Yitzchak had grown old [and he wanted to bless Eisav]. The vision of his eyes had dimmed. He summoned Eisav, his older son, and he said to him, "My son." "I'm here," he replied.

-- Breshis 27:1

Classic Questions

Why was Yitzchak's vision weak? (v. 1)

Rashi: Because of the smoke of the above-mentioned [wives of Eisav] who would burn incense in idol worship.

Another explanation: When Yitzchak was bound on the altar and his father was about to slaughter him, the heavens opened and the ministering angels looked on and wept. Their tears fell upon Yitzchak's eyes and as a result, his eyes became dim.

Another explanation: To enable Ya'akov to take the blessings.

Rashbam: Yitzchak's eyes dimmed from old age.

Sifsei Chachamim: First Rashi offers an explanation which is based on the juxtaposition of verses (since the previous verse alludes to the idol worship of Eisav's wives). However, this leaves the reader with the question: How could G‑d cause this to happen to Yitzchak? Therefore Rashi brings the latter reason, that Yitzchak's blindness was to enable Ya'akov to take the blessings. However, we are still left with the question: Why didn't Rivkah become blind too from the smoke? Therefore, Rashi brings the additional explanation that Yitzchak's eyes had already been weakened at the Akeida, so his eyes were more severely affected by the smoke.

The Rebbe's Teachings

Rashi's Three Interpretations (v. 1)

Rashi offers three explanations of why Yitzchak's sight became weak. But Rashi's comment is perplexing because:

  1. The Torah itself appears to explain why Yitzchak's vision became impaired: because he was old. "Yitzchak had grown old. The vision of his eyes had dimmed" (see Rashbam). Why did Rashi need to offer any explanation at all?

  2. Why did Rashi find it necessary to bring three interpretations?

The Explanation

Towards the end of Parshas Chayei Sarah, the Torah states, "After Avraham died, G‑d blessed Yitzchak his son" (25:11). Rashi explains why it was G‑d, and not Avraham, who blessed Yitzchak: "Even though G‑d gave the blessings over to Avraham, he was afraid to bless Yitzchak, since he foresaw Eisav coming forth from him. He said, 'Let the Master of blessings come and bless whomever He pleases!' So, G‑d came and blessed him."

Thus, on reaching our verse, "The vision of his [Yitzchak's] eyes was dimmed," Rashi was troubled by an obvious question: If G‑d personally blessed Yitzchak, then how is it possible that he should lose his sight? Surely G‑d's blessing should have spared him this aggravation?

So Rashi searched for an explanation of why Yitzchak's loss of vision was not due to his old age, but rather to some external factor. In the final analysis, Rashi found it necessary to bring three interpretations, since each of them has its own respective advantage and disadvantage:

a.) Rashi's first explanation: smoke damage.

This explanation is preferable, as it is indicated by the Torah itself. In the previous verse, we read that Eisav and his wives "tormented Yitzchak and Rivkah" (26:35), and Rashi writes that this was due to their idol worship. In the verse immediately following, we read, "Yitzchak had grown old. The vision of his eyes had dimmed" (27:1). It follows that Yitzchak's visual impediment in 27:1 was caused by the idol worship mentioned in 26:35 (see Sifsei Chachamim). Since this is the most contextually supported solution, Rashi cites it as his first and primary interpretation.

But this explanation alone is insufficient, as we are left with two questions: Presumably, Eisav and his family would not have burned incense to idols in Yitzchak's presence—they probably lived in a separate residence, in any case—so why should Yitzchak have been affected by the smoke? And if Yitzchak was affected, why was Rivkah not harmed too?

Therefore, Rashi looked for another interpretation.

(As for Eisav's wives, we can assume that either they indeed lost their sight, or they knew how to avoid the ill effects of the smoke. Eisav himself was "a man of the field" (25:27), who spent little time at home, so presumably he was unaffected.)

b.) Rashi's second interpretation: damage by angels' tears at the Akeida

This interpretation—that Yitzchak's eyes were damaged by the tears of the angels at the Akeida—is preferable to the other two explanations which Rashi brings for two reasons. Firstly, it shows us that Ya'akov received the blessing from Yitzchak due to a positive reason (Yitzchak's courage at the Akeida) rather than the negative reasons of the other two interpretations. Secondly, this interpretation explains more satisfactorily why Yitzchak never noticed that Eisav worshipped idols, since he lost his sight at the Akeida, before Eisav was born. According to the other interpretations, it is difficult to imagine how Eisav's unholy activities would have remained totally undiscovered by Yitzchak for so many years.

But this interpretation alone is unsatisfactory, since it is a non-literal, Midrashic teaching which is not indicated at all by scripture. Therefore, Rashi sought a third solution.

c.) Rashi's third interpretation: G‑d took away Yitzchak's sight

Rashi's third interpretation—that G‑d took away Yitzchak's sight in order for Ya'akov to receive the blessings—is superior to the other interpretations, since it explains how Yitzchak lost his sight only at the end of his life, a fact stated explicitly by scripture ("Yitzchak had grown old. The vision of his eyes had dimmed"). According to the second interpretation, Yitzchak lost his sight at the Akeida, at the age of 37, well before old age; and according to the first interpretation, he lost his sight at the age of 100, when Eisav married, 80 years before his passing. According to these explanations, the verse should have stated "the vision of his eyes had dimmed" before stating that "Yitzchak had grown old," and not the other way around.

However, this interpretation too is flawed, since we are left with the question: Why did G‑d make Yitzchak suffer in order for Ya'akov to receive the blessing? Surely, G‑d has many possible ways at His disposal for achieving any given result, so why did He not find a less harmful method than causing Yitzchak to lose his vision?

In fact, Rashi deemed the force of this question to be so strong, he recorded this interpretation last, indicating that it is the least preferable of the three.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 15, p. 211ff.)