Finally, it looks like Yitzchak’s story will be the major theme of this parashat Toldot. Until now, Yitzchak has only played a part in other people’s stories: Avraham offering him up at the akeida and the servant finding him a fit wife. It is now Yitzchak’s turn to write his own story…
Or so it would seem. The first verse of Parashat Toldot tells us what his story actually is: “V’ela toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzchak,” “These are the generations [or stories] of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham sired Yitzchak.” The story of Yitzchak is that he is Avraham’s son; he will live his life as a continuation of his father’s. He prays to God for a son just as Avraham had. Like Avraham, he goes into a foreign land as a result of famine, not Egypt as God prevented this, but the land of the Plishtim. He tells the people of the land that his wife is his sister, and as it did with Avraham, trouble ensues when she is taken by the local ruler. He quarrels with the Plishtim over ownership of wells, and he makes a covenant with Avimelekh as Avraham did before him. He also spends a lot of time re-digging Avraham’s wells. And then….that’s it. His story is over, and we move on to the story of Yaakov and Esav.
There is little that is new or innovative in Yitzchak’s life. He chose not to set out on his own but to continue in the way of Avraham. It is easy to dismiss such a life as mundane and meaningless, but in fact, without Yitzchak we would not have survived. Yitzchak took all of Avraham’s creativity, all of Avraham’s innovations and vision, and ensured its continuity. Avraham was the creator, the founder, the charismatic leader; Yitzchak was the one who took that charisma and creativity and institutionalized it.
Avraham was chesed, bursting out of bounds and overflowing with ideas and energy. Yitzchak was din, the one with boundaries, with limits. He had rules, laws, and a fixed way of doing things. Yitzchak could not go out of Canaan; he could not explore new vistas. He had to stay in his father’s land and invest all of his energies into building on the foundations that had already been laid, re-digging the wells to ensure that the water would keep flowing.
If another Avraham had followed the first there would have been no progress. All the amazing ideas, visions, and goals of Avraham would have been forgotten in the excitement and passion of his successor. Re-digging the wells, doing the hard day-to-day work necessary to sustain the vision one has inherited and bring it into the next generation, can often be unexciting and thankless. Such was Yitzchak’s task. But had it not been for him, all of Avraham’s contributions would have been lost.
As a people, we have had a few Avrahams: Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Ari, Rav Soloveitchik, and Rav Kook, to name a few. But had Yitzchaks not followed them – taking their ideas and programs and turning them into reality, committing to the day-to-day effort needed to bring their ideas into the next generation – their legacies would have been lost to us. While it is exciting to be an Avraham, we have only survived as a people because of our Yitzchaks. Our Yitzchaks have not only kept the innovations of our Avrahams alive, they have preserved for us our mesorah, our tradition, and our way of life.
Yitzchaks are the backbone of our people. They are those countless mothers and fathers who have sacrificed everything so their children would have a Jewish education and a Jewish home. They are the ones who learned Torah every day not in hopes of becoming great scholars, but because it was the lifeblood of the Jewish people. They are the ones who toiled to provide for their families, enduring hardship to keep the mitzvot, refusing to give up or compromise their Jewish identity no matter the cost. They are the ones who, day-to-day, with or without hardship, have lived and continue to live a committed life of Torah and mitzvot, keeping the core of our tradition alive for themselves and passing it on to the next generation. They are the ones who continuously re-dig the wells to keep the water flowing.
We all need to be more thankful for the Yitzchaks in our lives, and to recognize the profound value of our own work as Yitzchaks, the things we do daily to keep the Torah alive for ourselves, our families, and our communities. And we need to appreciate those who are truly moser nefesh for the Jewish community, ensuring that it will continue to survive from one generation to the next.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that there can be a danger in being too much of a Yitzchak. One who is only a Yitzchak repeats and entrenches the practices of the past and may thus carry on his predecessor’s mistakes, or perhaps not even mistakes per se, but strategies that once made sense and are counterproductive in the present.
We find this with Yitzchak, for while he repeated Avraham’s successes, he also repeated his missteps. Like Avraham, Yitzchak says that his wife Rivkah is his sister, and once again disaster is only narrowly averted. For Yitzchak, repeating Avraham’s actions seems almost like a reflex; he acts without stopping to learn from the past. If he had done so, he could have concluded that such deception was never a good course of action, and he could have seen that, as opposed to Pharaoh, it was certainly not necessary in dealing with Avimelekh.
Today we are all Yitzchaks, coming as we do thousands of years after those who laid and built upon the foundation of Judaism. We must do all that we can to ensure that the structure remains strong and lasts for all future generations. We must do all that we can to ensure that we and our children uphold the commitments and ideals of our forbearers 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 correct in the present. Have there been adaptive strategies that may have made sense in the past but are counterproductive now? Are we truly grappling with the challenges of the present and assessing matters as they are, not just thinking about and dealing with issues in a manner to which we have been habituated? Only when we combine the best of Avraham and the best of Yitzchak will we truly be able to live up to our mission of holding fast to our tradition and bringing it forward thoughtfully and with integrity to deal with the challenges of the present.