The parasha starts with אלה תולדת but everyone talks not about Isaac but about the next generation, the rivalry (from the womb!) between Jacob and Esau. I want to spend some time on Isaac.
Rabbi Leibtag points out that the sequence of תולדות forms the outline of ספר בראשית:
What does תולדות mean? Some commentators take it literally, as descendents:
Others take it as metaphoric, “happenings”:
תולדות has the sense of transition, starting a new family or lineage. But there is one name prominently missing: Abraham. Instead, we have תולדת תרח, which seems incongruous. Rabbi Leibtag says that, based on what little we know of תרח, maybe he does deserve to be called the progenitor of what would otherwise be תולדת אברהם:
Terach started the journey to Canaan, presumably as part of his own spiritual awakening:
Rabbi Eisemann has a radical reading of the well-known aggada about Nimrod throwing Abraham into the fiery furnace:
We see hints that Terach had the potential to be a spiritual revolutionary as well. Abraham may have fulfilled that potential, but Terach was the progenitor, and it is from him that the Torah traces this particular תולדת.
The second question is about Isaac. We have the impression that his history is simply a continuation of Abraham:
Why is he the start of a תולדת? How can he be the start of a new lineage (especially since both of his children form תולדת of their own)? I think there is is a profound difference between the story of Isaac and that of Abraham as presented in the Torah, that warrants him being the start of a new תולדת. There isn’t much about Isaac in the Torah, just a few brief stories, including one that is often overlooked:
Isaac faces some of the same situations that his father did, some of the same נסיונות. The Ramban offers the opinion that Abraham actually failed some of his tests:
Isaac, in this reading, passes the test, stays in Canaan, and is rewarded:
Rav Amnon Bazak points out an important distinction between Abraham’s and Isaac’s interactions with Avimelech:
Avimelech asks for an oath, a שבעה, but Abraham makes a covenant, a ברית, which is seen as a much closer bond, something frowned upon later in the Torah:
And the midrash takes Abraham to task over this:
Rashbam even connects this to the Akeida that follows:
Isaac had a different response:
Avimelech comes to him asking for a ברית, but only leaves with a שבעה. Rav Bazak points out that this ends with a more positive outcome:
One might (especially since this is a Kollel Torah Mitzion class) give a “ציוני” interpretation. Isaac starts a new תולדת because he is the first “sabra”. He lives in the land, not by the forbearance of the natives, but as a native himself. He does not leave in times of trouble, but works at succeeding despite the famine. He does not acknowledge Avimelech’s jurisdiction as a separate nation to seal a ברית, but as a fellow citizen with whom to swear a שבעה. He plans that his descendents will be the family to truly settle the ארץ הקדושה.