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Rabbi's Corner


Toldos – Rabbi Lerner – November 5, 2018


A Comparison of the Personalities of Avraham and Yitzchak


There appears to be a significant clash between the personalities of Avraham and Yitzchak. Rabbi Adin Steinsalz in Biblical Images: Isaac, the Second Generation. “Yitzchak is one of the most enigmatic characters in Torah. It is not so much about what is said about him, as what is left unsaid. He remains always a shadowy figure, obscure, incomplete, inviting inquiry into the man behind the story. The personality of Yitzchak that emerges in all of these stories is strangely puzzling. Not that he ever does anything out of the ordinary; it is rather the very nature of his actions which are more like non-actions, a doing that consists of a renunciation of doing of anything.” He is not much of an activist according to this view. Quoting a few examples, he says that “in almost all of these stories, Yitzchak is passive; he was acted upon by others; he had little or no initiative. Primarily, Yitzchak was the son of Avraham, as our parsha begins: These are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham fathered Yitzchak. His seeming greatness was that he had the most extraordinary father in the world, and that makes him important. But what about in his own right? He was acted upon by others, had little or no scope for initiative; his actions were muffled and vague. He responds to the actions of others. After reaching the age of 60, his twin sons Esav and Yaacov were born; it would seem that this man’s whole history was thus curtly summarized. He was the one who created Yaacov who became the father of the 12 tribes, but most of the deeds attributed to Yitzchak’s name were actually accomplished by other people. And what little he did on his own seems no more that repetition, such as, with slight variation from his father, he dug the wells that his father had dug (which had then been plugged up by Avimelech, the king of the Pelishtim). He experienced his own version of the encounter with Avimelech. There was only a slight variation on the same theme; Yitzchak’s own actions do not seem to have counted. Clearly, he was not one to be envied if only as a son of such a father with all the weight of the heritage that was on his shoulders. Yitzchak would have had to have been an extraordinary person indeed, to be able to make a special place for himself under such circumstances.” He was sitting in the shadow of a giant, a revolutionary, of Avraham Avinu who on his own, with no mentors and no teachers, just through sheer intellectual power and logic came to realize that God is an invisible power who created everything. He had not Rebbe, no teacher. He came on his own to figure out the truth of this world. “History is full of many overwhelming fathers who seem to fill the entire space and little or no room for their sons to prove themselves. Avraham was such a towering person, that Yitzchak seemed to have no contribution. That was Yitzchak’s essential problem – to find his own place in this world dominated by the genius of his father. He did the only thing left for him to do – he carried on, he perpetuated what had been trail blazed by Avraham Avinu. Nothing new – all continuation of the old. That’s okay – you need an intermediate generation to form a link to pass Judaism down. It’s often been said that all beginnings are difficult, but continuation can be even more difficult; the capacity to persist is no less important than the power to begin. In all the significant revolutions in history, it is evident that the first generation, the revolutionaries themselves, the “founding fathers,” usually have to struggle against formidable objective forces and circumstances; but the verdict of history concerning their success, whether it was a glorious victory or merely a passing episode, lies with their successors. Can you entrench the contribution that already had been made by your parent?” The father was a revolutionary and had started a whole