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30.10.2017 13:21    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  berechit  vayera  

Pahad Yitzhak – The Fear of Isaac

Although the expression pahad Yitzhak—fear of Isaac—only occurs in Parashat Va-Yetze, it affords the possibility of looking at the story of the binding of Isaac, told in this week’s reading, from a less standard point of view.

After Jacob stole away from Laban’s house, along with his family, Laban pursued him.  When the latter caught up to him, sharp words were exchanged between the two.  In his rebuttal of Laban’s accusations, Jacob said the following (Gen. 31:42):

Had not the G-d of my father, the G-d of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed.  But G-d took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and he gave judgment last night.

Jacob used this expression again when he parted ways with Laban (Gen. 31:53):  “‘May the G-d of Abraham and the god of Nahor’—their ancestral deities—‘judge between us.’  And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.”  The expression, “Fear of Isaac,” allows for various interpretations, but we shall focus on those that have a bearing on the binding of Isaac.

Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary on the above verse:  “Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac—by He whom his father feared.  One could say that the fear hints at the day of the binding of Isaac, and this is not far-fetched.”  Ibn Ezra’s remark, “this is not far-fetched,” indicates that he viewed the second interpretation as pertaining to the plain sense of the text.  In other words, Jacob chose to swear by the founding moment in the life of his father Isaac, the day he was bound on the altar, rather than swear in the name of G-d.

Ibn Ezra bases his interpretation on what is said in the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:12):  “For now I know that you fear G-d, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me”—the Lord’s words that Isaac heard from the angel of the Lord, who kept his father from slaughtering him.[1] Thus we can say, “Fear of Isaac” is an expression interchangeable with the fear of G-d mentioned in the story of the Akeda, the binding of Isaac.

Jacob apparently believed that his father Isaac’s fear of G-d would influence Laban to keep his oath never to harm Jacob or his family.

In his commentary, Radak, as well, emphasizes Isaac’s fear of G-d:  “Jacob said Fear of Isaac with reference to the binding of Isaac, for it was fear of G-d[using Hebrew preposition le] that caused him to let himself be slaughtered.”

Radak makes us distinguish between fear of (pahad me-) and fear towards (pahad le-) [which might better be rendered as “reverence towards”].  While Ibn Ezra referred the “Fear of Isaac” to Isaac’s fear of the Lord, “He whom his father feared,” Radak saw pahad Yitzhak and pertaining to Isaac’s fear towards the Lord.  This distinction is seen in Hosea (3:5):  “Afterward, the Israelites will turn back and will seek the Lord their G-d and David their king, and they will thrill over the Lord (pahadu el H’) and over His bounty in the days to come.”[2] In this verse, pahadu el is used in the sense of hastening to return to the Lord and quickly attaining His bounty.  Also see the use of this expression in Micah 7:17.

Radak notes how Isaac cooperated in his own binding out of his awesome reverence towards G-d, thus adding another dimension to the expression, "fear of Isaac," similar to Radak’s comment on the verse in Micah:  “The Lord our G-d they shall revere (yefahadu), for they know there is none like unto Him.”  In other words, Isaac’s fear/reverence of G-d is what made him ready to lay down his life in the Akeda.

Abarbanel, too, arrives at a similar conclusion in his commentary on this verse:  “He swore by the fear of his father Isaac at the Akeda, as if he were swearing by his binding.”  Abarbanel stresses another aspect, as well.  A person who is bound on the altar at the Lord’s command has a special status, one expressing supreme moral perfection; and by virtue of this Jacob sought to find deliverance in his time of need.

This idea is expressed more extensively in Rabbenu Bahya’s commentary (Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, 1255-1340, Saragossa, Spain) on verse 42:

The Fear of Isaac been with me:  according to the plain sense:  He whom Isaac feared came to my aid; and this is the meaning of Onkelos’ translation.  Some see “fear of Isaac” as alluding to the day on the Akeda, or to the day he gave his blessings, for Isaac was seized by great fear that day, seeing gehenna beneath him, and then he reaffirmed the blessing to Jacob, saying, “now he must remain blessed” (Gen. 27:33).  It was in this context that Jacob said, “you would have sent me away empty-handed,” meaning that were it not for that fear, which was for me and my benefit.

