A Revolution in the Patriarchs’ Way of Life From Avraham to Yitzchak

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
In memory of Amos Dubrawsky (Amos ben Chagai HaLevi and Nechama Pearl) zt"l - brother, son and friend. May his neshama have an aliyah.
In loving memory of my parents: Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel) and Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger
[1]The greatest of our commentators, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban, note something seemingly strange, but nevertheless truly important, regarding the standard of living in the home of the patriarch Yitzchak (Bereishit 25:34). The Ramban writes as follows:
And R. Avraham [Ibn Ezra] is very wrong here, saying that he [Esav] despised the birthright because he saw that his father had no wealth. [And Ibn Ezra adds:] Many have wondered: But surely Avraham left him great wealth, as if they never saw a very rich man in his younger years coming to poverty in his old age. And the proof is that Yitzchak loved Esav because of his venison; and if there was much food in his father's house, and he was distinguished in his eyes, he would not have sold his birthright for pottage. And if his father ate delicacies every day, why did he say to him: "And bring me venison" (Bereishit 27:7)? And why did Yaakov not have costly garments? And why didn't his mother give him silver and gold for the road, as it is stated: "And You will give me bread to eat and a garment to put on" (Bereishit 28:2)? And why did she not send him money, seeing that she loved him, that he had to tend sheep?… Thus far his arguments.
And I wonder who blinded his mind in this matter! For Avraham left him [Yitzchak] great wealth, and he immediately lost that fortune prior to this incident, and for that reason [in his opinion], he [Esav] despised the birthright… And afterwards, he [Yitzchak] once again became wealthy in the land of the Pelishtim to the point that he became very great, and the Pelishtim were jealous of him. And afterwards he returned to his poverty and desired his son's venison and delicacies. This is nothing but ridiculous! And furthermore the verse states: "And it came to pass after the death of Avraham, that God blessed Yitzchak his son" (Bereishit 25:1), and blessing involves added wealth and property and honor. Where is the blessing if he lost his father's wealth and became impoverished? And afterwards [it says]: "And I will be with you, and I will bless you" (Bereishit 26:3). Did he become rich and then afterwards poor?… But [in truth,] Esav's despising of the birthright was due to the cruelty of his heart… And he did not give Yaakov money, because he was fleeing, and he left the country by himself without his brother's knowledge…
Those who are unfamiliar with the approaches of our commentators may wonder about the argument itself – its importance, and especially the harsh tone of the discussion.
The two outlooks on life that are reflected in this disagreement would probably be interpreted by historians against the background of the quality of life in Spain during and after the "Golden Age," and especially against the background of the personal lives of the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban.[2] This line of influence should not be completely ignored and it is certainly interesting, but in my opinion, it is of marginal importance.
More important is the fundamental question for understanding the book of Bereishit raised by the great commentators in this argument: How did the patriarch Yitzchak earn a living, and what was the standard of living in his house? Was it a rich house like that of Avraham (and Yaakov)? Or was it a house of poverty? This question is of great importance because of Yitzchak's general exceptionality in relation to the other patriarchs.
Yitzchak's story is meager and limited in scope, and his passivity stands out everywhere. Only one chapter (26) is devoted to Yitzchak by himself! All of his activities in that chapter seem to continue the digging of Avraham's wells, and the friction with Avimelekh and the Pelishtim against the background of those wells and the taking of the women to the king. Moreover, God's promises to Avraham are given to Yitzchak in the merit of his father: "for the sake of My servant Avraham" (Bereishit 26:24); "as a reward that Avraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My ordinances, and My laws" (Bereishit 26:5).
But this is a superficial reading!
It would seem that the patriarchs' occupation involved raising animals: "Your servants are shepherds, both we, and our fathers" (Bereishit 47:3). But a more careful examination, especially of our parasha, may lead us to a different conclusion. Yosef and his brothers carefully planned their words before Pharaoh, so as to appear as very simple people, shepherds ("the abomination of Egypt"; Bereishit 46:34), uneducated, lacking all knowledge and skill. They invested great effort into presenting a low profile, in the hope that their words would convince Pharaoh. Their fear (actually Yaakov's fear, which Yosef tried to allay) is clear from the words of Pharaoh and from their own words: Perhaps Pharaoh will want to recruit them into his service in various positions and scatter the family across the land of Egypt! Their goal was one: living together in the land of Goshen and maintaining family unity.
