In memory of Rabbis Moshe Twersky, Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, Aryeh Kupinsky, and Cary William Levine, and police officer Zidan Nahad Seif. May their loved ones be comforted and may their memory be a blessing.
You are an individual. You have a unique contribution to make. There is no one in the world like you. Show us what it is that you can contribute to this position that no other candidate can!
These are the buzz words and catchphrases – the sismaot – of our age. Distinguish and differentiate yourself – for if you do not you will never achieve anything worthwhile. Our role models are people who have caused change, who have left their society, their country, their world different from how it was when they entered it. These are the people we aspire to be like.
When we look at the second of the avoth – Yitzchak Avinu – what unique contribution do we find?
In the first verse of Parshat Toldot (Bereishit 5:19) – which we expect to begin the chapters devoted to Yitzchak – we begin with the words:
וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם, אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק:
These are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak.
The first half of the verse tells us that Yitzchak was the son of Avraham. The second half of the verse tell us that Avraham was the father of Yitzchak.
Already, right at the beginning of Parshat Toldot we are given the impression that Yitzchak is living in his father’s shadow – a point that is emphasised by the midrash’s reading of the verse that Yitzchak was identical in appearance to his father.
In contrast to Avraham and Yaakov who both have at least 14 chapters devoted to each of them, Yitzchak has only one – ch.26. And what is it that we read in this chapter?
וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ מִלְּבַד הָרָעָב הָרִאשׁוֹן אֲשֶׁר הָיָה בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם
And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine which had been in the days of Avraham
Yitzchak is not even able to have his own famine. And what is that Yitzchak does in the time of famine? Exactly that which his father had done
וַיֵּלֶךְ יִצְחָק אֶל אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים גְּרָרָה:
And Yitzchak went to Avimelech the King of the Pelishtim in Gerar
And what is that he does when he gets there (v.7)?
וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ אַנְשֵׁי הַמָּקוֹם לְאִשְׁתּוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲחֹתִי הִוא
And the people of the place asked about his wife, and he said ‘she is my sister’
He tells them that Rivka is his sister just as Avraham had told the same people that Sarah was his sister – and in this case too Avimelech and his people are not best pleased at the deception.
Yitzchak survives this encounter and indeed attains much wealth. What is the next struggle that he has to contend with? The wells of water that Avraham his father dug had been filled in by the Avimelech’s men. And so we read (v.18):
וַיָּשָׁב יִצְחָק וַיַּחְפֹּר אֶת בְּאֵרֹת הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיְסַתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים אַחֲרֵימוֹת אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן שֵׁמוֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹת אֲשֶׁר קָרָא לָהֶן אָבִיו:
And Yitzchak returned and dug the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Avraham and had been stopped up by the Philistines after the death of Avraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them.
Yizchak’s most significant achievement? He re-digs the wells that Avraham had dug, that had been filled in after Avraham’s death, and he gives them same names that Avraham gave them!
Towards the end of the chapter, Hashem turns to Yitzchak to give him strength and encouragement (v.24):
וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְקֹוָק בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי:
And Hashem appeared to him on that night, saying, ‘I am the God of Avraham your father, do not fear for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring, on account of Avraham, my servant.
Who is Hashem? He is the God of Avraham, Yitzchak’s father. And why will he bless and guard Yitzchak? Because of Avraham His servant.
What are we to make of all this? Yitzchak’s appears to live his life completely in his father’s shadow. Of the few stories we have about him he responds to difficult situations in the same way as his father, he makes the same mistakes as his father, he re-digs the wells that his father had dug, and Hashem promises to protect him – why? Because of his father.
The question screams to us from the text:
WHERE IS YITZCHAK’S INDEPENDENT IDENTITY? ON ACCOUNT OF WHAT DOES HE MERIT TO BE ONE OF THE AVOTH, THE FOREFATHERS OF THE NATION?
I would like to suggest that precisely Yitzchak’s repetition and continuation of the life of Avraham – and the absence of a unique contribution – is what makes him so special!
Revolutionaries are considered to be the great men of history. The ones that rebel against the accepted truths of the societies around them and blaze a new path. Their task is a difficult one and a heroic one.
But perhaps more difficult, and certainly just as heroic is the task of the second generation – not the revolutionaries but those who come after them – those who continue their vision – who strengthen it, deepen it, embed it, and work all their lives to ensure that their forebears’ contribution will not simply be a flash in the pan, a one off moment in the pages of the history books, but a long lasting and significant contribution to mankind.
Visionaries throughout history have dedicated their lives to bringing about change. But whether or not they are successful depends not upon them but upon their successors.
The last thing that Judaism needed after Avraham was another Avraham. Yitzchak’s heroism and contribution was that he chose to be one who continues.
In our world today everybody wants to be Avraham. The one who smashes the idols. But perhaps we are deceiving ourselves if we think this is the only sort of worthwhile achievement.
At home with our family, in our communities, in our work lives – it takes special courage and special skill to say I am not going to re-invent the wheel. I am going to continue what those who have come before me have taught me and demonstrated in their lives.
What is my unique contribution? What makes me special? That I have the courage to strive to be the same – the same as the best that has come before me, and to apply it to my life and to those around me.
I am entering into Shabbat feeling weary and heavy and heart-broken. Yitzchak suffered his fair share of trauma and distress. Yet he carried on. His name meant laughter.