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B'resheet/Genesis 27:1 And it was, when Yitz'khak was old, and his eyes became dull from seeing ...
At the start of this famous part of the B'resheet narrative, where Ya'akov steals the blessing that his father intends to give to his older brother Esav, Yitz'khak is described as old and nearly blind. The verb - the Qal 3fp prefix form of the root in a vav-conversive construction, to become weak, dull or dim (Davidson) - agrees with verb , "his eyes", which like most body parts is a feminine (here, plural) noun. Yitz'khak's eyes have become weak, dull or dim; he cannot see properly. As the narrative goes on, the text will show us that his blindness is almost complete - at least in this scene - although it seems to have improved somewhat by the end of the parasha when he calls Ya'akov to bless him and send him off to Padan Aram, without any mention of blindness or recognition difficulties. Perhaps, as we shall see, this tells us something important about what is happening in the following scene.
We start, then, with the statement that Yitz'khak was old. Oddly, although the following verses confirm the idea that he thought he was close to death, he does in fact live on until after Ya'akov returns from Padan Aram, the better by two wives, thirteen children, significant wealth and a limp. Perhaps, Nahum Sarna suggests, "his total blindness or some illness prompts him to decide on his successor." TheRashbam seems to agree, saying that "Yitz'khak's eyes were dim because of his age." The Radak, on the other hand, says that "Yitz'khak had this condition some twenty years before his death." Clearly, the blindness plays a central role in the story, since without it, the impersonation would have been impossible. Or was it? Do we need to know more about what this blindness was? The Sages offer a number of ideas.
The Midrash makes two proposals: "Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: It means, from seeing the evil of that wicked man [Esav]. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: 'Shall Yitz'khak go out into the market place and people say, "Here is the father of that scoundrel!" Rather will I make his eyes dim, so that he shall stay at home.' Thus it is written, When the wicked rise up, men go into hiding (Proverbs 28:28, JPS). Another interpretation: As a result of the binding of Yitz'khak; for when our father Abraham bound his son, the ministering angels wept, as it says, Behold, their valiant ones cry without, the angels of peace weep bitterly (Isaiah 33:7): tears dropped from their eyes into his, and left their mark upon them, and so when he became old his eyes dimmed" (B'resheet Rabba 65:10).
Rashi suggests that "his eyes were dimmed through the smoke of Esav's wives when they burned incense to idols", the text having just told us that "When Esav was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite" (B'resheet 26:34, JPS), so much so that Rivkah is later to complain to her husband that "I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Ya'akov marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?" (27:46, JPS). The Baal HaTurim says that the blindness happened "because it is written, 'for the bribe will blind' (Shemot 23:8, D'varim 16:19), and Yitz'khak took a bribe from Esav - for example, 'Esav became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors ... Yitz'khak favored Esav because he had a taste for game' (B'resheet 25:27-28, JPS)" and was about to elicit a bribe in the form of the tasty game. The Sforno comments that this is what "happened to Eli who did not restrain his sons, as it is written 'And he did not rebuke them' (1 Samuel 3:13), so as a result 'His eyes were set and he could not see' (4:15)."
Three modern commentators extend the meaning of Yitz'khak's blindness over the whole episode (27:1-28:5). Sarna starts by explaining that "the statement may also have a figurative significance: Yitz'khak's perception of reality about Esav's worthiness to receive the blessing appears to have been clouded." Looking at the entire passage and the role that each actor plays in it,Hirsch comments that "The discovery of the deception was unavoidable - Rivkah must have known this full well. Only if the inevitable discovery was what was beforehand reckoned on, only then does the whole story make sense. Yitz'khak only recognises the deception part-way through when he suddenly realises what a mistake he has been saved from and says, 'and indeed, he shall be blessed' (27:33)." Gunther Plaut takes an even firmer line: "Throughout the episode Yitz'khak is subconsciously aware of Ya'akov's identity. However, since he is unable to admit this knowledge, he pretends to be deceived. No amount of play-acting, false skins and goat-disguised-as-venison can really deceive Yitz'khak. But he wants to be misled; in his heart he has long known that Esav cannot carry the burden of Avraham and that, instead, his quiet and complicated younger son must be chosen. Only after the pathetic confrontation with Esav (vv. 30-40), can Yitz'khak call Ya'akov without anxiety and complete the blessing (28:1-6)."
So the Jewish tradition keeps a number of questions open:
In the well-known story of the man born blind who was given sight by Yeshua in John chapter nine, blindness is again a key feature, dwarfing the mechanical details of the miracle. The man who was blind makes a public statement in front of the Pharisees in Jerusalem: "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see" (John 9:25, ESV). His blindness was physical and Yeshua has already made it clear at the start of the story that it is not spiritual; the repeated theme of the story is that the blindness was real and not feigned. The now ex-blind man has not been deceived in any way: he knew where he was and although he does not understand exactly the change took place, he knows where he now is. The last two verses of the chapter, however, throw an interesting light on the Pharisees. Having overheard Yeshua telling the man that He came into the world to bring judgement, so that "those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind" (v. 39, ESV), some Pharisees - who may or may not have been part of the 'committee' which examined the blind man, but clearly knew of what had happened - sense criticism and ask "Are we also blind?" (v. 40, ESV). "Do you think we are deceiving ourselves?" they ask, "Can we not see properly?" Yeshua's reply is crushing: "If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, 'We see,' your guilt remains" (v. 41, ESV). Their blindness is both spiritual and self-inflicted; they are blind because they are not prepared to see. They have rejected Yeshua because they need to deceive themselves that nothing 'legitimate' has happened. The Chief Priests and Sadducees found themselves on the horns of the same dilemma after the healing of the beggar in the Temple gate: "that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it" (Acts 4:16, ESV).
It is important to ask the same questions of our lives. Are we blind and, if so, in what respect? Physical blindness still exists in our day and many are afflicted by its various forms, but the Scriptures are more concerned about spiritual blindness. Rav Shaul asks the Romans, "If you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth -- you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonour G-d by breaking the law" (Romans 2:19-23, ESV). Do we, in our zeal for having things done right, our concern that others should respect G-d's name, more than reverse the good effects by our own conduct and behaviour, by our attitudes and lack of love towards others? Are we the blind leading the blind? Are we in the category of "none so blind as those that will not see"1?
Peter looks at a believer's lifestyle and urges: "For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love ... whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind" (2 Peter 1:5-9, ESV). Do we manifest sight or blindness to the world? Have we grown old in the faith, old in our efforts to do right, and so allow or connive at falsehood? Do we dull our own eyes so that we cannot see the truth?
1. - A proverbial saying said to originate from John Heywood (1546), used by Matthew Henry in his Commentary on the Bible and cited by Jonathan Swift (1738). Perhaps based on Jeremiah 5:21 and Matthew 13:13.
Further Study: Job 12:16-25; Isaiah 59:9-13; Hebrews 9:13-14
Application: Have you got dust or sand in your spiritual eyes? It is time to bring them to the Great Healer and seek His balm to clear our vision and see the truth about ourselves and the kingdom of G-d. Get your eyes washed today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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