An Unblemished Burnt-Offering
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Parsha, Toldot, contains the story of the second Patriarch, Yitzchak Avinu. In some ways, his life was easier than his father’s because he had the religious and intellectual foundations of Avraham to build on. But there is a certain hostility which may be directed at the heir of a great movement which has aroused controversy. Yitzchak was a target of the Plishtim shepherds, who kept filling in the wells he dug. It wasn’t so much a matter of the water but of the desire that this successor of the movement of Avraham should not achieve anything like the success of his father.
At the same time, Yitzchak’s life was intertwined with the religious destiny of Avraham. For example, it was necessary that Avraham demonstrate for all mankind the extent to which a person must go in the service of Hashem. This meant that he be willing, at the behest of G-d, to offer up his beloved son to Hashem.
It was also essential to establish for all time the veracity of Nevuah (Prophecy). If a person as rational and sober as Avraham would be willing to sacrifice his cherished son, it could only be because he was absolutely convinced of the authenticity of the prophetic message he had received from Hashem. For if he had harbored even the slightest doubt about the intention of G-d he could not have proceeded with the Akeida (the binding of Yitzchak).
In order to fulfill these objectives, Avraham had to make a Korban (sacrifice) of his son, Yitzchak, whose agreement to participate was not solicited. It is unclear from the commentators how old Yitzchak was at the Akeida. But all agree that he was fully cognizant of what was going on. This is made very clear from the dialogue between father and son that is recorded in the text.
And he (Yitzchak) said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the offering?” And Avraham said, “G-d will seek out for Himself the lamb for the offering, my son.” And the two of them went together (Bereishit 22:7-8).
Sometimes major decisions that impact our lives are made for us without our consent. There is no question that experiencing a near catastrophic event can exert a lasting effect and even have traumatic consequences. Is this what happened to Yitzchak?
The Torah, in this week’s Parsha, teaches us that Yitzchak was an Olah Temmima (Unblemished Burnt-Offering). This designation produced two effects, the first of which is cited by Rashi in 25:26. There, Rashi explains that after Rivka reached the age of child-bearing, Yitzchak waited for ten years until he realized that she was infertile and started praying for her. And, says Rashi, he didn’t want to marry a Shifcha (slave woman) because “he was sanctified at Mt. Moriah to be an Olah Temimah.”
While it was technically permitted for him at that time to have more than one wife, he had dedicated the bulk of his energy to the service of Hashem and could not divert it with additional marriages. Additionally, he could not follow the path of his father in heading to Egypt to escape the famine which broke out in Canaan. Hashem told him; “Do not descend to Egypt; dwell in the land that I shall indicate to you. (Bereishit 26:2)” Rashi comments; “…for you are an Olah Temimah and other lands are not appropriate for you.”
We may ask, what is the meaning of an Olah Temimah, and how does it preclude marrying a slave-woman in order to have children; and why does it prohibit leaving Eretz Yisrael to escape a famine? Most of the sacrifices are divided into two parts, one of which is consumed on the altar, while the rest can be eaten by the Kohanim (priests). However, a Burnt Offering is completely burned on the Altar as all of it is dedicated to Hashem and none of it is earmarked for human consumption.
We find a similar phenomenon in the realm of those who dedicate themselves to the service of Hashem. Most retain a certain portion of their time and energies for the pursuit of the ordinary vocations and interests of life. But there are those who are Kulo LaShem and devote all their time and strength to matters of Heaven.
In our history, we have encountered unique individuals who fit this description. An example which comes to mind is the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna) who is reputed to have spent all his time in his study absorbed in Torah with no distractions. He did not allow himself more than two and a half hours of sleep a night, and had no practical occupations that diverted his attention. (He was said to have mastered all the branches of the sciences and math, which were deemed consequential to obtaining a greater understanding of certain areas of Torah.)
It would appear from the story of Yitzchak that we must treat the “Olah Temimah” in accordance with his exalted nature. That is why he cannot be saddled with the burdens of an additional marriage, nor is he permitted to reside outside of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). The degree to which one lives in the presence of G-d while in Israel is much greater than in Chutz Laaretz (the Diaspora). The very existence of an Unblemished Burnt-Offering such as Yitzchak Avinu (our patriarch) and the Vilna Gaon (and many others in our history) is deemed to be a great benefit for the spiritual welfare of Israel and mankind.
This insight might help us to understand the unconventional nature of the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivka Imeinu (our matriarch). The prophecy about the twin sons and the message that “the elder shall serve the younger” was given only to Rivka. And Rivka took it upon herself to arrange for Yitzchak’s blessings to be deceitfully transferred from Eisav to Yaakov. At no point did she confront Yitzchak with her conviction that he was sorely mistaken in his evaluation of his two sons.
And Rivka, acting on her own, discovered Eisav’s plan to avenge his brother because of his “theft” of Yitzchak’s brachot (blessings). She advised Yaakov to leave home and take up residence with her brother Lavan. And she knew precisely what to say to Yitzchak in order to solicit his approval for her plan.
Rivka, unlike Sarah, did not work things out in conjunction with her husband. Rather, she took it upon herself to assume the exclusive leadership role in raising her children. She acted with great wisdom, dedication and courage. This marriage arrangement only made sense from the standpoint that Yitzchak was an Olah Temimah whose special mission in the service of Hashem took him out of the realm of certain domestic responsibilities. This placed a unique burden upon Rivka Imeinu, who fulfilled it with great distinction. May we be inspired by the example of this special and singular role model.
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—Rabbi Reuven Mann