“It came to pass when Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see” Genesis 27:1


Isaac’s macular degeneration is the subject of a fascinating midrash (Genesis Rabba 65:9).

Apparently, Abraham requested the outward signs of ageing. Previously, people would mature into adulthood but never develop grey hairs or wrinkles. We’re supposed to honour our elders, so we need to be able to see who’s old. Accordingly, ageing began with Abraham.

Isaac requested the frailties of old age. His hope was that a dose of physical suffering in his old age would allow him to enjoy the afterlife without any need for atonement, or punishment, before the bliss would begin. Accordingly, ophthalmic frailty began with Isaac.

Jacob requested that his death shouldn’t come suddenly upon him, as death had always done before, but should be the result of a terminal illness. This would give him time to get his affairs in order.

These are dubious accolades for the Midrash to bestow: we have Abraham to thank for ageing, Isaac to thank for frailty and Jacob to thank for terminal disease.
Perhaps the Midrash is sensitive to the fact that old age, frailty, and terminal disease are not mentioned in the Bible until they befall our forefathers. Abraham didn’t initiate, or ask for, the signs of ageing. Instead, he was the first old person truly to deserve the honour that is given to the elderly. Isaac didn’t ask for frailty. Instead, he was the first person to find some positive spiritual function for it. Likewise, Jacob had no desire for illness, but was the first person to use it as an opportunity to order his affairs.

So understood, the Midrash celebrates heroic spiritual innovation. Our forefathers could transform even a terrible situation into an opportunity for enlightenment and growth

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