Parshat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
Why did Isaac go blind? Was this an ailment of old age? Or perhaps was it an accident that led to this condition? The Torah does not provide an explicit answer, but does imply that his blindness may be related to his advanced age.
Isaac, seeking to lift his spirits before bestowing blessings upon Esau, asks his favored, elder son to hunt some game and prepare a satisfying meal. Rebecca, hearing of her husband’s plan, divulges it to her favored son, Jacob, and quickly directs him to disguise himself as Esau with goat skins and serve his father the desired meal, thereby receiving the blessings, instead.
This story raises many ethical and spiritual dilemmas, but I would like to focus on an issue that receives far less attention. Jacob would never have managed to steal his brother’s blessings had his father still possessed his vision. If Isaac would have had the gift of sight, he would have immediately discerned that it was Jacob that was serving his food, and not Esau.
As we know, many blind people are born blind, while there are also those who become blind due to illness or accidents that happen to them over the course of their lives. This is the understanding reached by Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, the grandson of Rashi).
However, other commentators rightfully point out that Abraham and Jacob reached a ripe old age without having suffered from similar vision problems. Accordingly, the “old age” noted in the text is not old age in the simplest sense.
Some have posited that the blindness with which Isaac was smitten was of a spiritual or an educational nature. This would explain how he did not understand that Esau had been deceiving him for years.
However, most of the commentators reject this interpretation. Rashi, our greatest Torah commentator, proposes three reasons for Isaac’s blindness. One was that his son’s wives had offered sacrifices to pagan gods, and the smoke that arose from those sacrifices dulled his vision.
The second reason relates that “when Isaac was bound on the altar, and his father prepared to sacrifice him, at that very moment, the heavens opened up, and the ministering angels began crying. When their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes, his vision became dulled.”
I am not a physician, and I have no idea whether angels’ tears can cause blindness in humans, but one thing is for sure: if these were blinding tears, they should have blinded Isaac immediately upon making contact with his eyes, and not many years later, when Isaac reached old age.
Rashi’s third, unique, reason is that Isaac’s blindness was “so that Jacob could receive the blessings”. In other words, God wanted these blessings to be given to Jacob. Rashi does not elaborate, but his statement opens a window to a new understanding of the meaning of blindness.
Sometimes, a person believes he is seeing something, though his vision is limited and deceives him. This is precisely why God completely blocks Isaac’s eyesight – so that he can allow things to happen on their own, without intervening.
In the world in which we live, we must ask ourselves two kinds of questions when confronted with challenges. The first is, “What were the reasons for the occurrence?” Sometimes, the answers give us insights into how to respond in the future to similar events. The second question, no less important than the first, but impossible to answer, is, “Why did God cause this to happen at all?”
Although we do not possess the ability to answer this question, we have a responsibility as human beings to do all we can to enable others – in this case, those destined to be blind – to integrate into society as much as possible.
This includes rabbis publicly teaching about proper attitudes toward the blind in Halacha and society, doing everything possible to make communal institutions accessible to them, from how we construct our synagogues to providing siddurim and holy books in Braille. In this way, we make sure that those who are blind can feel as at welcomed in the synagogue as they do in their own homes.