by Rabbi Alex Freedman
Among the Patriarchs, Isaac often stands out as the third wheel. His father Abraham leaves everything he knows to journey to Canaan in pursuit of his relationship with God. His son Jacob has a fabulous dream, wrestles with an angel, and fathers 12 sons and a daughter – the children of Israel. And then there’s Isaac. He gets far less of the Torah’s attention – and verses – than Abraham and Jacob. But Isaac achieves something neither of them can claim: he never leaves Israel.
When Abraham faces a famine in Canaan, he goes down to Egypt to ride it out until things improve. Later, when Jacob’s family endures a famine in Canaan, they too descend to Egypt to live under Joseph’s care. But Isaac has a different destiny. He too confronts a famine in Canaan, but God has different plans for Isaac. Facing the famine, Isaac leaves his home and goes to Gerar – still in Canaan – seemingly about to leave the land. God says: “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you” (Gn. 26:2,3).
The Midrash answers our question as to what makes Isaac unique here. The Midrash says: “Rabbi Hoshaya said, ‘God told Isaac, “You are a perfectly unblemished sacrificial offering. Just as sacrifices become ritually unfit if they leave the Temple confines, you too will become unfit if you leave the land of Israel.”’”
To fully understand this teaching, we must remember that animals designated for Temple sacrifices must remain in the sacred space of the Temple. Otherwise they are ritually disqualified. The Midrash claims that Isaac was special, just like a sacrifice is elevated spiritually. Isaac too must remain in the sacred zone, this time the land of Israel.
Isaac does what he is told and remains. He is then blessed by God for his loyalty and devotion. And he is credited for living his entire life in Israel and not leaving for a minute. None of the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs can say the same.
The association of Isaac with sacrifices is intentional. Recall that in Genesis 22, he is physically bound to the altar as part of the Binding of Isaac. It seems that the rabbis take that image and status most seriously and map it onto the rest of his life. Recall that while Abraham is the one who binds his son, Isaac is equally the willing partner, for this grown man allows himself to be bound up.
Interestingly, the site where the rabbis imagine the binding of Isaac occurring is the mountain that would become the Temple Mount – the very same sacred space where animals would be sacrificed to God later on.
Many of us imagine that the trauma of the Binding of Isaac affects him negatively for the rest of his life. I read God’s instruction to him to remain in Israel as a way of God telling Isaac, “You are special and uniquely devoted to Me. It is only fitting that you live out your days in this special and unique land, the land of Israel.”