One of the lingering questions about our patriarchs involves Yitzhak. As a patriarch – one of our primary ancestors who sets the Jewish people on our eternal path, he is enigmatic at best. Yitzhak lacks agency. Unlike Abraham and Jacob, or even Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah to be inclusive of our matriarchs, Yitzhak has no story of his own. He is regularly acted upon, but rarely if ever acts for his own concern.
One of the prime examples of that is in this week’s parsha when Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to Aram Naharayim to find a wife for Isaac. We are left wondering, why can’t Isaac go and find his own wife?
There are rabbis who do address this question, like the Ramban who explains that one of the patriarchs needs to live his whole life in the Promised Land to establish ownership. Many others just ignore the strange errand Abraham sets before his servant. However this, combined with the subsequent events of Isaac’s life, can’t help but leave us with questions about his abilities.
For example, in next week’s parsha we will read about Yaakov, at Rivka’s behest, tricking Yitzhak. Jacob disguises himself as Esau and steals his brother’s blessing, but the tricking is made easy because, as the Torah describes it, Isaac’s “eyes are dim.”
But what is this dimness of the eyes all about – the text makes it sound like he is on his deathbed, but in fact he lives for decades beyond the episode. We are left to wonder what exactly is wrong with Yitzhak.
One line of interpretation goes back to the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac that closed out the parsha last week. As you may recall, in that story God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, which Abraham comes very close to doing until he is stopped at the last minute by an angel.
One Midrash in Genesis Rabbah in commenting on Isaac’s dim eyes states:
HIS EYES WERE DIM … When Isaac was bound upon the altar and his father was about to slay him, at that very moment the heavens opened, the ministering angels saw it and wept, and their tears flowed and fell upon Isaac’s eyes which thus became dim (Genesis Rabbah 65:5).
In other words, after the episode of his father standing over him with a knife obviously prepared to kill him, Yitzhak was never the same. Of course, how could he be? The relationship with Avraham is broken – they never speak again – but what’s worse is Yitzhak’s relationship with God seems to be broken as well.
Later Jacob will describe God as “Elohai Avraham Pahad Yitzhak,” the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac. What is that all about? It seems that Yitzhak’s experience as a young man left him in fear his whole life. In fact another Midrash on the story of the stolen blessing expands on this idea. After Jacob runs off with his blessing, Esau comes back with his freshly hunted meal to get the blessing he believes to be his. When Yitzhak realizes what has happened it says, “Yitzhak feared a great fear.” Rabbi Hama bar Hanina says in a Midrash, “Even greater than the fear he feared on the altar.” In other words, there is a connection, a fear that started on that altar and that has stayed with him and grown as he has aged.
It helps explain his frailty as well. Midrash Tanhuma explains there are four possible causes why premature old age suddenly settles on a person. 1) because he lives in fear of something; 2) because he is angry at his children; 3) because he is married to an evil person; 4) because of being involved in waging wars. Yitzhak lives with a constant fear and it has broken his relationship with his father, and with God. No wonder he is a mess when his mother dies at the beginning of today’s parsha. Sarah was his only trusted connection to this world.
In fact, when interpreting the scene where Rivka sees Isaac from afar the Midrash professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary Burt Visotzky describes Isaac as being out in the field urinating. That’s probably not the way you’ve heard it before as it doesn’t paint Isaac with the respect we want him to have, but, says Dr. Visotzky, the Semitic root of Lasuach can mean to urinate. So, now let’s re-examine what’s happening here. Isaac is wandering in the fields having a complete collapse – so far gone is he in his break that he has lost control of his bodily functions, of his basic humanity. Rivka sees him and falls off the animal she is riding – perhaps out of shock at his condition? Then the text tells us that Yitzhak is comforted by her presence as he was comforted by his mother Sarah. Perhaps Rivka, whose kindness is proved at the well in today’s portion, is just the type of person to care for her infirmed husband.
So, at least one explanation for Yitzhak’s strange lack of agency, is that Yitzhak suffered a trauma so great at the Akedah that he has never been the same. He suffered from what we might call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, we shouldn’t confuse lack of agency with lack of purpose. This does not delegitimize his role as an important part of the story of the Jewish people. In fact, if his illness developed from trauma as the midrash implies, then he may be the patriarch we relate to most – is there any People who has survived as much trauma as the Jewish People? We are all Yitzhak, life comes with trauma, mental health is real health, and Yitzhak reminds us of the importance of honoring and accepting those who are sick in this way just as much as those who are suffering physical illness, that they are still valuable, that they are still an important part of our story. In fact, if you are uncomfortable or even find it offensive to hear me speak about one of our patriarchs as mentally ill, even as a midrash, even as just one version of the story, I encourage you to ask yourself why. What does that say about our cultural stigma around mental illness. Would it offend you if a patriarch had terminal cancer or macular degeneration? Then why so with terminal depression or PTSD?
Knowing what we now know about mental illness, I don’t think we should be judging those with this disease. In fact, understanding how difficult and painful every day was for Yitzhak and yet he was able to serve such an essential role in Judaism’s origins may make his life even more impressive, not less. It is up to us to remember Yitzhak not for his fear, but for his role as a link in the chain of the Jewish people, despite his fractured relationship with God and his father.
I wanted to share these thoughts about Yitzhak not only because my own family has paid the terrible price of mental illness gone unchecked, but also because we are all paying that price. This is a difficult moment in the life of our society when it comes to mental health and depression. Nationally more than 47 million adults are experiencing mental illness, that’s 19% of the national population. The estimated number of adults with serious suicidal thoughts is over 10.7 million – an increase of over 460,000 people from last year’s data set. 13.84% of youth (age 12-17) report suffering from at least one major depressive episode, or MDE, in the past year. Childhood depression is more likely to persist into adulthood if gone untreated. The number of youth experiencing MDE increased by 206,000 from last year’s dataset.
There can be no doubt, this is a national mental health crisis, and the sad thing is that while there is no guaranteed cure for many these ailments, there are so many ways to treat them that weren’t available even a few years ago, but the stigma remains and so many people go untreated until it is too late, not to mention that mental health services are woefully underfunded in this country in general. That’s why Tami and I wanted to be honest and open about how mental health has been a struggle in our family, and it is why I believe we can and should look at all the aspects of Yitzhak’s story and all of our Biblical progenitors. They were real people with real issues and we should expect no less from ourselves. We can have issues and still accomplish the mission God meant for us in this world.
So, let’s have some honest conversations about mental health and please know, if you have questions or doubts or need support, we are here for you. Reach out and we will do our best to help you or someone you are worried about find the help they need. In honor of our family members who struggled with mental health issues we will also be supporting The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance for Mental Illness. We invite you to join us in supporting those who are supporting us all as we face the other pandemic, the mental health crisis, spreading virulently across our nation.