Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Isaac?: Vayetze 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: When have you been motivated by fear? To what extent can fear lead to good decisions? Or does it only lead to panic and bad choices?

As our society grapples with difficult decisions in the wake of last week’s deplorable attacks in Paris and the continuing violence in Israel, it is useful to look at a phrase found in this week’s Torah portion, in which Jacob cites fear when completing a treaty with Laban, his untrustworthy father-in-law.

Text: “‘May the God of Abraham’s [house] and god of Nahor’s [house]’ – their ancestral deities – ‘judge between us.’ And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac’s [house].” (Genesis 31:53)

Commentary #1: “Isaac had always taught Jacob not to take a vow unless absolutely necessary and if he had to take an oath, to do it with the reverence and respect proper in such cases. Hence when Jacob found himself compelled to take an oath, he did so filled with fear of his father Isaac, filled with reverence for the ideals his father had taught him.” – Binah LeIttim

Commentary #2: “The appellative [pahad] remains obscure. It may have here its customary sense of ‘fear,’ in which case some reference to the [Binding] of Isaac may be implicit; or it might be an altogether different term.” – E.A. Speiser, Genesis

Commentary #3: “From this episode we learn that the merit acquired from labor may be helpful even when the influence of one’s ancestors is not. It is written: ‘Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had been on my side.’ This implies that the merit of Jacob’s ancestors saved him financially, but it followed by: ‘God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and gave judgment yesternight,’ which indicates that He warned [Laban] not to harm Jacob because of the merit of the work he had performed.” – Tanhuma-Yelammedenu

Follow-Up Questions: What does it mean to swear “by the fear of Isaac”? To Binah LeIttim, Jacob literally fears whether his father will approve of his father’s behavior. To Speiser, the phrase hearkens back to the fear experienced by Isaac himself when his father Abraham bound him to a sacrificial altar in Genesis 21. But to Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, the fear of Isaac only has limited effectiveness in Jacob’s quest to be liberated from Laban – rather, it is Jacob’s own merits that enables his independence.

Do you feel that Jacob is fearful at this moment of the story, when he is about to lead his family away from Laban’s protective yet treacherous nest? Or is he simply recalling the fearfulness of his father? How does this depiction compared to the episode in last week’s portion, in which Jacob fearlessly swindles Esau’s blessing from a feckless Isaac? Is Jacob now in the same position of his father, unsure how to trust someone in an atmosphere of mistrust and trickery? What lessons about fear can we learn from our ancestors? How can we apply these lessons to current situations?

Emanu-El Happenings: As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are eagerly anticipating traveling to family and friends. I myself will be at a conference during the first part of the week before returning for the holiday itself. But if you will be in Charleston over the coming week, please consider taking some time to attend minyan, which will take place as regularly scheduled (with one exception: on Thanksgiving morning, minyan will start at 9:00AM). There are still people in our community who need to say Kaddish and grow spiritually through prayer and listening to the reading of the Torah. Your presence can help make these activities possible. We cannot assume that others will do so if we don’t; we must all take the responsibility upon ourselves, if only occasionally.

The Big Inning at the End: While we’re on the subject of fear, there is a grand tradition of even the greatest hitters standing in awe of a dominant pitcher. One example took place in the 1993 All Star Game, when John Kruk visibly quaked while facing the explosive pitches of Randy Johnson. But perhaps my favorite story about this involves Lefty Gomez, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Yankees. During Gomez’s career, there was no Designated Hitter rule in the American League, so Gomez had to take turns at bat like all the other players. On one occasion, before facing an especially intimidating hurler, Gomez took a box of matches out of his pocket and lit one, holding it near home plate. The umpire asked why Gomez would do this, since the light of one match wouldn’t allow Gomez to see the pitcher any better. “I know,” Gomez replied, “I just want to make sure he can see me!”

Shabbat Shalom!