Indeed, Pharaoh's words clearly summarize this situation:
And Pharaoh spoke to Yosef, saying: “Your father and your brothers are come to you; the land of Egypt is before you; in the best of the land make your father and your brethren to dwell; in the land of Goshen let them dwell. And if you know any able men among them, then make them rulers over my cattle.” (Bereishit 47:5-6)
It is clear that the patriarchs were engaged also in the tending of flocks. But we must examine whether this was their primary or only occupation. Did they themselves tend their flocks, as Yaakov did in the house of Lavan, or did they have shepherds in their service – children, "brothers," shepherds, or servants?[3]
If tending flocks was not their primary occupation and if they had shepherds in their service, what else did the patriarchs do for their living?
Many verses imply that the patriarchs were engaged in trade on the major caravan routes.[4] The families of Terach, Avraham, Nachor and Lot and their descendants, the Midyanites, the sons of Ketura, and the sons of Yishmael – and even the family of Yaakov, from the time that he freed himself from Lavan as an independent and wealthy man – were well-to-do merchant families.[5] On the one hand, they had large herds (which were entrusted to the younger sons or to special shepherds, such as the servants of Yaakov; Bereishit 32:17-21). On the other hand, they would transport precious merchandise (Bereishit 24:10), spices and perfumes, from countries in the east and from Gilad to Egypt (Bereishit 37:25, 28). Even in difficult years of drought, when there was no bread to eat but there was money with which to make purchases, such merchandise was found in the house of Yaakov (Bereishit 43:11).
Yehuda personally sheared his flocks together with his "Adulamite" colleague, when he began his independent life after going down "from his brothers" (Bereishit 38:1); Yaakov personally grazed Lavan's sheep for twenty years after running away from Esav (Bereishit 31:38-41); and Yitzchak personally worked the land, sowing crops and digging wells. But these are the exceptions in the book of Bereishit regarding the set way of life of the families of Terach and Avraham.
A Farmer Digging Wells – An Unblemished Burnt Offering
Although Avraham had already marked the direction of the land of Gerar[6] and the digging of wells, it was only Yitzchak who actualized this in practice. Yitzchak, the exception among the patriarchs, voluntarily withdrew from the caravan trade and from the patriarchs' way of life and left these to the Yishmaelites and the Midyanites, the neighboring descendants of Avraham. He did not go down to Egypt, nor did he leave the country in which he was born. This change in practice was certainly connected to God's explicit words to him:
Go not down unto Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of.
Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you…
And Yitzchak dwelt in Gerar.
And Yitzchak sowed in that land, and found in the same year a hundredfold; and the Lord blessed him. (Bereishit 26:2-3, 6, 12)[7]
This is an ideological revolution in the way of the life of the family of the patriarchs, and the only attempt to completely alter that way of life. Yitzchak settled in the land of Gerar and became a farmer, a man of the field. In this way he fulfilled God's command to Avraham, and to him personally. He left the wealth and commerce to Yishmael and his children, and he started over from scratch. Anyone who is familiar with the economic upheavals that may occur in the lives of farmers – especially in the land of Gerar, on the southern edge of the tillable land – will not at all be surprised by years of shortage alongside years of blessing.
The Ibn Ezra was right, then, though not as he had intended. What we have here is not bad luck, but a conscious change in his entire way of life, at the command of God. With this explanation, all of the Ramban's arguments fall away, and even the Ramban himself might have accepted it. We are dealing here not with a curse or with the idleness of one who wastes away his father's assets, but rather with God's blessing in a new and different way. The Ibn Ezra did not explain why Yitzchak became impoverished, and therefore the Ramban attacked his explanation, and rightfully so. But Yitzchak did not just lose his father's property; rather, he retired from commerce and from the wealth associated with it in order to settle the land, to work it and to keep it, to start over from the beginning.
God's blessing rested on Yitzchak's actions, to the point that he achieved great success in a relatively short amount of time. But then the Pelishtim became jealous of him and persecuted him, driving him away and sealing his wells, far beyond stealing the well from Avraham (Bereishit 21:25-26). They pushed him from Esek to Sitna, and from Sitna to Rechovot, until he left and settled in Be'er-Sheva. There too he succeeded, but not in the style of the merchant families who traveled the caravan routes, investing their money in precious goods, in flocks, and in anything that one could easily take in times of difficulty or trouble.
For this reason, Yitzchak the farmer loved Esav the warrior, the "man of the field" (Bereishit 25:27-28), who could defend a field and a well, land and its produce. Yaakov, "the whole-hearted man who dwelt in tents," could certainly not do that. As always, the farmer gave rise to the warrior.
