings about a turnabout in the plan, and a "great terror" on the part of Yitzchak, the positive influence of Yitzchak's educational philosophy is still felt:

"Esav saw that the daughters of Canaan were bad in the eyes of Yitzchak, his father. And Esav went to Yishma'el, and took Machalat, daughter of Yishma'el, son of Avraham, sister of Nevayot, in addition to his other wives, as a wife." (28:8-9)

Esav is not concerned by the fact that the daughters of Canaan are bad also in the eyes of Rivka, his mother, who estranged herself to him. He is disturbed only by the fact that they are bad "in the eyes of Yitzchak his father," who openly showed his love for him. Moreover, even in his terrible rage at the deceitful act of Yaakov, Esav manages – at least for the meantime – to hold back his desire to execute judgment for himself and to kill his brother:

"Esav said to himself: When the days of mourning for my father are at hand, then I will kill Yaakov, my brother." (27:41)

Yitzchak teaches us a most important educational lesson. One's dealings with a son who has deviated from the path of his father must come from love. Only through love are we able to repair – even just a little – the way of the son.


Avraham our forefather paved the way. His ceaseless moving – from the first "Lekh lekha," sending him to Israel, to the last, sending him to Moriah - created a completely new path in the world. But – as in any new road – there is room for repair and completion of deficiencies, without which no new beginning could ever exist. This is the job of the continuer of the way – Yitzchak. With determination and conscientiousness, Yitzchak strengthens the connection with the promised land and deals with the corrupt inhabitants of the land. With great faith he addresses his wife's barrenness and also manages to influence even the evil ways of his son, Esav.



"And Yitzchak Loved Esav"

"And the boys grew up, and Esav became a cunning hunter, a man of the field, while Yaakov was a simple man who dwelled in tents" (25:27). The Ibn Ezra explains the contrast between Yaakov and Esav as follows: Esav was full of cunning, for it is impossible to hunt animals without deceiving them (by means of traps, etc.). Yaakov, on the other hand, was a "simple" (tam) man – he was full of innocence and completely without deceit. Rashi offers a similar explanation: Esav deceived his father, asking him how to tithe salt in order that his father would believe that he was punctilious in his observance of mitzvot, while Yaakov had no idea how to deceive: "He spoke only what was in his heart. Someone who is not a deceiver is called 'simple' (tam)."

"And Yitzchak loved Esav, for the hunt was in his mouth." Why did Yitzchak love Esav and his cunning?

In order to answer this question, let us first examine the personality of one of the most outstanding Tana'im, R. Meir. The Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) narrates,

"It is revealed and known to 'the One who spoke and the world was created' that there was no one in R. Meir's generation who was like him (in greatness). And why was the halakha not established in accordance with his opinion? Because his colleagues could not fully fathom his reasoning. He would say of something impure that it was pure, and provide proof, and he would say of something pure that it was impure, and provide proof. We have learned: His name was not R. Meir but rather R. Nehorai. Why, then, was he called Meir? Because he would enlighten (me'ir) the eyes of the Sages in halakha... Rabbi said: I am sharper than my colleagues because I merited seeing R. Meir from behind (Rashi: I sat in the row immediately behind him when I was his student); but had I seen him from the front, I would be yet sharper."

R. Meir was as great as he was because of his boldness. He was prepared to prove that something that appeared impure was really pure, and vice versa. He was prepared to argue with the seemingly clear and simple understanding. In R. Meir's Torah, next to the verse, "And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good (tov me'od)" (1:31), there appeared the gloss, "Death is 'good' (tov mavet)" (Bereishit Rabba 3:2). He saw beyond the simple and literal. Concerning the verse, "And ýthe Lord God made Adam and his wife garments of leather ('or' spelled with an 'ayin')" (3:21), he glossed: "garments of light ('or' spelled with an 'aleph')" – the garments were not something external, like leather, but rather internal, like light (Bereishit Rabba 20:12). "You are children to Hashem your God" (Devarim 14:1) – R. Meir taught, "When you behave like His children then you are called His children; when you do not behave like His children, you are not called so" (Kiddushin 36a).

R. Meir was ready to deviate from the literal understanding, to supply seemingly far-fetched explanations. He discerned the inner essence of things, and was willing to take risks. The Gemara (Chagiga 15a-b) recounts how R. Meir learned from Elisha ben Avuya ('Acher') even after the latter's turn to heresy, since he knew how to select the worthy things that he had to say. "R. Meir found a pomegranate (referring to Acher); he ate the inside and threw away the peel." R. Meir's boldness therefore caused him to be greater in Torah than anyone else in his generation.

The forefathers of our nation had an important role to play in the world – to sanctify God's Name and to serve as a light to the nations. Avraham was extremely successful in this task – he was the "father of many nations," and his greatness was universally recognized. Yitzchak, on the other hand, was much more passive. A well-known Gemara (Pesachim 85a) compares Avraham to a mountain and Yitzchak to a field: Avraham stood out and could be seen from afar; he was recognized everywhere. Yitzchak was like a field – introverted and not visible from afar. "And all the wells which the servants of his father had dug in the days of Avraham were blocked by the Philistines and filled with earth" (26:15) – Kabbala teaches that the converts taught by Avraham also returned to their former pagan ways in the days of Yitzchak. Yitzchak's era is thus characterized by a regression in all aspects of activity among the nations.

Yitzchak recognized this failure on his part and wanted the situation to improve in the next generation. Therefore he chose Esav over Yaakov. Yaakov was admittedly a "dweller of tents" – a student of Torah, but study was not the trait that was necessary to act among the nations and inspire them. The fourteen years that Yaakov spent in the Beit Midrash (study hall) of Shem and Ever certainly made him wise and knowledgeable, but they would not necessarily help him to sanctify God's name in the world. Yitzchak saw Esav as better equipped for this task. Esav was cunning and daring. He would be able to improve things and to make things happen. Esav was a man of the world, a man of courage and boldness, and Yitzchak thus saw him as the successor of Avraham.

Rivka loved Yaakov because she knew, through her sense of prophecy, that God had chosen him ("the elder shall serve the younger"). God Himself declares, "I love Yaakov, but I hate Esav" (Malakhi 1:2-3). The Zohar, however, has an intersting understanding of just what God hates about Esav, and this too may help us appreciate why Yitzchak preferred him. The Zohar alludes to the gemara (Sota 13a) which narrates how, when the time came to bury Yaakov in Me'arat Ha-makhpela, Esav arrived and claimed that he, rather than Yaakov, had the right to be buried there. Naftali was dispatched to Egypt to bring proof that the place rightfully belonged to Yaakov. Meanwhile, Chushim – the son of Dan – arose and killed Esav, beheading him with a sword. Esav's head rolled into Me'arat Ha-machpela and remained there, while the rest of him was buried elsewhere. In keeping with this tradition, the Zohar interprets God's declaration, "I love Yaakov, but I hate Esav" to mean that "I hate that which secondary in Esav, but I love that in him which is primary (figuratively, his head)."

Esav's primary characteristic was his boldness, and God (as well as Yitzchak) loved this characteristic. However, while Yitzchak thought this was sufficient reason for Esav to be his successor, God thought that Esav's negative secondary characteristics disqualified him (as He informed Rivka). Nevertheless, God could not afford to have this important quality disappear from among His chosen people. It was R. Meir - a descendant of Esav! - who reinstated the quality of boldness in Bnei Yisrael.


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