Vayeira: Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V By Rabbi Eli Birnbaum

October 31st 2017

In 2007, the University of South Illinois was at wit’s end with the college’s plagiarism epidemic. Senior lecturers from almost every department reported multiple instances of students handing in essays and projects that had probably been put together with the help of plentiful alcohol, peer pressure and that wonderful creation bestowed upon us by William Henry Gates III: the single greatest shortcut known to Man; Ctrl + V. Desperate to take a stand against the entrenched ‘Culture of Ctrl’, the faculty announced its intention to publish a lengthy and detailed pamphlet, to be circulated throughout the student body, which would in no uncertain terms define what did and did not constitute plagiarism.

A few months later, the much-trumpeted 17-page document was released and a condensed, crystal-clear definition of the crime – signed by all members of the executive -  was distributed to every student in every department.

The next day, a student used her 140 character limit on Twitter to expose the fact that the 140-word definition had been plagiarised…from the University of Indiana. Irony, it would seem, is a dish best served digitally.

Isaac is without doubt one of the most bewildering characters in the entire Torah. From the less than helpful fact that the Torah contains no more than two[1] significant stories about our forefather, we are understandably disappointed to discover that one of them is largely about him digging some wells[2].

He is a person shrouded in mystery – possibly the least Jewish of Judaism’s Founding Fathers, receiving a deal 200% smaller than his apparently more illustrious father, son and grandson[3]. The problem grows exponentially when we delve beneath the surface…

In this week’s portion, we read about the binding of Isaac[4]. There is a common misconception whereby we tend to picture him as a small, helpless child being dragged to his untimely demise by a fanatical father. This image couldn’t be further from the truth:

At the beginning of next week’s portion[5], Sarah dies aged 127. The commentaries are puzzled: why weren’t Abraham and Isaac present when she passed away? The answer given[6] is that she died while they were away climbing Mount Moriah on the father-son bonding trip. Or perhaps I should say: binding trip. Now, Sarah was 90 years old when Isaac was born[7], so Isaac was 37 when she died. And she died on the same day as his binding trip. Isaac was a fully grown man independently accompanying his ageing father. The Binding itself is beyond the scope of this piece, but the point to consider is quite simple: throughout the whole ordeal, Isaac doesn’t utter a single word of protest. He is physically capable of overpowering his father and running away. But he doesn’t. He remains totally passive.

This theme of passivity repeats itself in that riveting story about the wells. In this week’s portion[8] Abraham relies on the largess of Avimelech, King of the Philistines[9] to dig numerous wells in the region of modern-day Rechovot. Unimpressed with the arrival of a ‘darn foreigner’ and unable to build a large wall, the Philistine farmers fill Abraham’s wells and render them useless. Undeterred, Abraham takes his grievance before Avimelech himself, forcing the King to enter into a solemn covenant of peace with him and his descendants. Incredibly, despite being lord of the manor and Abraham’s host, Avimelech humbly agrees.

Fast forward 5 chapters and four decades and the scene repeats itself. Isaac, guest of a now older and significantly shorter-tempered Avimelech, finds himself the constant target of Biblical anti-immigration sentiment. And yet, quite unlike his father, Isaac accepts their argument, turns the proverbial cheek, and relocates his entire camp  to pastures new no less than four times[10] - passively accepting his fate until he is out of sight and out of mind.

Uniquely, and quite unlike his father and son, Isaac’s wife Rebecca is chosen for him[11].

The fourth and final major story involving Isaac – his blessing Jacob and Esau – casts him as a blind old man confined to what is presumably his death bed. The story takes place when Isaac is 123 years old[12]. Isaac died aged 180[13]. That’s a remarkable length of time to spend passively on one’s death bed.

Passive in the face of death, passive in the face of injustice and passive in the face of his own future. Why?

As with every Torah narrative, there is a profoundly deep metaphor whispering to us just beneath the surface of the literal reading. I believe the key to unlocking Isaac’s passivity is hidden in the one episode where he actually gets up and becomes active:

“And Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father…and he called them by the same names that his father had called them” (Genesis 26:18).

Isaac the pacifist becomes Isaac the plagiarist.

His one ‘innovation’ is to re-dig the self-same wells dug by his father decades earlier. And then, with the entire lexicon of Hebrew place-names at his fingertips, he simply presses Ctrl + V and gives them the self-same names too.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (b.1255) notes: You know what was so remarkable about Isaac? The fact that he was utterly unremarkable.

Let that statement sink in for a moment. Here is a person who is for all intents and purposes the second Jew to have ever lived. The Faith, and everything it will eventually evolve into as a religion, is at his mercy. He has the wherewithal to cast off the ‘brand’ of Judaism practised and preached by Abraham, and to instead forge a bold new path wherein he, Isaac, emerges victorious out of his father’s meddling shadow as the true founder and true hero of Monotheism as we know it.

But he doesn’t. He becomes passivism embodied. And when confronted with the opportunity to ‘go wild’, he withdraws even further into the shadow of Abraham’s legacy, copying and pasting with calculated precision his father’s every act.

In an age where the clamour to achieve 15 minutes of fame predominates and the YouTube star reigns supreme, Isaac’s life story teaches us some profoundly humbling lessons:

Sometimes, true charisma needn’t be fuelled by ego.

Sometimes, consistency is the key to continuity.

And sometimes, less is more. So much more.




[1] That is: sizeable narratives in which he is front and centre. This discounts the story of the Binding, as well as the birth of Jacob and Esau. It also discounts the account of his marriage to Rebecca, a brief interlude that occupies all of five verses (Genesis 24:62-67)

[2] Genesis 26:1-33. The other is of course the blessing of Jacob and Esau, presented immediately after this in Genesis 27.

[3] Abraham is the central character of 3 distinct Torah portions: Lech Lecha, Vayeira and Chayei Sarah. Jacob similarly dominates Vayeitei, Vayishlach and Vayechi, with Joseph (Isaac’s grandson) taking centre stage for the 3 intervening portions of Vayeishev, Miketz and Vayigash. Isaac, by contrast, has his 15 minutes of fame in just a single portion: Toldot.

[4] Genesis 22:1-18

[5] Genesis 32:1

[6] Targum Yonatan, ibid., Talmud Sanhedrin 89b

[7] Genesis 17:17

[8] Genesis 21:22

[9] First place in ‘least desired titles’ awards.

[10] Genesis 26:15-22. The first place was ‘Gerar’, a name non-coincidentally and ironically linked to the Hebrew word ‘Ger’, meaning ‘stranger’. The second was ‘Esek’ (meaning ‘quarrel’), the third Sitnah (meaning ‘hatred’), and the fourth and final place was Rechovot itself.

[11] Genesis Chap. 24

[12] Rashi to Genesis 27:2

[13] Genesis 35:28