            We can now examine the only chapter that deals exclusively with Yitzchak (26) from a new perspective.
This chapter is the only chapter in which Yitzchak stands on his own. Until now, Yitzchak appeared as subordinate to Avraham. At his birth, when he was bound on the altar, when he was saved and taken down from the altar, and when he married, Avraham acted upon him and around him. Yitzchak was entirely passive. From the time of his birth, he was the embodiment of the tiding of laughter, joy and salvation; everybody spoke about him, but he himself (seemingly) did not act, did not create, and did not initiate.
In the continuation of Parashat Toledot (chapters 26-27), Yitzchak's eyes already dimmed, and his sons struggled with each other over the blessing and the inheritance, just as they had struggled in their youth over the birthright. Only in chapter 26 does Yitzchak stand before us as an equal among the patriarchs – as Avraham's successor, but at the same time, as one who stands on his own, as an unblemished burnt-offering, for whom leaving the Holy Land would be unbecoming.
Here we must draw a comparison between Avraham and Yitzchak. The uniqueness of Yitzchak emerges from this comparison. This is the key to understanding the chapter and the character of Yitzchak in general.
Yitzchak (chapter 26)
And there was a famine in the land; (12:10)
And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Avraham. And Yitzchak went to Avimelekh king of the Pelishtim to Gerar. (1)
And Avraham went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land. (12:10)
And Avraham journeyed from there toward the land of the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. (20:1)
And the Lord appeared to him, and said: Go not down to Egypt; (2)
Now the Lord said to Avram: Get you out… to the land that I will show you. (12:1)
And He said: Take now your son… and get you to the land of Moriya… upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of. (22:2) 
Dwell in the land that I shall tell you of. (2)
Sojourn in this land. (3)
For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever. (13:15)
And He said: By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord… that in blessing I will bless you,
And I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you, and to your seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to Avraham your father; (3) 
and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 
and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;
because you have hearkened to My voice. (22:16-18)
For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the Lord may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken of him. (18:19)
and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven,
and will give to your seed all these lands;
and by your seed shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves;
because that Avraham hearkened to My voice,
and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws. (4-5) 
And Avraham moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Chevron, and built there an altar to the Lord. (13:18)
and Avraham dwelt at Be'er-Sheva. (22:19)
And Avraham planted a tamarik-tree in Be'er-Sheva, and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. (21:33)
And Yitzchak dwelt in Gerar. (6)
And Yitzchak sowed in that land, and found in the same year a hundredfold; (12)
And the Lord had blessed Avraham in all things. (24:1)
And He has given him flocks and herds, and silver and gold, and men-servants and maid-servants, and camels and asses. (24:35) 
And the Lord blessed him. (12)
And he went up from there to Be'er-Sheva. (23)
And he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord… (25)
Whatever was said to Yitzchak was a continuation of what was said to Avraham – regarding the blessing of a multitude of seed and the blessing of the giving of the land, regarding the famine and the oath, regarding keeping God's way and His commandments, regarding living in Eretz Yisrael and calling upon the name of God – with the exception of two striking differences.
God appears to Yitzchak in a special revelation in order to confirm his dwelling in Gerar and to prevent him from going down to Egypt. The phrase, "Dwell in the land that I shall tell you of" (Bereishit 26:2) joins together the two commands addressed to Avraham ("Go you forth… to the land"; and "Go you forth to the land of Moriya… which I shall tell you of") – the land as an altar. The words of Chazal cited by Rashi (on verse 2) regarding Yitzchak: "For you are a burnt-offering without blemish and residence outside the Holy Land is not befitting you," capture the depth of the difference between Avraham and Yitzchak in this parasha.
Similarly, the phrase, "and I will be with you," does not appear in connection to Avraham, but it does appear in connection with Yaakov when he is commanded to return from Padan to Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 31:3). This phrase is also one of the important keys to God's revelation to Moshe at the burning bush, in the command to take the people of Israel out of Egypt to the land of their forefathers (Shemot 3:12-14; 4:15), and it is found once again in the command to Yehoshua upon his appointment to conquer the land and give possession of it to Israel (Devarim 31:8, 23; Yehoshua 1:5, 17). This expression appears first in connection to Yitzchak, for he alone was forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael, and in this way he was commanded to actualize the promise made to Avraham regarding the land.
