Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Yitzchak’s story seems to be the major theme of this week’s parasha. Until now, the stories involving Yitzchak have been stories about other people – Avraham offering him up at the akeida and Avraham’s servant finding a wife for him. Now it is finally his turn to write his own story.

Or so it would seem. The first verse tells us what this story will be – 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 Avraham. He prays for a son just as Avraham beseeched God for a son; as a result of a famine he, like Avraham, goes into a foreign land, not Egypt as God had prevented this, but the land of the Plishtim. Like Avraham he tells the people of the land that his wife is his sister; like Avraham his wife is taken by the local ruler and trouble ensues. He quarrels with the Plishtim over ownership of the wells just like Avraham; he makes a covenant with Avimelekh just like Avraham; and he spends a lot of time re-digging the wells that Avraham dug. And then that is 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 he 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, overflowing with ideas and energy. Yitzchak was din – the one with bounds, with limits; the one with 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 on flowing.

If another Avraham had followed Avraham nothing would have progressed. All the amazing ideas, visions, and goals of Avraham would have been forgotten in the excitement and passion of the new Avraham. Re-digging the wells, doing the hard day-to-day work necessary to sustain the vision that one has inherited and bring it into the next generation can often be unexciting and thankless. Such was Yitzchak’s task. And had it not been for Yitzchak, 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 they not had Yitzchaks to follow them – to take their ideas and programs and turn them into reality, to commit to the day-to-day effort needed to bring their ideas into the next generation – then 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 preserved the innovations of our Avrahams, but 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, who endured hardship to keep the mitzvot, who refused 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 it alive for themselves and passing it on to the next generation. They are the ones who keep re-digging the wells and who keep the water flowing.

We all need to be more thankful for the Yitzchaks in our lives, to recognize the profound value of our own work as Yitzchaks – the things we do in our daily lives as Jews to keep the Torah alive for ourselves, our families, and our communities – and 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 thus may carry on the mistakes of his predecessors, and perhaps not even mistakes per se, but strategies which made sense in the past but that are counterproductive in the present.

For while Yitzchak repeated Avraham’s successes, he also repeated his errors. Like Avraham, Yitzchak says that his wife Rivkah is his sister, and once again disaster is only narrowly averted. Yitzchak seems to act almost on reflex, repeating Avraham’s practice without stopping to learn from the past. Had he done so he could have concluded that such deception was never a good course of action, and that, as opposed to Pharaoh, it certainly was not necessary when dealing with Avimelekh.

Today we are all Yitzchaks, coming as we do thousands of years after those who laid the foundation of Judaism and those who built upon that foundation. We must do all that we can to ensure that that 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 the 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 truly assessing matters as they are, not just how we have been habituated to think about them and habituated to deal with them? 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 and to bring it thoughtfully and with integrity to deal with the challenges of the present.

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