This shiur is dedicated in memory of my father, Reb Mordechai ben Hechaver Avraham Halevi Horovitz z”l. The fifth yartzeit of his petirah is this Shabbat, 2nd Kislev.
We are used to grouping our Avot together as one unit. We invoke their merits three times a day as we turn to Hashem in our tefillot, we attempt to emulate them as we recall their history and we often see Sefer Bereishit as the collective story of the Avot. However, on close examination of the parshiot in the Torah we find that there are precious few details about Yitzchak Avinu. We are struck by the fact that although this weeks parsha, Toldot, is the only one that deals entirely with Yitzchak, the majority of the narrative in fact deals with his concern for which of his children will inherit him. We are left wondering as to who really is Yitchak Avinu?
Much has already been written and said in answer to this question. We will endeavor to summarize some of these ideas and hopefully to add some additional food for thought.
The majority of the stories told of Yitzchak seem to remind us of episodes in the life of his father, Avraham. He too, goes to the land of Gerar to avoid famine. He too claims that his wife is in fact his sister and, like Avraham, is confronted by Avimelech for doing so. Avimelech sends Yitzchak away from Gerar only to request a covenant between them at a later stage. This, too, echoes the events of Avraham’s life. Perhaps the most striking semblance to his father’s history is found as we are told that Yitzchak dug again the wells, which had been previously dug by Avraham, and had subsequently been closed up by the Pelishtim.
On this last episode the Rabbeinu Bechayai comments that the Pelishtim were jealous of Yitzchak and therefore closed up these wells. Yitzchak overpowered them, reopened the wells, and gave them the names which had originally been used by Avraham. This, Yitzchak did in honor of his father, in order to demonstrate that he is clinging to his father’s legacy. Rabbeinu Bechayai states that if Yitzchak was so careful not to change even the names of the wells which were attributed to his father, how much more so must we attempt to continue in the values and outlook of our own fathers and ancestors.
The idea expressed above could be described as an interesting anecdote but can this really testify to the character of Yitzchak Avinu? The answer we suggest to this question is a resounding yes! The most obvious example of this is found on comparing the first command Hashem gives each of the Avot with respect to Eretz Yisrael. Avraham is told “lech lecha” go to Eretz Yisrael. Leave your homeland, take your family and depart for Eretz Yisrael. Ya’akov is told by Hashem, on the eve of his departure to Chutz La”aretz that he will return to Etetz Yisrael. This appears to be both a promise and a form of command. Yitzchak, on the other hand is told to stay in Eretz Yisrael. (Bereishit 26:2). Yitchak’s role is to remain, to continue, to consolidate, to uphold the work and legacy of his father. We find various allusions to this at other points in this parsha:
1. Hashem assures Yitzchak that he, like his father, will be blessed with many offspring and with the land of Israel. In justifying this promise, G-d states, “Ekev asher shama Avraham bekoli, vayshmor mishmarti, mitzvotai, chukotai vetorotai” (Bereishit 26:5). This is loosely translated as “Because Avraham listened to My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My laws and My teachings. Hashem is Hinself attributing the promise to Yitzchak to the belief and devotion of Avraham. Surely Hashem is stating that the continuation of His covenant with Yitzchak is based upon the fact that Yitzchak too will continue in the footsteps of his father. [It is interesting to note the use of the word “mishmeret” in describing Avraham’s adherence to the word of G-d. This could refer to the need to guard and preserve the legacy which has begun with Avraham Avinu.]
2. When Yitzchak stops in Be’er Sheva on his return journey to Eretz Yisrael, Hashem again appears to him. Here too, Hashem states that he will protect Yitzchak and assures him of the earlier promise of land and descendants. This pasuk ends with the words “ba’avur Avraham avid”, for the sake of My servant Avraham. (Bereishit 26:24) We could few this phrase in several ways but it seems to refer to the fact that if Yitzchak will not merit the promise which had previously been given to Avraham, then all of Avraham’s hopes and efforts will have been to no end. Without continuity, the legacy of Avraham will become but a fleeting moment in world history.
In addition to his role as the son who continues in his father’s footsteps, we do find two instances where Yitzchak initiates. The Torah recounts how Yitzchak planted (fields) in the land of Pelishtim and received a blessing from G-d in these plantations. (Bereishit 26:12) Many of the commentaries point out that this was a time of famine and the land itself was difficult, yet despite this, Yitzchak attempted to act, to invest in the future and succeeded. He demonstrated both belief in himself and belief in Hashem.
Similarly, after having reopened the wells which had been originally dug by his father, Yitzchak embarks on his own attempts to draw water. He too encounters resistance from the local populous. It takes three attempts until he is allowed to keep his newly dug water source open. At each of these three encounters, Yitzchak gives the well a name. [the significance of these names has generated much discussion amongst the mefarshim but we will not deal with that here.] Da’at Sofrim, a contemporary commentary on Tanach, states that these names are very different from the sorts of names used until this point. These names signify Yitzchak’s personal history, his trials and tribulations, as he sought to preserve them for future generations. In Yitzchak’s eyes, these events represented the depth of judgment and hardships which man can encounter in the world. We add to this point that Yitzchak not only named the wells which he failed to secure but also the final one which he succeeded in keeping open. This way Yitzchak left a lasting commemoration to the attribute of perseverance. Yitzchak aimed to achieve his goal. His first two attempts failed but he did not despair and continued until he was successful.
Let us suggest that these two aspects of Yitzchak’s character can be connected to his attribute of “gevurah”, might. Gevurah is understood in Chassidic thought as the ability to limit oneself. This can also be seen from the mishna in Pirkei Avot, “Eyzehu gibor, hakovesh et yitzro”, who is a “gibor”, he who conquers his (evil) inclination. This would also seem to mean that gevurah is the ability to limit oneself., to conquer one’s inclination to sin. Despite the comments of the mishna and the latter day commentaries, the more obvious meaning of gevurah is might, both physical and emotional.
Yitzchak encompasses these two aspects of gevurah. He limits himself in order to consolidate his father’s legacy. He holds back his personal will to create by becoming subservient to his role as the second in line, the one who must continue the work of his father before him. But Yitzchak also demonstrates physical and emotional might; he overcomes the Pelishtim, he recovers from his losses and builds until he succeeds. These two aspects are symbolized by the two sets of wells. The first wells were named as they were in the time of Avraham, symbolizing continuity. The second set of wells Yitzchak named himself to commemorate his trials and how they were overcome.
As we read Parshat Toldot we too should try to emulate Yitzchak Avinu. We must find the ability to uphold the legacy of our ancestors and the will and strength to overcome the difficulties and hardships in our own lives.
Shabbat Shalom, Rav Yonatan
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