The New Within The Old
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL.
The late Bobover Rebbe is said to have been sitting on an airplane in the late 1950s, next to the famous playwright Arthur Miller.
Upon observing the care and reverence with which the Bobover Rebbe was escorted through the airport and settled into his seat by his young protégés – how they kept checking on his well-being and doting over him – Miller turned to the Rebbe and asked: “Rabbi, how come when I, a pillar of secular knowledge, lecture at a university I am treated casually, and even with disrespect by the students, while you, a teacher of an archaic tradition, are treated with utmost reverence, almost as a beloved surrogate parent, by your followers?”
The Rebbe, purportedly, smiled and replied: “It is very simple, you, a secular scholar, teach your students that they are descendants of monkeys, so when they look at you, they see someone who is one generation closer to their primitive ape past, no wonder why they treat you that way.
I, on the other hand, teach my students that they are descendants of the awesome generation who stood at Sinai and witnessed the greatest Divine revelation in history, so they consider me one generation closer to that transformational face to face encounter with the Divine, is it a wonder that they respect me?”
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And these are the offspring of Yitzchak the son of Avraham. Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak. (Bereishis 25:19)
The book of Bereishis is the book of the Patriarchs, yet, upon examination it is clear that not all the patriarchs are given equal press and exposure. The focus and attention directed to the three patriarchs is, in fact, substantially unbalanced. Avraham is allotted three entire portions, Lech Lecha, Vayeara and Chayei Sarah. Yaakov’s story spans over five portions; beginning with Vayetzei, Vayishlach, and Vayeishev, and after a digression about the story of Yosef and his brothers, in Vayeishev and Miketz, the final portions of Vayigash and Vayechi turn back to Yaakov once again.
Yitzchak, on the other hand, is allotted a measly one Parsha, the Parsha of Toldos which we read this Shabbos. Even within Toldos itself, only a precious few verses discuss the events in which Yitzchak plays the leading role. Why is the middle patriarch given so little attention, it appears somewhat akin to the proverbial “Middle child.”
In the first blessing of the Amidah, we refer to “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Yaakov.” The language, however, seems redundant, could it not have simply said: “The G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?” Why does the prayer repeat G-d’s Name two extra times?
The repetition, according to the Baal Shem Tov, is to teach that each Patriarch was unique in his Divine service. Avraham was not the only one who had a unique relationship with G-d; Yitzchak and Yaakov did as well.
Avraham’s character and identity is well defined, he is the embodiment of kindness (Chesed); constantly inviting guests into his tent to share a bite and enjoy his warm hospitality. Avraham understood human nature; he was well ahead of the curve in his realization that “The way to a man’s mind is through his stomach.” By satisfying their stomachs, Avraham was able to bring them to an awareness of G-d.
Yaakov is known as the pillar of Torah, as the verse says: “Give truth to Yaakov” (Micha 7:20). Torah is synonymous with truth. Yaakov’s way of influencing people was to speak to their minds intellectually. He is the paradigm of diligence in study – “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim;” An unworldly man who dwells in the tent of Torah study. Yitzchak, on the other had, seemingly gets short shrift; so little is said about him, hardly do we even get to know him. Who is Yitzchak?
While we know what personality and character traits we derive from Avraham and Yaakov, it is not clear what attribute Yitzchak had bequeathed – what contribution has he made to his decedents. Unlike Avraham who founded a new people, a new land, under an all encompassing G-d, and unlike Yaakov, who grew to wrestle with man and angel and to be blessed with a new name; Yitzchak’s accomplishments are rather obscure.
Some might view him as passive, since most of his life things seem to happen to him. Whereas Avraham circumcises himself, Yiztchak is circumcised. He is likewise taken to Mt. Moriah to be sacrificed. Avraham even arranges a bride for him. The above notwithstanding, it should be obvious to anyone with even a partially functioning brain that he didn’t earn the title of “Forefather” Just because he was Avraham’s son. He was obviously a man of great stature and sainthood, deserving of his Biblical fame and station within Judaism, which leads to the following parenthetical observation:
One ought to be wary of the disrespectful trend of liberal style characterizations, which tend to humanize our holy Avos in a way that is untraditional and unbefitting. This tendency has sadly been infiltrating the Divrei Torah of some unexpected proponents.
One such audacious, so called Dvar Torah, attributes Yitzchak’s characteristics to a pathological defect: “There is something naive, almost simplistic, about our second patriarch Yitzchak…
Yitzhak is absolutely compliant. He goes to Moriah to be slaughtered without persistent argument. He seems to agree with everything he’s asked to do, no matter the consequences.” Since Yitzchak is easy to deceive, lacks individuality, is spared grief, is compliant and is even laughed at, the author goes on to assert, it may be the sign of a mental disorder (r”l).
It is (hopefully) needless to say that such warped ideas and perspectives have no place in true Torah inspired Judaism. The very thought of analyzing and defining our great Biblical images through the lens of mundane human psychology has, obviously, no place in Torah Judaism.
Getting back to our discussion, the sense we get from the little that we come to know about Yitzchak is of a far more introverted person than that of his father Avraham and his son Yaakov. Unlike Avraham, Yitzchak spent his days in deep meditation connecting to G-d. An example of this is the Torah’s account of when he went out “To speak, ‘lasuach,’ in the field” (Gen. 24:63). Oddly, the verse doesn’t mention to whom he is speaking or what he says. The Talmud (Brachot 26b) interprets that the word “Sicha,” related to “lasuach” is a reference to prayer. It seems, then, that Yitzchak was praying.