new direction, which is what Avraham did – he revolutionized the philosophy of religion – but is it going to continue? So what was the contribution of Yitzchak? Nothing new, nothing really different – simply willing to be the obedient child, following in the footsteps of his father and mother, and continuing what they had taught him, and establishing it as a Davar Shekavar Kayamah, that it has lasting powers, staying power. This is a huge contribution in and of itself. But the person who is doing it is not the most dynamic, glorious hero, because the main work was done by the revolutionaries, Avraham and Sarah – he just had to maintain it and pass it down to the next generation. This is the concept of Hemshaich Hamesorah. Ledor Vador Nagid Gadlechah. The Jewish people are built on the notion of Mesorah, as we see in the beginning of Pirkei Avos that details how the Torah was passed down. We need a chain, a Mesorah, or everything goes down the drain. This is what Yitzchak was about. He didn’t have to be in the limelight; he wasn’t looking for huge accolades. He was a revolutionary in his own right who pioneered something new and totally different from his father – he wasn’t rebelling against his father or adding anything new; everything that Yitzchak was doing was mainly about maintenance. That is a big deal – you sometimes have to realize that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If Avraham was so brilliant and he figured it out without help or guidance or Nevuah from Hashem – only after he figured it all out and smashed his father’s idols, then Hashem told him Lech Lecha MeArtzechah. Hashem came to Avraham after Avraham came to believe in God. Once his father had pioneered that, Yitzchak’s job was to maintain it and to spread it by giving it over to the next generation and he succeeded that big time with Yaacov, and then down the line. “After all, Yitzchak wanted someone to continue what he did, to accept upon himself the Mesorah on his shoulders from his father; Esav refused; Yaacov was to become his successor.” It is often very difficult to be the second generation; it’s a lot more exciting and glamorous if you yourself are the revolutionary than it is to just do maintenance. “He was the keeper of tradition.” Rabbi Jonathan Sachs: He discusses the courage of persistence: “Yitzchak is the least original of the three patriarchs; his life lacks the drama of Avraham or the struggles of Yaacov; we see in this passage that Yitzchak himself did not strive to be original; the text is unusually emphatic on this point; Yitzchak reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Avraham which the Pelishtim had stopped up after Avraham had died, and gave them the same names his father had given him – after opening them up he made sure to give them Dafka the same names without any change. Yitzchak represents the faith of persistence, the courage of continuity. He was the first Jewish child and he represented the single greatest challenge of being a Jewish child – to continue the journey our ancestors began rather than drifting from it, thereby bringing the journey to an end before it had reached its destination. And Yitzchak, because of that faith, had achieved that most elusive of goals – peace, because he never gave up as we see with the wells. When one effort failed, he began again. And so it was with all great achievements: one part originality, nine parts persistence.” A pioneer for any cause is not going to be worth anything if it is not perpetuated. This is how many Meforshim view the personality of Yitzchak – once the Emes of Torah was discovered by his father, he clung to it tenaciously and he maintained what his father had initiated, and that is exactly what we are doing until today. Continuity of Judaism depends on Kabolas Ol Mitzvos. We survive because having the true Mesorah having been discovered, our ancestors had continued to believe and continue the chain and not fallen to the new ideologies that sweep over generation upon generation. That is the greatness of Yitzchak.

