Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, wrote of different types of societies – most of which we see in this week’s parsha.
He wrote of hunters, who make their living following their food. Their lives are directed by the nature around them. They have a difficult time assembling armies, because doing so requires that a significant stock of food be at the right place at the right time. Nomadic hunters are disconnected from the divine cycle of creation and connection. They take from the land, but they do not raise crops or livestock. Finally, their subsistence existence focuses the mind on finding the next source of their food. They think only of the short-term. This is Esav.
He wrote of shepherds. Their food follows them, for the most part. Shepherding is not highly technical and because their food travels with them, shepherds can assemble great armies and move them freely. The Mongolians were shepherds. Their mobility was devastating. But shepherds also have ample time to think. Great poets and great warriors alike come from these people. Whether through song, through thought or through war, they challenge the order of the world. Yaacov and Avraham are shepherds. Most the great leaders of Israel have been shepherds.
And he wrote of farmers. Farmers are tied to their land. They can join armies in the summers – but they must be present to harvest and to plant. Their trade is far more technical. Planning and execution are critical. And farmers are locked into a place. Not only do they have to be there for planting and sowing, they must develop intensive local knowledge to succeed. Historically, farmers stay in one place for many generations. They value stability. They enjoy great material rewards, but they lack the personal and national freedom of shepherds. This is Yitzchak. Yitzchak’s sows and reaps a hundredfold.
Yitzchak does not need to be a farmer. But it seems to suit his character. Yitzchak loves Esav because of his meat, and he ‘sports’ with his wife; both visceral physical relationships. Yitzchak feels persecuted when he is forced to travel. He names wells ‘oppressed’ and ‘hindered’ as he is driven from place to place. And when he comes to a place his father named Be’er Sheva, he names it Be’er Sheva. He likes and reinforces stability. Ideally, for the farmer, things stay the same from generation to generation.
Our relationship to Hashem is based on the unchanging, our offerings repeat in endless cycles, our covenant is timeless and our Sabbath is holy because Hashem rests on it. Stability is itself a shadow of true timelessness. It is a shadow of holiness. But it is not, in itself, positive nor negative.
But Yitzchak is waylaid by his physicality. Between the love of food and the love of Esav, his priorities are misdirected. We see it most clearly when he seeks to uplift Esav with the blessings of a farmer (“the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine…”) and of a mighty man (“Nations shall serve you and kingdoms shall bow down to you; you shall be a master over your brothers, and your mother’s sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed.”)
He does not seek to uplift Esav with the blessings of the spiritual.
Hashem blesses Yitzchak twice in this reading. But in both cases, he does so because of the merit of Avraham. Yitzchak’s merit is not yet great enough to be a source of blessing in its own right.
It is near the end of the Torah portion that Yitzchak commits his defining spiritual act.