Toward Shabbat – Parshat Toldot

We have already read about the greatness of Abraham the father of our nation, the originator of our tradition, the man of CHESED (kindness); and soon we will read about Jacob (or Israel) another giant who stands out boldly in our history. In our Parsha we read about Yitzchak, the bridge between Abraham and Jacob, who seems to fall short of the grandeur of the two praiseworthy ancestors who fit the heroic mold in our tradition. We do not find the numerous traditions and legends in our literature concerning Isaac which we find concerning Abraham and Jacob.
But let us look deeper into the innate greatness found in our ancestor Isaac as well. The one outstanding incident in his life was his readiness to regard himself as the sacrifice which his father was to offer up at the bidding of
G-d. His faith in Abraham and in G-d was valiant, steadfast, and unwavering. Moreover, as a result of this traumatic event, his personality developed an innate sense of awe, discipline, diligence, deliberateness, vigilance, and strict attentiveness. After all, if his father was able to lift up a knife to murder him ‘life can be a pretty frightening place’ an unfathomable ordeal, to endure. Life becomes an experience in which we must survive random, inexplicable suffering and one which demands bravery while living through these many trials and tribulations. Thus, our tradition describes his essence as ‘Pachad (dreading) Yitzchak’. Abraham was defined as the essence of Chesed, and Yitzchak is defined as the essence of YIRAH (FEAR and Trembling, Awe).
What is so significant about Yirah, and why is it so underrated, disrespected and neglected in our society? I personally gravitated toward Rabbis in Rabbinical school who emanated love, and felt uncomfortable around those who seemed overly cautious, careful, and so attentive to every detail of the law. Our Sages, however, proclaim that each energy, kindness (Chesed) and careful attentiveness and deliberateness (Yirah) are necessary traits applicable to different situations. They suggest only when one is capable of both can an integrated ‘Self’ be actualized. As I continued my tenure in Rabbinical school, I began to realize that the trait of Yirah had a holy root within it. It contained an awestricken quality that recognized that there was something larger in the universe than our mere ego. Those who embodied it acknowledged that G-d demanded a Yirah, so as not to harm others, and not to cause destruction of others’ property, but to value and respect all whom we encounter in this numinous, mysterious world filled with splendor and tenuousness. If we are careful about not destroying our world, we will also be open to its magnificent beauty, the ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ that dwells within it. I learned more about the value of the trait of Yirah, from observing the inwardness, and piety of the learned Rabbis whose way to holiness ingested both the trait of Chesed and Yirah. I still recall the intentional prayer of those who embodied Yirah, as they experienced and connected to G-d in their inwardness. They had this capacity to connect to a level of holiness that went beyond our world of the senses. When they prayed the Amidah, some swayed gently and intensely as if they were in
G-d’s presence, and some stood erect as a stick, almost in a trance as they concentrated on every word, asking G-d for support, and thanking G-d for G-d’s Grace and many blessings.
So, humble, gentle Yitzchak was happy to serve as a link between Abraham and Jacob, carrying on the tradition so that its values and mandate would be passed on from generation to generation. He did not need to live in the limelight, but within his discipline he was committed to carry on the charge placed upon him to serve the Lord as his father did and to pass on his knowledge and experience to his offspring Jacob. This is also an important message that the character of Yitzchak teaches us. Without, those willing to carry out the introverted daily chores of the community, the extroverted leaders cannot succeed, and the community will dwindle and lose its spark.
An indication of Yitzchak’s nature is found at the end of the Parsha (Bereishit, 26: 12-122). ‘”Yitzchak had acquired wealth, flocks, and herd because of the success of his father Abraham and his own continuous, assiduous, disciplined work in these fields. This abundance aroused jealousy in his neighboring Philistines. So, the Philistines aggressively stopped up all the wells that his father’s servants dug in the days of Abraham and filled them with earth. After this hostile act Isaac departed from there and dug up new wells in the valley of Gerar. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Yitzchak’s herdsmen and said the water belonged to them. So, Isaac instructed his servants again to move and dig up new wells and the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled over those as well. So, Isaac and his people once more relocated from there and dug other wells. Finally, at this point his neighbors ended their quarreling, and Isaac said, “Now G-d has created ample space and we can be fruitful in the land.”
One might surmise that there is a passivity in Yitzchak, unwilling to fight for his land, and instead choosing to move on from a confrontation. This unusual behavior was very different from Yitzchak’s father Abraham who waged war with others and argued with G-d. Yitzchak had grown up around violence and confrontation in his earlier years. He had seen his brother Yishmael cast out in the desert with Hagar. He had experienced his father’s KNIFE AT HIS OWN THROAT! Here Yitzchak actively chooses another path, turning away from confrontation and violence when possible, preferring to dig new wells than to fight over the old ones. Are we to presume and infer that he did this through his fear and weakness, or was it an active choice, utilizing a different energy than his father. I think it is the latter, an active, alternative way of being, utilizing Yirah, discipline, deliberateness, caution and searching out ways that do not lead to violence. He had already experienced too much violence and aggression in his life. This impacted his temperament, and his way became the way of Yirah, conscious necessary restriction, deliberateness, and patience. This became the guiding light in his life. His patience and discipline led him to a successful end, a path to survival and peace. The result at the wells shows us that this alternative was the wiser course of action. Yitzchak finds new water, his neighbors then finally seek out a treaty with him, and he is blessed by G-d after the incidents of the wells.
May we all have the capacity to utilize both Chesed and Yirah to create peace and harmony with each other and raise the level of our interactions through thoughtfulness, caring, patience, and discipline for the sake of the welfare of others. May both the energies of Abraham and Isaac bless us to create a more loving, peaceful world and let us say Amen!
Have a most joyous and fulfilling Shabbat,
Rabbi Mel