Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
In an episode strikingly similar to an earlier event in Avraham’s time, Yitzchak is approached by Avimelech, king of the Philistines, for the purpose of contracting a covenant of non-belligerence. After throwing a celebratory party, Yitzchak apparently agrees and the two camps part in peace.
How are we to explain Yitzchak’s strange behavior? Confronted with the request for a peace treaty with the Philistines, he abruptly ends the conversation and throws a party which lasts through the night.
Why are the rabbis openly critical of Avraham’s treaty with Avimelech (see Vayeira 4, Approaches c), yet strangely silent when it comes to Yitzchak’s agreement with the same king?
Is it possible that these two episodes, which seem so similar, actually differ in significant ways?
As is often the case, a straightforward reading of the pashut pshat of the text before us is extremely revealing. Such a reading brings to light a subliminal dialogue between Yitzchak and Avimelech within this passage, a dialogue that explains the patriarch’s seemingly strange behavior and carries tremendous relevance for our own times.
As soon as Yitzchak sees Avimelech and his entourage approach, he raises the following objection: “Why have you come to me? [It is obvious that] you hate me, for you exiled me from among you.”
Avimelech responds by insisting that he has come to contract a covenant with the patriarch: “That you shall not do evil to us, just as we did not harm you, and as we did only good to you, for we sent you away in peace.”
It is important to note that there is no disagreement between Yitzchak and Avimelech about the facts. They both acknowledge that during their past interaction Yitzchak was exiled from the territory of the Philistines. What they disagree about is, in fact, a much deeper issue. They are arguing about the definition of “peace.”
To paraphrase the subliminal dialogue taking place between the patriarch and the king:
Yitzchak opens the conversation with the following objection: How can you possibly suggest that we enact a peace treaty? Your intentions until now have been anything but peaceful. Did you not revile me and exile me from your land?
Avimelech responds: How can you say that we hate you? If we hated you, we would have killed you. Our intentions were obviously peaceful because all we did was send you away.
The patriarch and the king are, in effect, living in two different worlds.
Avimelech defines “peace” as the absence of war and physical violence. As long as the two parties are not killing each other, in the king’s eyes, they are living in peace.
To Yitzchak, however, “peace” means much more. For true peace to exist there must be both an absence of hostility and an effort towards cooperation. Anything less might be defined as mutual coexistence but cannot be considered true peace.
At first glance what the patriarch does next seems abundantly strange. Instead of responding to Avimelech’s interpretation of past events, Yitzchak abruptly ends the conversation. Without another word, suddenly, Yitzchak “made for them a party, and they ate and they drank.”
Armed with our understanding of the verbal interchange until this point, however, we can begin to understand Yitzchak’s unfolding strategy in his continued dealings with Avimelech.
The patriarch recognizes that further conversation with Avimelech would be futile. You can negotiate with someone when you share the same reality and when the terms that you use are mutually understood. An unbridgeable chasm, however, separates Yitzchak from the Philistine king. When they each speak about “peace,” they are talking about two very different concepts. If you can’t agree upon the definition of peace, you certainly cannot contract a peace treaty.
Yitzchak, therefore, ends the conversation. As a smokescreen, he throws a celebratory party that lasts through the night.
Upon awakening the next morning, Yitzchak and Avimelech exchange promises with each other. The text, however, conspicuously fails to mention a brit, “covenant.” Unlike his father, Avraham, Yitzchak does not contract a full treaty with the Philistines. He recognizes that temporary agreements with Avimelech are possible, but a lasting covenant cannot be drawn.
Then, finally, Yitzchak executes the coup de grace. With brilliant irony, the text states: “He [Yitzchak] sent them away; and they went from him in peace.”
Yitzchak turns the tables on Avimelech. In effect he says: I will operate with you according to your definition of peace. Just as you sent me away “in peace,” I now send you away from me “in peace.”
The second patriarch learns from his father’s mistakes. Whereas Avraham was comfortable contracting a full covenant with Avimelech and continued to live in the territory of the Philistines “for many days,” Yitzchak understands the dangers of such an agreement and insists on physical separation. He recognizes that the Philistines can only be trusted in minimal fashion and, even then, only from afar. The rabbis are, therefore, silent concerning Yitzchak’s agreement with Avimelech although they had been critical of a similar agreement contracted by Avraham, a generation before (Vayeira 4, Approaches c). Their silence reflects acknowledgement of the lessons well learned by the second patriarch.
Points to Ponder
Once again, the Torah text speaks to us in eerily relevant fashion as we recognize that human experience has not changed much over the centuries. The definition of peace, which lay at the core of Yitzchak’s interchange with Avimelech, continues to be at issue today as the State of Israel struggles to live in harmony with its neighbors.
The failure of the “peace process” in the Middle East is directly traceable to the limited and hypocritical definition of “peace” in the Arab world. True peace cannot take root in countries where children are raised in hate and where the daily rhetoric lauds murderers and spews venom upon the Jewish nation.
Even those Arab countries that have treaties with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, fall frighteningly short in their definition of what those agreements should mean. Like Avimelech, they maintain that peace is defined by the current absence of war. Cooperation, support and mutual understanding remain far from their reality.
We pray for the day when the world will embrace Yitzchak’s vision of true peace.