Yitzchak’s identity is perhaps best described in Parshas Vayeitzei, where his son Yaakov refers twice to him as “Pachad Yitzchak” (Bereshis 31:41; 31:53). What does the term “Pachad Yitzchak” mean? The word “Pachad” means fear. Yitzchak represents Gevurah, a stricter and more restrained quality than that of his father and son.
Be that as it may, when we read the narrative of Parshas Toldos, something about Yitzchak seems to stand out. It appears that more than anything else, Yitzchak aspired to replicate the ways of Avraham his father.
The Midrash shares this very sentiment. Regarding the episode of his re-digging his father’s wells (v. 18) the Midrash states: “Behold the humility of Yitzchak. Ordinarily a person who acquires a house gives it a name; then his son comes along, makes an improvement and calls it by a different name. Not so Yitzchak: despite the fact that all the wells that his father Avraham dug were entirely stopped-up by the Philistines, when he re-dug them anew, he did not give them new names, he rather reinstated the names given by his father. What reward did he receive for this? The other Patriarchs had their names changed: Avraham was first called Avram; Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisroel. Yitzchak, by contrast, was given his name from G-d even before his birth, and never is it changed.”
Why, of the select few incidents that the Torah chooses to relate about Yitzchak’s life, does this one deserve to be record for posterity? The answer is because it holds the secret to Yitzchak’s identity; his unyielding determination to follow in his saintly father’s ways and uphold his spiritual achievements.
Much like his father, when there was a famine in Canaan, he too goes to the country of Plishtim. In fact, when Yitzchak was in Gerar, G-d appeared to him and told him “Do not go down to Egypt…” What, however, gave rise to the notion that he was contemplating a trip to Egypt? “His intent, says Rashi, was to go down to Egypt because that’s what his father had done during the famine of his time” (Bereshis Chapter 12).
Yitzchak’s approach to every situation in life was to ponder: “What would my father have done under these circumstances?” He strived with all is heart to uphold the legacy and tradition of his father. Knowing his nature, G-d does not wait, He intervenes before he could get to do as his father did. This is the meaning of “Pachad Yitzchak.” Yitzchak was in constant fear lest he deviate one iota from the path that had been carved by his saintly father, Avraham.
Human nature is for a son not to want to keep the traditions of his father. Father’s are old fashioned; their ways are “Old hat” and “Un-Cool.” Children typically want to make their own mark in the world. They do not want to do things the way their father did. They want to improve, expand, update and do it “my own way.”
Yitzchak, however, was the antithesis of this human trait. He said: “If my father dug wells then I am going to dig the same wells. I am going to call them by the same names that my father called them.” Rabbeinu Bechaye writes explicitly: The fact that the Torah records this about Yitzchak shows it is a praiseworthy attribute and that we should learn a lesson for ourselves not to deviate from the ways of our fathers.
Yitzchak was the first Patriarch to be the son of a righteous father. Avraham did not have a righteous father who would pass on spiritual traditions to him. Quite the contrary, Avraham was the iconoclast who had to blaze his own spiritual trail. But Yitzchak had tradition. He had a righteous father, so the role he modeled for his children was Pachad Yitzchak – the fear and hesitancy of veering, slight as it might be, off the spiritual course blazed by his righteous father.
Was not Yitzchak himself an innovator, one may wonder. Does not the Rambam teach that Yitzchak instituted the Mincha prayer and was the first to offer tithes (Mishneh Torah Hilchos Melachim 9:1)?
In truth, however, there is no contradiction. As one of the three patriarchs and architects of the Jewish faith system, Yitzchak has surely contributed his share of innovation, otherwise what has he added to the equation?
Clearly Yitzchak did not suffice with his father’s level; he obviously did not take the position that “Since my father prayed once a day, so too I must pray only once a day.” As mentioned above, he factually established the additional prayer of Mincha as well as other inventions. He did so because he felt that he was not as great as his father. While his father could suffice with one prayer service a day, on his lower level, he needed to pray at least twice a day.
He likewise felt that his father did not need to quantify his feelings of gratitude to the Almighty because it came to him naturally. However, since he was not on his father’s level, he had to tangibly quantify his feelings of thankfulness by committing to give tithes.
So in what way was he unique, in what way was he devoted to the ways of his father? The answer is that his “innovations” were not trailblazing, new spiritual institutions, but rather buttressed the innovations of his father. All that he innovated and instituted was in the context and framework of his father’s teachings and legacy.
Essentially what Yitzchak innovated is the true Jewish way in how to innovate. He taught how to innovate while at the same time remain fiercely true and dedicated to ones mentor and traditions. Yitzchak’s contribution to the Jewish faith system is truly brilliant and fundamental. It is permeated through and through with authenticity and truth. In a system that is predicated on truth, on does not, in the name of progress, throw away yesterday’s essential beliefs, principles and values and reinvent truth and reality from scratch, but rather build on the existing foundation.
Yitzchak’s essential characteristic and contribution to Judaism is how innovate and grow while remaining true to the established truths and realities. His consummate lesson is that the greater the follower the greater the leader and the lesser the follower the lesser the leader.
The aforementioned tenet has been the guiding principle that has kept Judaism alive and intact through history. Those who have abandoned this creed have broken ranks with Judaism and have fallen by the wayside. Those who have followed Yitzchak’s essential lesson, remain cleaved to the tree of life. Not a bad innovation for a little known introverted enigma of a man.
By our taking to heart the message bequeathed to us through our ancestor Yitzchak of innovating within the existing context and framework, we will merit to fulfill the mission which our forefathers initiated with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.