The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Toldot: With Whom to Make Treaties
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
“And they said, we saw indeed that the Lord was with you and we said: let there now be an oath between us, between us and you, and let us make a covenant with you.” [Genesis 26:28]
On what basis, and with which type of people, are we encouraged to make treaties? A careful reading of the relationships between Abraham, Isaac and Avimelekh – and especially a study of Chapter 26 in Toldot – provides a significant answer to these questions, which also contains a crucial message for the government of Israel today.
Some background: We first met Avimelekh in Chapter 20 in Vayera, when Abraham wandered over to Gerar, the area where Avimelekh ruled. Gerar was the land of the Philistines, which is part of the divinely promised borders of Israel. Abraham referred to Sarah as his sister, and she was immediately taken into Avimelekh’s harem – without anyone asking her or her ‘brother’s’ permission [Gen. 20:2]. Clearly, he was a lascivious and cruel despot, who certainly would have murdered any husband of Sarah. After he was given a dire warning in a dream sent by God, Avimelekh played the innocent victim, asserting that the fault lies with Abraham since he [Avimelekh] acted ‘with purity of heart and innocence of hand’ [Gen. 20:5]. Abraham correctly explains: ‘…there is no fear of God in this place, and I would have been murdered because of my wife’ [Gen. 20:11].
Chapter 21 proceeds to tell us about the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael and then returns to describe a meeting between Abraham, Avimelekh and his general, Piĥol. Avimelekh insists that Abraham swear he will not act falsely by taking away his land during the lifetime of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Abraham agrees [Gen. 21:24], but then Abraham chastises Avimelekh for having stolen his well. Yet again, Avimelekh plays the innocent victim, remonstrating that ‘I didn’t know who did this thing, you didn’t tell me, and I never heard of it until today’ [Gen. 21:26].
Despite Avimelekh’s apparent duplicity as a woman-snatcher and well-stealer, Abraham nevertheless makes a treaty with him. Abraham gives him sheep and cattle as well as seven more ewes as a sign that he dug the well at Be’er Sheva (literally ‘the well of the oath’). It is remarkable that it is Abraham who does the giving: he receives nothing, although the covenant, the oath, is taken by both of them.
Then with a brief segue ‘And it happened after these things…’, we read about the terrifying command by God that Abraham offer his only son as a whole burnt offering. Rashbam cites a Midrash suggesting that the sacrifice of Isaac was a punishment to Abraham for his treaty with Avimelekh. Entering into a treaty with a treacherous individual for a number of generations is irresponsible. Abraham has no right to take such a risk and jeopardize his children’s lives. More to the point, says Rashbam, Abraham had no right to give away Isaac’s patrimony, a por- tion of the promised land of Israel. Hence, concludes this commentary, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son; if Abraham was willing to ‘treaty away’ his son’s inheritance to a rogue, Abraham apparently does not value his son anyway.
This context brings us to Toldot, where the most important thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. Now, it is Isaac, Abraham’s son, who is forced by famine to go to ‘Avimelekh, the King of the Philistines, to Gerar’ [Gen. 26:1]. Immediately, the people of the area ask about his wife and – for self-protection – he too refers to Rebecca as his sister. We discover that Avimelekh is also a voyeur; he looks into Isaac’s window and sees him ‘playing’ with his wife! Yet again, Avimelekh feigns innocence, calling Isaac the deceiver. ‘What is this that you did to us by claiming she was your sister? One of my people almost slept with your wife!’ [Gen. 26:10]
Isaac goes on to amass a vast accumulation of wealth, including cattle, sheep and servants. He is still living in Gerar, ‘And the Philistines were jealous of him’ [Gen. 26:14]. This is the same Avimelekh and these are the same Philistines with whom Abraham made his covenant. Nevertheless, ‘the Philistines stopped up all of the wells which were dug by the servants of his father,’ and Avimelekh forces Isaac to move away because ‘his wealth was amassed from them’ [Gen. 26:16]. Isaac passively leaves, but nevertheless insists upon re-digging the wells of his father which had been destroyed. To add insult to injury, Isaac now digs two new wells in his new location – only to have the Philistines arguing with him over the ownership of the water.
The finale of this incident is difficult to imagine. After all that has transpired, Avimelekh comes to Isaac flanked by his general Piĥol and ahuzat me-re’ehu – a group of friends – in order to sign another treaty with him. Isaac is understandably surprised, seeing that they have ‘hated him and exiled him.’ The fork-tongued Avimelekh argues, ‘we have done only good towards you because we sent you away in peace.’ The Philistine king apparently believes that if a Jew is banished – but is permitted to flee with his life intact – the Jew ought be grateful! And, despite Avimelekh’s history, Isaac has a feast with him and they swear yet another oath together. Isaac now renames the place Be’er Sheva in honor of this second oath-treaty.
Is the Torah then teaching us to continue to make treaties, even though our would-be partners have a history of duplicity and treachery? I believe the very opposite to be the case. ‘The actions of the ancestors are repeated in the lives of their children.’ Unfortunately, Jews are always over-anxious to believe that their enemies have become their friends and the leopard has changed his spots. The very next verse in the Torah – the closing of the story of Isaac and Avimelekh but seemingly without any connection to it – reads:
“And Esau was forty years old and he took as a wife Yehudit the daughter of Be’eri the Hittite and Bosmat the daughter of Eglon the Hittite. And this was a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and to Rebecca.” [Gen. 26:34–35]
Now, the one clear prohibition insisted upon by the Patriarchs was that their sons not take Canaanite or Hittite wives. I believe that the Torah is telling us that if Isaac makes a treaty with an inappropriate partner, his son will enter into a marriage with an inappropriate partner.
Just as Abraham is punished for his treaty with Avimelekh, so is Isaac punished for his treaty with Avimelekh. The land of Israel is too important and the preservation of a Jewish future is too vulnerable for us to take risks and make treaties with unconscionable and dishonest rulers. A treaty is only possible when it is made with a partner who fears God in the same way that we do.