When Jacob took advantage of his father’s blindness to secure the blessing intended for his elder twin brother Esau,1 Esau pledged fatal revenge.2 To avoid tragedy, his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, urged Jacob to traverse approximately 1,300 miles to lodge with his uncle Laban in Padan Aram in Upper Mesopotamia (today, northwestern Iraq).3

Not long into his journey, Jacob lay down to rest for the night and experienced the famous dream of the ladder with angels ascending and descending. In this dream, G‑d appeared to Jacob, promised His protection, and assured him that the land upon which he lay would one day belong to his descendants.

Compared to the Dead

The dream began with G‑d introducing Himself: “I am the G‑d of your father Abraham and the L‑rd of Isaac.”4 Rashi notes that this wording is highly irregular:

Although we do not find in Scripture that the Holy One, blessed is He, associates His name with that of the righteous during their lifetimes by writing “the God of so-and-so” … nevertheless, here He associated His name with Isaac [during his lifetime] because his [Isaac’s] eyes had become dim, and he was confined in his house, and was therefore akin to a dead person, with the evil inclination having ceased from him.

So long as a person is alive, it is too early to say that they are righteous, for who knows what the future may bring? People have free will, so even if they are currently most pious, perhaps they will disgrace themselves and turn to wrongdoing. Only after the person’s death, when it is clear that they ended their life righteously, can they be accorded such an honor. But in Isaac’s case, says Rashi, there was no reason to fear this eventuality. As noted earlier, Isaac was blind and considered incapable of sin, so his righteousness was secured.

Can Blind People Not Sin?

But is this really so? Is it plausible to declare a blind person incapable of sin? Is eyesight a prerequisite for iniquity? Surely not! It flies against common sense and contradicts our own life experience to suggest that a blind person is free of temptation. Blindness may make some sins more difficult, but it does not make sinning impossible. Blind people sin too!

Blinded by Smoke

Let’s turn for a moment to how Isaac became blind. Rashi offers three explanations.

The first (and presumably main) one is that Isaac was blinded by the smoke from offerings Esau’s wives prepared for their idols.5 Indeed, the verse that talks about Isaac’s blindness appears immediately after it tells us about Esau’s wives.6 It stands to reason that the two matters are related. The Torah7 explicitly states that Isaac disapproved of Esau’s choice of wife, which may well have been due to their idolatrous practices.

There is a major problem with this explanation, however. Since when does smoke cause blindness? Smoke inhalation can be devastating for one’s lungs, but it is not known to have that kind of impact on eyesight. It is true that smoke irritates the eyes,8 but it is not something that will cause permanent loss of vision.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe that smoke from idol worship would be any more damaging to someone’s eyes than any other type of smoke. Could it really be that Isaac’s blindness is related to smoke?

Blind, Humble, and Holy

The Rebbe offers a remarkable explanation by way of an important incident in the Talmud. Rav Yosef (son of Chiyya) was a third-century Talmudic scholar, renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge.9 When Rav Yehuda (son of Yechezkel) passed away, the headship of the famed Pumbedita yeshiva in Babylon became vacant.

Due to his vast learning, Rav Yosef was the frontrunner for the position. In fact, a query was sent to the sages of Israel, and they proposed Rav Yosef to assume the leadership. But Rav Yosef’s scholarship was equaled by his humility and he declined the honor, deferring instead to another outstanding candidate, Rabba bar Nachmani. Rabba led the yeshiva with great distinction for 22 years and was then succeeded by Rav Yosef.

The Talmud concludes that, “during all the years that Rabba presided, a doctor10 never had reason to visit the home of Rav Yosef.”

The need for a doctor is so essential that the Talmud cautions against living in a place that does not have one.11 For Rav Yosef and his entire family to not need the services of a physician for more than two decades is seen as miraculous, an indication of his unique virtue and holiness.

Rav Yosef was also famously blind. What was the cause of his blindness? There is an ancient tradition that he brought blindness upon himself, as he did not want to see things that would be damaging to his spiritual state.12

Isaac’s Blindness

Likewise, Isaac’s blindness was not a product of the smoke (for, as noted, smoke does not damage the eyes). Rather, Isaac was so disgusted at the idolatrous practices of Esau’s wives that he willed his eyesight to depart, so that he should not have to witness such an abomination. If the price of vision was to behold such spiritually offensive acts, Isaac preferred to forego his sight.

If that is the reason for Isaac’s blindness, we can now understand why it was proof that Isaac was beyond the possibility of sin. G‑d could associate His name with Isaac even during his lifetime, because Isaac had attained such a lofty nature that his body was a loyal agent of his soul. If Isaac was so holy that his eyes automatically stopped working because they interfered with his sacred nature, that was proof positive that he was entirely free of negative qualities.

People like Isaac and Rav Yosef were more angel than human. Such noble spirits show us that even in this life we can elevate ourselves beyond the constraints of the physical. We each have a soul that is a spark of G‑d, and so we are connected to infinite holiness. Contemplating the lives of people who were the personification of holiness should inspire us to release the true potential of our souls and to sanctify our lives.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, Parshat Vayetze II.