There is a Midrash Hagadol that is the original source of this: it discusses the resemblance of Yitzchak to Avraham: “Come and see that you should realize that so much of Yitzchak’s life is almost a mirror image of what happened to his father. Avraham had to leave the place in which he was living, Yitzchak too had to leave his place. Avraham had to worry about his wife; Yitzchak had to deal with the same issue. They were both powerful and extremely successful in all their endeavors, very wealthy, and that brought anti-Semitism against both these giants. After a long life of agony of not having a child, Avraham had Yitzchak, and the same thing happened to Yitzchak. From Avraham came two children, a tzadik and a rashah, and similarly with Yitzchak. They both suffered from major devastating famines. “ There are many lines to be drawn between them – similar events and experiences. “

Rav Amnon Bazak: Much of what happens to Avraham, happens to Yitzchak, as said by the Midrash. But it is not an accurate picture of Yitzchak, who did innovate, who did break out beyond what many things his father had done. When we look at their marriages, both suffered a long time from infertility. The Torah tells us regarding Avraham and Sarah in 16:2: And Sarah said to Avraham, “Behold Hashem has restrained me from bearing; consort now with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Avraham heeded the voice of Sarah. [Sarah would essentially be a surrogate mother, with Hagar being the biologic mother.] Nowhere in the Torah does it say that Avraham prayed to Hashem to have mercy on his wife – we don’t find him praying. And when Sarah suggests Avraham consort with Hagar, there is not a word of protest or a statement that they should first pray more fervently to Hashem; he seems to go along with it right away. 16:4: He consorted with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. Sarah gave Hagar as a wife after ten years of failure, and Hagar immediately became pregnant; so clearly it was an issue with Sarah and not Avraham; in Hagar’s eyes it makes Sarah look like nothing. Sarah is upset about this: 16:5-6: So Sarah said to Avraham, “The outrage against me is due to you! It was I who gave my maidservant into your bosom, and now that she sees that she has conceived, I became lowered in her esteem. Let Hashem judge between me and you!” Avraham said to Sarah, “Behold! Your maidservant is in your hand; do to her as you see fit.” And Sarah dealt harshly with her, so she fled from her. Rashi: Sarah was saying, ‘This pain that I am suffering I am putting on your shoulders; it is all your fault.’ How can she say such a thing? She said ‘When you davened to Hashem, saying that all of the blessings God will bestow upon me is worthless since I have no children – you only davened for yourself’ – in 15:2: …What can You give me seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is Eliezer from Damascus. She knew that Avraham was just davening for himself and not the two of them. She said he should have davened for the two of them, and then she would have had her own child with him. When we compare this to Yitzchak, we see a different picture. 25:21: Yitzchak entreated Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren. Hashem allowed Himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rivka conceived. He davened directly facing his wife, with her in mind, and he was davening for the two of them to have a child. He told Hashem he would not take another wife as his father had done, forcing Hashem to answer his Tefilos or there would be no continuation of the Jewish people. Out of all the marriages of the Avos, Yitzchak had the best one; Yaacov’s wives were at each other’s throats with the resultant jealousy among the children; Avraham has Sarah and Hagar. Yitzchak is the only one who was monogamous. He risked all of Judaism by insisting on a child only through her. He clearly was not passive here. Yitzchak had great self-confidence and would not let God get away with having him take another wife.

Rav Bazak: They both experience a famine in the land. Avraham goes down to Egypt. Yitzchak goes to the land of the Pelishtim, part of the inheritance of Bnai Yisrael. He will not leave the land of Israel; he shows tremendous love of the land of Israel. Ramban: Avraham committed a great sin when he went down to Egypt – he should not have done it. This leaving the land was a lack of faith in God; this was responsible for Galus Mitzrayim; his children will be punished by being persecuted there. That is why one should always stay within Eretz Yisrael even when the going gets tough; Eretz Yisrael is acquired through adversity and suffering; it is not handed to us on a silver platter, but he doesn’t throughout history. Avraham was the first Jew, the pioneer in the land; by his leaving it was not sending a good message. In contrast to this, Yitzchak goes to the land of the Pelishtim, part of the Biblical land of Israel; he will not leave the land to go to Egypt. Here he did not follow in the footsteps of his father. It was for this reason that Yitzchak was worthy of a special blessing from Hashem. Because Yitzchak stopped at the boundary of the land, it was tremendous in God’s eyes; he was willing to put up with the hardship of the land. 26:3-4: Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you ; for to you and your offspring will I give all these lands, and establish the oath that I swore to Avraham your father. I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens; and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the Earth shall bless themselves by your offspring. The bottom line is that you don’t abandon Eretz Yisrael. Yitzchak’s singular love of the land – he was the only one of the Avos who never left the land – his strong bond to the land brought an incredible closeness to Hashem. That is why he was an unblemished Olah Temimah when placed on the Mizbeach. To stay in the land and endure hardship completely enchants Hashem.

Both Avraham and Yitzchak encounter difficulties with their wives when dwelling in hostile lands. Avraham had hardships in Egypt and Pelishtim – he requests that Sarah tell them she was his sister so that they would not kill him. Ramban: The behavior of Avraham putting Sarah into this situation was a sin; to force her to sin Avraham committed a great inadvertent sin – to save his own life he placed Sarah in a situation where she could be taken by a king; he should not have done this; he was a man of faith in God and should have exercised belief and Betachon in Hashem in the knowledge that Hashem would not allow it to happen. The point of this is that God has the power to save him. Avraham should not have left the land and he should not have placed Sarah into this compromising position. The Radak however, says that Avraham did not want to rely on miracles; he did not know what Hashem was going to do, and maybe he deserves this punishment; Yaacov likewise did not want to depend on a miracle in time of danger. Yitzchak comes out the best, as he did not leave the land.

