Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Parashat Toldot: Was Yitzchak Poor?

There is a lovely machloket (disagreement) between Ibn Ezra and the Ramban regarding Yitzchak's financial status. (You can find the discussion in ch.25 v.34).

The Ibn Ezra claims that Yitzchak was poor. He says:

"The proof is that Yitzchak loved Esav because he provided his basic needs. If food was plentiful in his father's home, then why would he have sold his birthright for soup? And if his father ate all sorts of delicacies, then why did he ask (Esav) to bring him fresh meat? And why did Yaakov not have elegant clothing? And why did his mother send him penniless when went away, such that he asks God for "bread to eat and clothes to wear (28:20)"?

Some will ask; but Abraham was wealthy and it tells us that Avraham gave his inheritance to Yiztchak (25:5). In addition ch.26 talks about Isaac as a wealthy farmer. Ibn Ezra responds:

"As if one has never seen a man, wealthy in his youth who falls into poverty in his old age!"


"Those whose hearts are blind think that wealth is a great attribute of the righteous. Let teh case of Elijah refute that! And they continue to question: Why would God let Yitzchak be lacking in material wealth? Maybe they can answer why God allowed him to lose his eyesight!"

One senses that Ibn Ezra is "worked up" here. Ibn Ezra lead a particularly difficult life with many upheavals and travels. He certainly was not wealthy, and maybe – who knows – he identified with Yitzchak here. At the very least, he felt that (if I may quote Tevye…) it is no shame to be poor!

(The irony here is that of course, all the blessings of chapter 27 do invoke this worldly material blessings:
The agricultural – the dew of the heavens the fat of the land; abundant grain and wine.
Power – Nations will be subservient to you; other People's will bow to you! - 27:28-9)


The Ramban has a very different perspective:

"The text informs us that after his father's death 'God blessed Isaac his son.' (25:11) Now, where is his "blessing" if he lost all his father's wealth - 'And I will be with you, and I will bless you.' (26:3) (is there a Divine blessing) if he became rich but then became poor? If some of the righteous experience the financial legacy of the Evil (i.e. poverty), it does not occur to those whom God has blessed… all the patriarchs were like kings, and foreign heads of State would come before them and make treaties with them[1]… and if Isaac had bad luck and lost his father's wealth, how would they have said: 'We see evidently that God is with you!' (26:28)?"

The Ramban refuses to accept poverty in the case of Yitzchak or any of the Avot. God's blessing bestow material comfort, status and honour. Ramban also rejects as "laughable" the theory that Isaac had wealth (after Avraham's death) – then lost it (the birthright episode) – then gained wealth (ch.26 Yitzchak as a successful farmer) – and then lost it a second time (the Blessings episode.) "Who blinded his mind?" - he quips at Ibn Ezra!

For the Ramban, all the other details are resolved locally.

Esav sold his birthright for soup because it had no financial dimension, and his spiritually deaf personality failed to appreciate the role of the firstborn.

As for Yitzchak's love of hunted meat, the Ramban says "that dignitaries and kings delight in this delicacy over all others. And regarding Yitzchak's request to Esav in particular that he should engage in the hunt, the Ramban remarks: "Esav would pander to his father by bringing him from the hunted food … and (Yitzchak) wanted to benefit from it so that it would enhance the closeness between them."

Yaakov left home without wealth so that he could escape quickly and so that he would not become a target for attack as he travelled the highways.

And as regards Yaakov's lack of clothing, the Ramban answers that Yaakov lacked nothing! But he borrowed Esav's clothing as they had the smell of the "field," the camouflage that Yaakov needed in order to carry off the subterfuge of the Blessings.


This is certainly a tough debate to settle. No side wins easily. But if we can return to the basic principles, it is certainly fascinating that the Ramban refuses to see a Tzaddik who is blessed by God, experiencing financial difficulties. The Ramban needs to see a correlation between the spiritual and the material. For the Ibn Ezra, the two are absolutely disconnected. A wanderer like Eliyahu who is given lodgings by a random stranger for years on end[2] can be the holiest person. There is no symmetry between the material fate of the Man of God and his spiritual status; they are two disconnected realities.

What is the connection between the material and the spiritual? We experience the spirituality of Shabbat via material pleasure? Can there also be a correlation in other ways between material luxury and spiritual heights? On the other hand, wealth can at times be a distraction, a mode that takes a person far from the world of the spirit, to the world of indulgence and pleasure. Maybe the two are at odds with each other?

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Each of the Avot are granted enormous respect by foreign Kings: Avraham with Malkitzedek and Avimelekh. Yitzchak and Avimelekh. Yaakov and Pharaoh.
[2] The woman from Tzrafat Melachim I 17:9,19-23.

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