One of Parshat Toldot’s main themes is Yitzchak’s unique status, what Rashi calls his being an olah temimah, a pure offering. That is the reason Rashi gives to explain why he didn’t follow Avraham’s footsteps in going outside the Land of Israel when there was a famine, and why he did not marry a second wife when Rivkah had problems becoming pregnant.
Though Avraham and Ya’akov were also distinct from one another, it is easy to notice that Yitzchak was more radically different. As I have written in the past, he provided a wholly different model of Jewish religiosity. Here I want to focus on how taking this into account helps us understand the story that at first sounds like an exact rerun of a story we have already read with Avraham and Avimelekh (which itself seems like a rerun of Avraham and Sarah’s encounter with Pharaoh).
Both in Egypt and in the land of the Philistines, Avraham was concerned for his safety if it became known that Sarah was his wife. As a result, he tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister. In both stories, her ensuing “availability” causes her to be taken as a consort for the king. Having gotten used to a pattern, we are naturally surprised when this doesn’t occur when the ruse is used once more, this time by Yitzchak and Rivkah.
The question is strengthened by the fact that the longer they lived with this pretense, the more suspicious the story should have become. As several commentaries point out, it would be natural to ask why neither of them were getting married. Moreover, Ramban notes that they already had children living with them, further complicating matters, something that was not the case for Avraham and Sarah. And if there was a record of the first story that had happened in the same place (it is likely that the Avimelekh in this story is the son of the Avimelekh in the other story), Avimelekh would have had an even stronger reason to challenge Yitzchak from the get-go.
In short, how is it that it took so long for Avimelekh to take any action against Yitzchak and Rivkah, whereas Sarah was immediately accosted? One interesting answer is that Avraham had already improved the ethics of that land. Yet I think that a proper understanding of Yitzchak shows that there was probably no need for that to begin with. Meaning I don’t think the Avimelekh of Avraham’s time would have taken Yitzchak’s wife either.
I believe that the only reason the question gets off the ground is because we fail to actually visualize who Yitzchak was (literally, as in imaging what he looked like). It is not even the aura of holiness we mentioned at the beginning. It is an otherworldliness that creates an intangible barrier and fear among others. I remember there being such a rabbi in one of the yeshivot I studied. His eyes stared out at the world with such intensity that very few students, myself included, dared to go anywhere near him.
Such people operate by different rules, keeping the rest of us more than slightly unbalanced in their presence. It could be that this is the baseline reason for why Rivkah herself seemed so limited in her communication with her husband. Regardless, I am convinced that meeting Yitzchak was a much more intense experience than meeting Avraham. So when Avimelkh met him, he was completely overwhelmed, leaving little room for questions or accusations. Moreover, it is likely that the meeting left an impression that stayed with him for quite a long time.
Indeed, the only thing that broke this enchantment with Yitzchak was to see him being of this world. For although Yitzchak was almost entirely of another world, it was necessary for all three of the Avot to be at least minimally connected to this world and to have children. But even then, Yitzchak is afforded much more respect than Avraham. For one, Avimelekh declares a death penalty for anyone even touching Yitzchak. (The subsequent fight over the wells is with Yitzchak’s servants and not with Yitzchak himself; and he is finally sent away only because his wealth becomes so great as to become a source of embarrassment for Avimelekh.)
While the this-worldly religious personalities of Avraham and Ya’akov remain Judaism’s baseline, there is a need for the occasional Yitzchak for us to get a more tangible sense of the ultimate reality that exists beyond our limited world. What the story with Avimelekh shows is that Jews like Yitzchak make an impression on anyone who crosses their path, Jew and non-Jew alike.