And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac. (Genesis 25:19)
For the past three weeks, the main character in each Parsha has been Abraham. This week, Isaac hits center stage but his appearance is enigmatic. Our first exposure to Isaac’s world is framed by his being the son of Abraham. Both Abraham and Sara had their names changed and names in the book of Genesis are not happenstance, they represent the essence of the person or place for which they are named. Abram becomes Abraham, which means father of many nations; Sarai becomes Sara, meaning princess. But Isaac has only one name and it has nothing to do with his life or mission. The name means he will laugh because Abraham laughed when he heard he would have a son at 99 years old. Another anomaly in Isaac’s life is that unlike the other two Patriarchs, there’s no epic drama to which he is the active participant, no dreams, angels, wars, prophecies, no face offs with evil people or a unique approach for handling them; his life seems extremely uneventful. Who is this mysterious Patriarch?
When the story finally focuses on Isaac, we are once again baffled.
And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that had been in the days of Abraham, and Isaac went to Abimelech the king of the Philistines, to Gerar. (26:1)
He has the challenge of a famine, but even then, it wasn’t his unique challenge because it was like the one that had been in the days of Abraham and therefore it was just a sequel to Abraham’s famine. He has to find food and make sure the locals won’t abuse his wife. What does he do? The same strategy of his father. One might ask, why isn’t he doing anything original? After that incident, there is a dispute over (water) wells but instead of digging his own new wells he just digs up the wells Abraham dug and then “he gave them names like the names that his father had given them.” (Gen. 26:18)
Finally, G-d speaks to Isaac (this is his only direct communication with G-d) but even then, the revelation is connected to Abraham.
And G-d appeared to him on that night and said, “I am the God of Abraham, your father. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and multiply your seed because of Abraham, My servant.(26:23)
In other words, everything you will receive is “because of Abraham my servant.”
You walk away from this Parsha saying where is Isaac, the vanishing Patriarch? We know of three Patriarchs but it seems that Isaac has no special name, no role, no transition, nothing epic, no drama.
Who is Isaac and what is his role? In order to answer, let us first look at a seemingly unrelated subject, the French revolution. One of the crucial differences between the French revolution and the American revolution is that French revolution led to a vacuum, and more persecution. It led to Napoleon’s death, more totalitarianism and suffering. The magic of the American revolution is that freedom fighters and rebels were able to transition into statesmen. At a certain point they were able to say, let’s stop the revolution, create a constitution, diplomacy, and transition into a functioning society. It’s no small feat to declare that the revolution has ended and now is the time to build a stable society. In contrast, the French revolution never yielded and came to a state of stabilization. If that isn’t done, todays revolutionaries become tomorrow’s victims. (Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of the Russian revolution, was murdered with an icepick.)
How does this relate to the legacy of Isaac? In life there are new, bold-supernova-ideas that enter the human sphere and radically revolutionize human thought and experience, but they can only be successful if they are followed by a period of stability. If they don’t gain traction, they just remain ideas swirling around without any real stability. History seems to testify that the leaders of the American revolution were not just an angry mob, they were thoughtful people who were pressed into a subversive role and when that role was no longer necessary, they turned into statesmen who created a working government.
This idea relates to Isaac. Abraham was a revolutionary. The concept of ethical monotheism was not only unknown, it was threatening to the prevailing culture of paganism. He fought to teach it, pray for people he disagreed with, and carve a path that literally changed the world. But Isaac realized that his task was not to be a revolutionary, it was to ensure that Abraham and Sara’s teachings would endure. It takes a lot of strength not to be a revolutionary because revolutions are always exciting and enchanting. “We will change things and create a utopia,” are the buzzwords of revolution. It’s exciting to breath the fresh air of change, break apart the existing institutions and create new ones, and see yourself as a pioneer.
But sometimes it takes a lot more inner strength to lead a “boring” life without constant change. It means leading a life where you live ideas consistently and continuously because the sweet toxin of change isn’t available to drive your experience. This type of life will need deeper conviction and self-discipline. Without Isaac, we would have neither the book of Genesis nor the system of values Jews have lived by for thousands of years and have imparted to large parts of the globe. Abraham introduced so many bold ideas but now they had to trickle down to his family and students; they had to live them. Isaac doesn’t need to lead a life of drama, travel, angels, name changes, or even dig his own wells. His task is to entrench, solidify, and consolidate what his father had begun; that’s his glory and heroism and that is made apparent by the character trait associated with him, strength (gevura).
Isaac’s life is a template for us at certain times in our lives. Each of us should have an Abraham stage, where we flexing our muscles, learning to spread our wings, developing an individual identity, and find out who am I ? At a certain point, however, you have to transition and solidify the ideas by which you choose to live. The ideal is not to be a Peter Pan; the person always on the run, traveling and looking for new experiences. Rather, having a successful marriage and family takes a different set of strengths. Those who don’t want to become adults, are afraid of boredom and losing their freedom and it does take great discipline and inner strength to repeat your steps every day and follow a routine that grants you the peace of mind that comes from doing the right thing, even if it’s not the exciting thing. Going to work every day, changing diapers, carpooling and other mundane activities might not seem exciting at a certain point in life but caring for others and accepting responsibility for their wellbeing is an inner pleasure that comes only from such unexciting activities. It’s not bright lights, constant excitement or change, but those stimulants don’t naturally lend themselves to stabilization.
May we all find the Isaac within us and learn to cultivate and nurture our inner self-the person we want to become.
(Sources: Based on an address, The Disappearing Man, delivered by Rabbi Moshe Taragin at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Thank you to Professor Jeffrey Poelvoorde for directing me to the late Georgetown Professor Martin Diamond’s article The Revolution of Sober Expectations)