With the parasha of Toldot, the second patriarch, Yitzhak, takes centre stage. This new phase of Jewish history is introduced with the verse:
(יט) וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק. (בראשית כה:יט)
This is the history of the generations of Yitzhak, the son of Avraham. Avraham fathered Yitzhak. (Bereishit 25:19)
The question is obvious. If Yitzhak is explicitly described as Avraham’s son, why does the verse continue to state that Avraham was the father of Yitzhak?
Rashi (11th century France) answers as follows:
ע"י שכתב הכתוב יצחק בן אברהם הוזקק לומר אברהם הוליד את יצחק לפי שהיו ליצני הדור אומרים מאבימלך נתעברה שרה שהרי כמה שנים שהתה עם אברהם ולא נתעברה הימנו מה עשה הקב"ה צר קלסתר פניו של יצחק דומה לאברהם והעידו הכל אברהם הוליד את יצחק וזהו שכתב כאן יצחק בן אברהם היה שהרי עדות יש שאברהם הוליד את יצחק:
Because Scripture wrote, "Yitzhak, son of Avraham" it was compelled to say "Avraham fathered Yitzhak", because the cynics of that generation said, "Sarah became pregnant by Avimelech (King of Gerar, where Avraham and Sarah had previously resided) because for many years she waited with Avraham and did not become pregnant by him". What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He shaped Yitzhak's facial features exactly similar to those of Avraham's, so that everyone confimed that Avraham fathered Yitzhak. This is what is written here: that Yitzhak was the son of Avraham, for there is evidence that Avraham fathered Yitzhak (Midrash Tanchuma, Toldot 1).
According to this midrash, the “cynics” were not disputing that a miracle had been granted to Sarah, who gave birth at the age of 90, and even though they knew that Avraham had already fathered a child (Yishmael), they still refused to believe that he was the father of Yitzchak.
The Brisker Rov (20th century Israel) suggests that this shows the absurdity of those who felt threatened (and those who feel threatened today) by Avraham and his mission to publicise Hashem’s name in the world. They can accept miracles happened to Sarah, but because of their irrational antipathy to Avraham and the ideals for which he stands, they cannot accept even lesser miracles happened to him.
Why was it so important for the cynics, as described in the Midrash, to challenge Avraham’s paternity of Yitzhak? Perhaps because in this way they were convincing themselves that Hashem’s promise had not been, and would not be, fulfilled.
When Hashem first appeared to Avraham He declared:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל … (בראשית יב:א-ב)
Hashem said to Avram, “Get out of your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation… (Bereishit 12:1-2).
As soon as Avraham arrived in the land, we read:
(ז) וַיֵּרָא ה׳ אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת... (בראשית יב:ז)
Hashem appeared to Avram and said, “I will give this land to your seed.” … (Bereishit 12:7).
The belief that this promise would be fulfilled, that he would have children, and through them become the ancestor of a nation, was a fixed point throughout Avraham’s life. His patience during the long years of waiting for the promise to be realised demonstrated to the world how one could have true faith in Hashem. It was this faith that the cynics wished to undermine with their claim that Yitzhak was fathered by another.
Rashi’s approach is predicated on the words “אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק” meaning “Avraham was the father of Yitzhak” and hence repeating what has already been taught by the words “יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם”. But an alternative approach obviates this problem.
The Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) writes
ויש אומרים: כי טעם הוליד – גידל וריבה, כמו: יולדו על ברכי יוסף (בראשית נ:כג).
There are those who say that the meaning of הוליד is “nurtured” and “raised”, as in (the great-grandchildren of Yosef) “were raised (יולדו) on Yosef’s knees.” (Bereishit 50:23)
Yosef was obviously not the father of his great-grandchildren and so that verse (50:23) is testifying that he raised them. Our verse is similarly declaring that not only was Yitzhak the biological son of Avraham, Avraham also ensured that Yitzchak would be nurtured as a son, imbibing his father’s values and walking in his ways.
Some commentators add that the attention to Yitzchak’s upbringing is presented in contrast to that of Avraham’s first son, Yishmael, who was forced out of the household so as not to be a negative influence on Yitzhak (see Bereishit 21:10), and in contrast to the children that Avraham with Ketura, who were also sent away (Bereishit 25:1-6). Thus “אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק” is to be read as “Yitzchak was the son that Avraham raised”.
This interpretation contrasts with Rashi’s, yet the two together present the totality of what constitutes parenting. Yitzchak was indeed Avraham’s son in the biological sense, as Rashi stresses, but that was not enough. He was also his father’s ideological son, and spiritual heir.
Hashem Himself taught the same lesson. Immediately after sending angels to tell Avraham and Sarah that they will have a son within a year, He praised Avraham by saying:
יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא יְהֹוָה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו. (בראשית יח:יט)
he will command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice (Bereishit 18:19)
The message is clear. Avraham will establish a nation not just by fathering a child, but by imbuing his descendants with values such as righteousness and truth.
In one of his addresses to the Mizrachi leadership, Rav Soloveitchik (20th century America) applies the message of Rashi’s midrash to our contemporary challenge. Then, as now, there were cynics who did not believe that Avraham could father a child, and nor would he be able to transmit his values and mission to the next generation. Then, as now, the cynics were proved wrong.
“People laughed at the event. They did not believe that Yitzhak would inherit Avraham. That he, a young lad of the new generation, would continue to carry Avraham's visions and laws, and that he also would engage in building altars and calling on the name of God. They laughed at Avraham's dreams that his son would give his life for Torah and fight for the sanctity of Avraham's house.
The scoffers said “Sarah conceived from Avimelech”. Others claimed, “They bought themselves a foundling from the marketplace”. it is impossible to pass on Avraham’s outlook, the mitzvot of Avraham, his statutes and laws,to the modern generation, to young Yitzhak who fights with a rifle, works in laboratories and thinks in modern categories of thought.
When Avraham dies, people said, his entire philosophy will perish, his altars will be dismantled, his Shulchan Aruch will be eaten by moths and all trace of his life will vanish. . .
Years passed by and those who will wont to laugh at Yitzhak and the hopes that Avraham pinned on him, suddenly began to query and ask: Is Yitzhak really sincere in his efforts to resuscitate Avraham’s work? What is going on? They rubbed their eyes. Yitzhak was indeed continuing with Avraham’s enterprises. He was fighting for the same ideals, doing the same things that his father had done, the same Gemara the same Shulchan Aruch, the same Shabbat and the same laws of divorce. Who could have foreseen that the young, modern Yitzhak would . . . demand a kosher kitchen and fight for religious education and the like! Who would have guessed that he would speak with the same language that old Avraham spoke, as the author of the Shulchan Aruch, as the Rema, as the Gaon of Vilna, as Rav Chaim of Voloshin?”
(“The Rav Speaks” - Five Droshot p. 1089)
Avraham was indeed the father of Yitzchak. He did indeed raise Yitzchak to be a true son of Avraham. May our generation continue to be blessed with success as we face the same challenge.