The second difference between Yitzchak and Avraham is, as stated, the change in lifestyle. It should be noted that in this section dealing with Yitzchak's dwelling in Gerar, no mention is made of the building of an altar or of calling upon the name of God. These will be mentioned in connection to Yitzchak only in the continuation, when he returns to Be'er-Sheva after being expelled from Gerar (Bereishit 26:25). Yitzchak did not settle in Gerar in order to build altars and call upon the name of God, but only to sow and produce crops, for his very living in the land was a fulfillment of God's command, alongside the calling upon God's name.
Yitzchak's attempt to settle in the land, and in particular in Gerar – to sow, to be blessed, and to reach the rest and the inheritance with God's promise – succeeded at first, but quickly gave rise to tension and harassment. Yitzchak was driven away by the hatred of the Pelishtim to Rechovot and to Be'er-Sheva, and Yaakov returned to the family's life of wandering – flocks and trade – starting again from the beginning, from Charan.
Why did the course taken by Yitzchak at Gerar not succeed?
Scripture offers a twofold answer to this question: First of all, Yitzchak's deception, "she is my sister" (Bereishit 26:7), following Avraham, undermined his position, and this was followed by the hatred of the Pelishtim, to the point that he was driven away to Be'er-Sheva like Avraham. There Yitzchak made a new covenant with Avimelekh, but the land and the well were not included in this covenant. It stands to reason that the Ramban (in his commentary to Bereishit 12:13) was to a certain degree correct in his harsh criticism of the "she is my sister" deception, which was connected to Avraham's going down to Egypt, to the undermining of his position vis-à-vis Avimelekh, and also to the undermining of Yitzchak's standing in that same Gerar and to the weakening of his hold on the land, as a farmer in Gerar.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Adapted from Parashiyot Yitzchak, in my book, Pirkei Ha-Avot Be-Sefer Bereishit, pp. 127-149, and on my website.
[2] The Ibn Ezra wandered and suffered all his life, from Spain to North Africa and back, to Italy and then to France and to England. The Ramban lived for most of life in peace in Gerona, respected and revered even by the king and his men, until he was forced to leave in the wake of his victory in a debate with representatives of the Church, at which time he moved to Eretz Yisrael.
[3] See the quarrel between Lot's shepherds and the shepherds of Avraham, Bereishit 13:7-8; compare to the argument between the shepherds of Gerar and the shepherds of Yitzchak, Bereishit 26:20, 25; and to Yaakov, his sons, his brothers, and his servants, Bereishit 30:36, 31:46, 32:17-20; and in contrast, Yosef's brothers, Bereishit 37:2, 12-17.
[4] The commercial dealings at the crossroads in Syria and in the land of Canaan follow from what is related in the Torah and from the natural reality in the "bridge" between Mesopotamia and Egypt. This is explicit regarding Shechem: "Dwell and trade therein" (Bereishit 34:10); and in the words of Yosef: "And you shall traffic in the land" (Bereishit 42:34); and it is implied also from the purchase of the Makhpela field for four hundred shekels of silver, "current money with the merchant" (Bereishit 23:16).
[5] This well explains Terach's journey to the land of Canaan from the outset. See my article, "Ha-Ivrim Ve-Eretz Ha-Ivrim," Megadim 15, 5752 (and on my website); and also my article, "Ha-Aretz Ve-Eretz Cana'an Ba-Torah," in my book, Pirkei ha-Avot be-Sefer Bereishit (Alon Shevut, 5763) and on my website.
[6] The agricultural land of Gerar (referred to today as the Besor strip or the Gaza envelope), in addition to the water of the Gerar and Besor streams, has much ground water that is close to the surface, and it is therefore relatively easy to dig wells there. When the shepherds of Gerar fought with the shepherds of Yitzchak (Bereishit 26:20), they did not argue that the well was theirs, but rather that the water was theirs; that is to say, Yitzchak's well was drawing from their water reserves. Therefore, Yitzchak distanced himself from them, and then distanced himself even further.
[7] For many years, I thought and wrote that Yitzchak's transformation took place in the wake of God's command forbidding him to go down to Egypt. However, thanks to excursions in the region in recent years, I saw that it was possible to go south from Be'er-Sheva (toward Revivim and Nitzana) on the ancient "road to Shur" to Egypt, this being the caravan route of Hagar and Yishmael. But it is also possible to go west in the stream bed to the agricultural land of Gerar. Based on this, I have reached a new reading of this passage: Had Yitzchak wanted to go down to Egypt, he would have taken the "road to Shur," but Yitzchak headed west to Gerar, even before God spoke to him. In other words, God strengthened Yitzchak in his refraining from going down to Egypt and confirmed his intention to settle in Gerar, and He even promised to be there with him.