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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Staying the Course, but Not Repeating Past Mistakes

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on November 5, 2010)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot, Sefer Breishit, Toldot, Torah

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Another year, we explored the theme of Yitzchak’s life as a continuation and institutionalization of Avraham’s vision:

Yitzchak could not go out of Canaan – he could not explore new vistas. He had to stay in Canaan and invest all of his energies in building, in establishing, in redigging the wells. If another Avraham had followed Avraham, nothing would have progressed. All those amazing ideas, visions and goals of Avraham would have been forgotten in the excitement and passion of the new Avraham. The wells would have gotten clogged and the water would have stopped flowing. Redigging the wells, doing the hard work that is necessary to sustain the vision and bring it into the next generation, that day-to-day commitment can often be unexciting and thankless work – that was Yitzchak’s task. And yet, had it not been for Yitzchak, all of Avraham’s contributions would have been lost.

It was thus necessary for Yitzchak to follow Avraham, and – as a Jewish People – while we have had our share of Avrahams, we have only survived because of the countless generations of Yitzchaks who have ensured that our vision, ideals, and commitments would be part of our everyday life and passed on from generation to generation.

However, there is a danger in being too much of a Yitzchak.  One who is only a Yitzchak repeats and entrenches the practices of the past, and thus may also carry on the mistakes of his predecessors.  Or perhaps not mistakes per se, but adaptive strategies which made sense in the past but are counterproductive in the present.   Yitzchak, himself, does not only redig Avraham’s wells and keep the water flowing, he also is prepared to follow Avraham’s footsteps and leave the land of Canaan when famine arrives.   Like Avraham, who apparently did not tell Sarah that God had promised him a son from her – note her surprise at the report of the angels – Yitzchak does not communicate well with his wife, Rivkah, and is seemingly ignorant of God’s declaration that the “elder will serve the younger.”

Yitzchak’s propensity to repeat not only the successes, but also the errors, of the past is most pronounced in his interaction with Avimelekh in the land of the Plishtim.  Like Avraham, he says that his wife, Rivkah, is his sister, and once again, disaster is narrowly averted.  What stands out in this story is that there is one person who has learned from the past, and it is not Yitzchak.  It is Avimelekh.  Although Yitzchak says that Rivkah is his sister, Avimelekh (or his father) has heard this one before, and knows better than to act on it.  Divine intervention is not needed here, because Avimelekh was able to learn from the mistakes of the past, implement them in his practice, and change his behavior and the outcome as a result.

Yitzchak has not only failed to learn that the Plishtim – as opposed to those in Mitzrayim – would not take a woman who was his wife, but he also seems to be acting almost as a reflex, without conscious thought.  In contrast to Avraham, who seems to have thought about it beforehand and declared when they entered Gerar that Sarah was his wife, Yitzchak has not considered the problem, and when confronted by it – “And the people of the place ask regarding his wife” – he gives the answer that he has been accustomed to hearing in his father’s house, “and he said, ‘She is my sister.'”   The fact that he has not really grappled with the situation can be seen from his later indiscretion.  He continues to have intimate relations with Rivkah, not even bothering to close the window shutters.   If he truly was concerned, as he said, “lest the people of the place kill me over Rivkah,” not only would he have been more careful regarding his intimate life with her, but he might have chosen an entirely different solution than Avraham had, one that would have taken into account what could be learned from the past – the nature of the Plishtim and of Avimelekh, and the problems that can result from deceit.

Not only is Yitzchak not learning from the past, he is also violating an explicit commitment that Avraham made.   For Avimelekh had approached Avraham to make an oath “that you should not deal falsely with me or with me children or grandchildren.” (Breishit 21:23), and Avraham had entered into this covenant with Avimelekh.  But to live up to the covenant required a change of behavior not only on Avimelekh’s part – returning the well that Avraham had dug – but also on Avraham and Yitzchak’s part, to not repeat the deceits of the past.  It is possible that this violation of the covenant gave an excuse for the Plishtim to violate their side of the deal, and to fill Yitzchak’s wells, just as the Plishtim in Avraham’s time had stolen his well.  Truly,  as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We, today, are all Yitzchaks, coming as we do after thousands of years of those who have laid the foundation of Judaism and who have built upon that foundation.  We must do all that we can to ensure that that structure remains strong and last until the next generation and for all future generations.  We must do all that we can to ensure that the commitments and the ideals of our forbearers are upheld by us, and by our children, each and every day, and in all that we do.  But we must also ask ourselves if there have been mistakes in the past, mistakes that we can learn from, and that we can correct in the present.  Have there been adaptive strategies that may have made sense at the time, but would be counterproductive now?  Are we truly grappling with the challenges of the present and truly assessing the matter as it is, not just how we have been habituated to think about it and habituated to deal with it?  Only when we combine the best of Avraham and the best of Yitzchak will we truly be living up to our mission to hold fast to our tradition of the past, and to bring it thoughtfully and with integrity to deal with the challenges of the present.