Toledot Yitzhak (by Rabbi Isaac b. R. Joseph Karo, Toledo, Spain, 1458-1535, a well-known exegete) adds the idea that in the Akeda Isaac was a partner in performing the Lord’s command to his father Abraham:

Some say that the fear alludes to the Akeda, and it was to my benefit.  Thus, Jacob swearing by the fear of his father means that he swore by the binding of his father, as one swears by a commandment, for his father was commanded in the Akeda.

Jacob swore by the same font of sanctity that stemmed from his father’s obeisance to the commandment that Isaac fulfilled.

The expression “fear of Isaac” also ties in with Selihot during the month of Eluland the commandment of blowing the shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah, as Rabbenu Bahya noted in his commentary on the verse in the Akeda narrative (Gen. 22:13):

When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram (ayil ahar), caught in the thicket by its horns.  So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

According to the midrash (Gen. Rabbah 56.9), throughout the year Israel are in sin’s clutches and led astray by their troubles, but on New Year they take the shofar and blow on it,…and eventually they will be redeemed by the ram’s horn, as it says, “And the Lord G-d will blow the horn” (Zech. 9:4).  And according to the Rabbis (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer ch. 31) the shofar that sounded when the Torah was given, of which it says:  a very loud blast of the horn (Ex. 19:16), was the shofar of Isaac’s ram.  On Rosh ha-Shanah, which is Judgment Day, we are commanded to blow the shofar, and even though we are taught (Rosh ha-Shanah 26a) that all horns are valid, the choicest horn is a ram’s horn.

Obviously when they say the shofar was the horn of Isaac’s ram what is meant is Isaac’s qualities, not the ram’s actual body and bones, for that ram was entirely burnt as an offering, horns claws and all.  Rather, the Sages were hinting to us about the Almighty, from whom we heard:  I [the Lord am your G-d],…You shall have no [other gods besies Me; He is the Fear of Isaac, whom we entreat in time of trouble, saying:  Answer us, Fear of Isaac, which is the sound heard when the Torah was given; we allude to it through the blasts of the shofar that we sound on Rosh ha-Shanah, the day the world was created.

Thus the Fear of Isaac takes on another dimension and relates to the sound heard at Sinai in addition to the sound of the shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah, the day the world was conceived.  To it we direct our prayers in time of trouble and our penitential entreaties.

We conclude with one more dimension of the Fear of Isaac, the fear a person experiences in time of terror and hardship, when one looks death in the eye.  The biblical narrative does not go into the residual impact of the Akeda on Isaac’s psyche.  It is inconceivable that the experience of being bound on the altar did not leave a deep impression in Isaac’s memory, an impression that would accompany him until his dying day.  A hint at what we are saying can be found in the midrash (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer [Higger ed.], “Horev” ch. 31):

Rabbi Judah says:  Rivkah was barren for twenty years, and after twenty years Isaac took Rivkah and went to Mount Moriah, to the place where he had been bound, and prayed for her to conceive, and the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him his request, as it is written, “and the Lord responded to his plea” (Gen. 25:21).

Only after twenty years of praying and anxious waiting for his wife Rivkah to conceive did Isaac decide to take her to the place where the founding event of his life had transpired, to Mount Moriah on which he had been bound to the altar at the Lord’s command, and was about to be slaughtered with the knife in his father’s hand.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, one of the forefathers of neo-Orthodoxy in 19th-century Germany) writes in his commentary on Genesis 31:42:

Pahad Yitzhak is not a name for G-d, but refers to that dread moment of the Akeda, when Isaac felt the knife already drawn at his throat.  It is the zenith of the moral perfection which Isaac achieved.

The human aspect in no way detracts from the greatness of the event, rather it reveals Isaac’s great humility, not rushing to make use of the merit he earned at the Akeda, not even to ask for fulfillment of the promise of offspring that had been given to his father at the end of the Akeda (Gen. 22:16-17):

By Myself I swear, the Lord declares:  Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.

It took Isaac twenty years to bring himself to the decision to rise above his dread of the awesome place, Mount Moriah.

As we said, along with the humility went the existential dread aroused in him when he was bound on the altar, leaving its impression in Isaac’s soul until the end of his life.  Therefore Isaac refrained from going to Mount Moriah all those years.  It was only his wish to see the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise regarding the continuation of his line and his sincere desire to help Rivkah out of her emotional hardship as a result of her barrenness that enabled him to overcome his fear and go to Mount Moriah along with his wife.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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