When Avimelech takes Rivka to his palace, the situation was different: 26:8-9: And it came to pass, as is days there lengthened, that Avimelech, king of the Pelisthtim, gazed down through the window and saw – behold! Yitzchak was intimate with Rivka. Avimelech summoned Yitzchak and said, “But look! She is your wife! How could you say, ‘She is my sister?’” How could he have lied to him? He answers he was afraid he would be killed. Avimelech responds 26:10: “What is this that you have done to us? One of the people (he, himself) has nearly lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us!” They clearly had some morals, as opposed to the people of Egypt. Rav Bazak: there is a difference between Avraham and Yitzchak; Avraham immediately announced that Sarah was his sister, opening her up to be placed in a compromising position. In contrast, Yitzchak did make an announcement when he arrived; it was only when he was asked that he responded that she was his sister. Yitzchak was much more devoted to Rivka and was very reluctant to cause her to be taken away. Saying she was his sister was only a last ditch effort to save his life. They had a closer, more loving relationship, despite the fact that theirs was the only marriage that was a complete Shiduch. Of all the marriages of the patriarchs, theirs was the best. Because of Yitzchak’s attempt to stay in the land, he was blessed with a tremendous harvest and became very wealthy; Hashem rewarded him for staying in Eretz Yisrael. He becomes fabulously wealthy and powerful.

The wells: Avraham and Yitzchak had contentious episodes with the Pelishtim when they were digging wells. The Torah tells us: 26:19-20: Yitzchak’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of fresh water. The shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Yitzchak’s herdsmen saying, “The water is ours,” so he called the name of that well Esek because they contended with him. Yitzchak does not give up, digs another well. When that one leads to a dispute, he digs a third one which is not contested, and he calls this one Rechovot, implying that God has granted them ample space. Yitzchak displays the character of Gevurah – not just in the spiritual realm, but also in the physical world – he does not back down and continues to stake out a position in the land. He opened up the wells of his father, and the final one they do not stuff up. It is a statement of his tremendous strength to stand up to the power of his generation. He showed that the land can be attained with courage and tenacity.

Rav Bazak: Another major difference between the two is that Avraham made a bris with Avimelech, giving them rights to Eretz Yisrael. Yitzchak never made a covenant with them that would compromise who owned Eretz Yisrael. He made a peace agreement with them, but not a permanent bris. Hashem gave the land to the Jewish people and it was not up to him to give any part of it away.

Rav Bazak: Avraham and Yitzchak each had a child who went off the derech. Avraham had a tremendous feeling of closeness to Yishmael; it was Sarah who insisted he be driven out because he was a terrible influence on Yitzchak; he did not want to do it until Hashem directly intervened and told him to listen to Sarah and kick them out. He wanted to hold onto Yishmael. Yitzchak had adversarial twin children; he loved Esav because he ’trapped’ his father; he was blinded by Esav. Midrash Hagadol: Is Yitzchak really blind to Esav’s sins and bad character? Why didn’t Yitzchak hate him? Of course Yitzchak knew the dark side of Esav, but he did not want to give up with him and bring him back; had he kicked him out, he would have became even worse. How does one deal with a rebellious child? You are supposed to walk the tightrope – with your stronger right hand you bring him close, with your left you push him out. You don’t reject him but you must discipline him. You must draw certain lines. Avraham is told to kick his son out. Yitzchak is allowed to keep his son with him with care to maintain a relationship. And we see that the ultimate battle at the end of history is with the children of Yishmael, and not Esav. Esav was never pushed out – when it says Yitzchak’s eyes were dimmed, he blinded himself to many of the bad qualities of Esav in order to hold onto the relationship; he didn’t completely expel Esav as Avraham had done. Avraham was the pioneer of the Jewish people; he was not perfect, there were things that were lacking in Avraham’s relationship with Hashem that Yitzchak was able to improve upon. Yitzchak went on with tremendous stamina to forge a relationship with the land and with the people who lived in the land – he would be able to live in the land and withstand the bad influence of the people around him with great Emunah in Hashem. He had unwavering faith in his wife that was given to him. He re-established a relationship with Yishmael and helped bring him back. Yitzchak corrected some of the things that Avraham had done.

Sat, November 17 2018 9 Kislev 5779