by Jacob Solomon
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| There was a famine in the Land… G-d appeared to Isaac and He said: Do not go
down to Egypt… live in this land and I will be with you and bless you…
When Abraham was in similar circumstances, he did indeed go to Egypt. G-d did not show displeasure. Why did He command Isaac not to react to the famine in the same way as his father did?
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 64:3) gives the well-known explanation that Isaac had an additional degree of holiness, as he had been specified to be a sacrifice in the Akeida. Just as a sacrifice is invalidated if it is taken out of holy territory, so Isaac would have been defiled were he to have left the Promised Land.
However the above explanation may be supplemented by looking at the contrasting personalities and circumstances of the two Patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 56:4) implies that the Akeida was also a trial of Isaac. Even though he realised the purpose of his journey to Mount Moriah, he nevertheless went with joy, knowing that he was to fulfil the will of his Creator. In many ways Isaac’s relationship with G-d continued where Abraham’s left off: the Akeida being Abraham’s tenth trial (according to most commentators) but Isaac’s first. Thus, through the teachings of his father, Isaac reached Abraham’s spiritual level much earlier in life – and he continued to develop as his life progressed. However more was expected of Isaac, which may be illustrated by the following discussion in the Talmud:
R. Ishmael says that person should conduct his life according to Derech Eretz – he should engage in worldly pursuits to earn his living, and study Torah as much as possible when he can. R. Shimon bar Yochai disagrees – holding that one should commit one’s whole life to Torah, fulfilling the will of the Almighty, and leave the material needs to Him. G-d will provide! Abbaye remarks that ‘many followed R. Ishmael and succeeded; many followed R. Shimon bar Yochai and did not succeed’. (Berachot 35b).
This discussion gives an insight in the differences between Abraham and Isaac. Abraham went to Egypt at an earlier stage in his own career. He was further away from G-d and spiritual matters. His descent to Egypt was in the spirit of R. Ishmael – responding to demands of earning a living in a natural way – in this case, migrating from more holy conditions of famine to less holy conditions of plenty. Isaac, in contrast, was further along the spiritual path. Such was his relationship with the Almighty following the Akeida that he was in a situation comparable with the ideals of R. Shimon bar Yochai – do His will: live in this land even in famine condition - and He will provide: and I will be with you and bless you...
Isaac said to them (Abimelech and his retinue), "Why have you come to me? You hate me and you sent me away from you". They said, "We indeed saw that G-d was with you… let us make a covenant with you, that you will not do us any evil, as we have not hurt you, and just as we have done only good to you..." (26:27-29).
Thus Abimelech spoke to Isaac when he came him at Beer Sheva. As the text relates, Isaac had suffered at the hands of Abimelech and his people. Abimelech, who once made a covenant with Abraham not to lie with him or his descendants, converted his nation’s jealousy into action, and he ordered Isaac to be evicted: Go from us, because you are much wealthier than we are” (26:16). Also, Isaac had dug wells during the famine and untapped the natural resources of their country - by providing them with a permanent spring-fed source of water. In return, he was not thanked – but robbed of the fruits of his labors. Then when Abimelech came to him, Isaac rebuked him – Why have you come to me? – You hate me! In his answer he included the words just as we have only good to you. Surely he lied? And having lied, why did Isaac agree to make a formal treaty with Abimelech?
In looking at these issues, consider the Torah prohibitions of taking revenge and bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18). As the Talmud explains, a person’s refusal to give assistance because of being previously denied help is revenge. A person’s giving assistance, but recalling the other’s refusal is bearing a grudge. As R. Zelig Pliskin illustrates:
Lost and wandering in a desert, Gavrial finally spotted a man leading a herd of camels. Half-crazed from thirst, Gavrial crawled up to the man and begged for water. The camel owner refused and left Gavrial to the elements. Gavrial miraculously managed to get back to civilisation and in a short time became very wealthy. One day, Gavrial’s secretary announced that a camel dealer was interested in obtaining a loan from him for the purpose of enlarging his stock. When the man entered Gavrial’s office, Gavrial immediately recognised the face. It was the person who had refused to aid him in his hour of need. Gavrial is obligated to grant the loan without recalling the desert incident. This is a true and difficult test of Gavrial’s strength of character, but it is required of him by these two mitzvot. (Story quoted from Guard Your Tongue, by R. Zelig Pliskin, p. 17.)
This gives a key for understanding Isaac’s treatment of Abimelech and his company. Like Gavrial in the story above, Isaac had been treated with extreme selfishness – and in addition, by dishonesty. But – like the camel owner, Abimelech had gone out of his way to approach Isaac cap in hand for something he obviously needed and wanted. And, as the camel owner to Gavirial, Abimelech’s actions were by then no threat to Isaac.
So once Abimelech announced his intentions of making a treaty, Isaac granted him what he wished, with feasting and hospitality. As with Gavrial, this may be seen as a difficult test of Isaac’s strength of character, but it was required of him by the Torah prohibitions of taking revenge and bearing a grudge.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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