In many ways, Yitzchak’s life parallels that of Avraham. He travels to a foreign land to avoid a famine where he then claims that his wife is his sister to prevent her abduction and is subsequently blessed with great wealth. He renews the covenant that Avraham made with Avimelekh, affirming his role as Avraham’s heir. Most significantly, Yitzchak re-digs the wells that Avraham had dug, calling them by the same names that Avraham had given them. In this way, Yitzchak reclaims those wells and the water flows once more.
The message is clear: Yitzchak is the continuation of Avraham. The opening verse of our parasha sums it up succinctly: “This is the story of Yitzchak son of Avraham: Avraham begat Yitzchak.” (25:19). Yitzchak’s story is that he is the son of Avraham. Avraham is the initiator, the founder of the faith; Yitzchak’s role is to not initiate. His job is to reinforce and consolidate, to transform Avraham’s vision into a way of life that can be passed down to future generations.
While Avraham journeys, Yitzchak stays put. Avraham’s mission is to travel: “Leave your land… and go to the land that I will show you” (12:1), “And Avraham travelled through the land until the place of Shechem… From there he moved on to the hill country… Avraham journeyed forward, heading southward” (12:6-9). This continues throughout Avraham’s life culminating with his final journey: “Take your son… Yitzchak and go to the land of Moriah…” (22:2). Yitzchak’s mission, in contrast, is to put down roots. God tells him straightaway that he cannot leave the land of Israel: “Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you…” (26:2-3). In the land itself, he travels only when circumstances compel it, and even then, he never travels far: “And Yitzchak settled in Gerar… And he dwelled in the valley of Gerar… And he went from there to Be’er Sheva.” (26:17-23).
In Kabbalistic terms, Avraham embodies chesed, unbounded loving-kindness; Yitzchak embodies gevurah, restraint and self-control. To say it another way, Avraham represents ahavah, love, while Yitzchak represents yirah, fear. (There is even something of an alliteration here: Avraham-ahavah, Yitzchak-yirah). How are we to understand the yirah of Yitzchak? Some view it negatively: Yitzchak is timid, unadventurous, unwilling to take risks; he will only do what is safe, what others have done before him. I do not agree with this characterization, nor do I believe that it is fair. There is a fear that can be good, and love that can be bad. As Sefat Emet states:
For every Jewish person initially dedicates himself to serve God out of love and desires to cleave unto God. This is the trait of “Avraham who loves me.” But afterwards, this well, the source of love, becomes clogged through love of material things which intermingle [with the love of God]. The correction of this is through the trait of Yitzchak, and this is fear of Heaven; for the sign of true love is that it gives birth to fear. This is what is meant by the verse, “Avraham (love) begat Yitzchak (fear).
Excessive love and overflowing passion, says Sefat Emet, is not always good. It may start as pure love, but if one isn’t careful, it can attach itself to inappropriate things and can undermine true commitment. A man might fall madly in love with a woman, and commit to her and marry her, but then fall madly in love with the next woman who sparks his passion. One may fight fervently for a cause today, only to put it aside to fight for another cause tomorrow and yet a third cause the day after that.
This happens in the religious realm as well. In his letter to the sages of Luniel, Rambam compares his relationship to Torah to that of young love:
Even before I was formed in my mother’s womb, it was Torah that I knew; and prior to exiting the womb I was dedicated to its study… and it is my beloved doe and the wife of my youth in whose love I was ravished from my young age. Yet with all of this, foreign wives have become her competitors: Moabite women, Ammonites, Edomites, Tzidonites and Hittites. The Lord knows that these wives were only taken initially to be perfumers, butchers and bakers for her… Nevertheless, her conjugal rights have been diminished, for my heart has been divided into many parts regarding all types of intellectual pursuits.
Too much undisciplined love can lead one astray and cause the wells to become contaminated and clogged up. The solution is to stay put and dig deeper, to put in the effort to get the water flowing once again. If a marriage has lost some of its zing, the answer is to invest more deeply, to treasure the emotional intimacy that a deep and lasting relationship brings even if it comes with occasional loss of novelty and excitement.
How does this relate to Yitzchak’s trait of yirah? Sefat Emet explains this in another passage:
The meaning of this fear is that a person should fear lest he become disconnected from his intimate love of God.
Yirah is not timidity nor is it fear of doing something wrong. It is a fear born out of love. If one’s love is a profound one, one will protect it at all costs. It is the fear of losing that which is so precious that directs and focuses one’s love, allowing it to go deep rather than wide.
This dynamic of love and fear, of journeying and staying put, also plays out in the context of liberalism and conservatism. Liberals have a vision of a more perfect, more just world which drives them to try to effect change as quickly as possible. Conservatives argue that change is disruptive; too much change too quickly threatens the foundations of our society or religious community. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, in the productive tension created by these two opposite poles. To be constantly moving, travelling, and seeking the Promised Land, is to be an Avraham without a Yitzchak. Lacking sufficient traction, the gains that one makes in one generation might slip away in the next. At the same time, to just stay put, to not do anything differently than the past even when the circumstances change and even in the face of injustice, is to be a Yitzchak without an Avraham. It is to point one’s vision only downward, never upward and outward.
Our mandate is to join the vision and passion of Avraham with the perseverance and rootedness of Yitzchak. Only then we will be able to travel to the Promised Land, to remain there and create a lasting heritage. In this way, we will re-dig the wells so that we too can say: “For now the Lord hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”