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The Role of Isaac

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah devotes several entire Torah portions to the lives of Abraham and Jacob. In contrast, only this week's portion focuses on Isaac. And even in this parsha, there is only one story which involves Isaac and no other forefather; that is the story of his time living in Gerar, the land of the Philistines. Isaac is forced by a famine to move to Gerar where he says that his wife, Rebecca, is his sister, like his father had done many years earlier. Then the Torah goes to considerable length describing how the Philistines sealed wells that Abraham had dug, and how Isaac re-dug them. He endures considerable hostility from the native Philistines and finally makes a treaty with their King, Avimelech.

On superficial analysis it is very difficult to derive any significant lessons from this story, but in truth, it provides the key to understanding Isaac.

The most striking aspect of Isaac's actions is that they very closely followed those of his father. When there was a famine in Abraham's time he headed for Egypt; Isaac planned to do the same thing until God told him not to leave the land of Israel. Then he returned to the wells that his father had dug but were now sealed, and he dug them again, calling them the same names that his father had called them.(1) Rabbeinu Bachya states that from Isaac's actions, we derive the concept of mesoras avos, following in the traditions of our fathers for all future generations of the Jewish people.(2) Isaac did not want to veer one inch from the path trodden by his father.

Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon explains Isaac's role among the forefathers: Abraham was the trailblazer; he set the precedents and established the guideposts. Isaac's job was to consolidate everything that his father had done, to follow precisely in his father's footsteps and thereby establish for all future generations the primacy of following the mesora (tradition). Isaac's life work was not to seek new ways and new paths but to follow faithfully on the path trodden by his father. Therefore when a famine came to the land, he immediately thought of going to Egypt because his father did so. And when he came to Gerar he dug the same wells and gave them the same names that Avraham had given them.(3)

However, there is another key aspect to Isaac that seems to contradict the idea that he followed his father in every way. The two men had very different personalities; Abraham epitomized the trait of chessed, overflowing with kindness to everyone. Isaac, in contrast, was characterized by self-discipline and internal strength. Abraham was the greatest role model a person could have and it would have been natural for Isaac to try to emulate his father's every action. However, Isaac did not content himself with that; he forged his own path in his service of God.

We have seen that on the one hand, Isaac represented following tradition, not deviating from the path that his father had set. And on the other hand, he possessed a totally different character to his father. How can we resolve these two aspects of Isaac?

In reality there is no contradiction. Every Jew is born into a line of tradition that goes back to Abraham. We are obligated to faithfully adhere to the instructions and attitudes that we receive from this line of tradition. A person cannot make up his own set of values; there is a tradition that guides him how to live his life. At the same time, this does not mean that each person in the chain of tradition is identical in every way - there are many ways in which a person can express himself. The Chafetz Chaim asks why the Torah emphasizes that the Tree of Life was in the middle ('besoch') of Gan Eden. He answers that this teaches us that there is one central point of truth but that there are numerous points surrounding it, each one standing at an equal distant from the centre. So too, there are many approaches to Judaism that emphasize different forms of service and different character traits. However, as long as they remain within the boundaries of the mesora, then they are all of equal validity.(4)

There was one Yeshiva in particular that stressed the idea that each person should not be forced into one specific mold - Slobodka. The Alter of Slobodka, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, placed great stress on the uniqueness of each individual. He was very wary of employing highly charismatic teachers in his yeshiva for fear that they would overwhelm their students with their sheer force of personality.(5) This emphasis on encouraging a student to develop his individuality permeated the teachings of Slobodka students. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky always emphasized the importance of independence in learning. While not denigrating the importance of a students's devotion to his teacher, he stressed that this should not prevent the student from developing independently his own powers of analysis and reaching his own conclusions.(6)

Rabbi Kamenetsky adopted a similar approach in the area of ideology - he felt that if a person had a tendency towards a certain valid stream of Torah then he should not be prevented from looking into it even if it contrasted the traditional outlook adopted by his family. A family close to Rabbi Kamenetsky was shocked when the youngest of their seven sons informed them that he wanted to be a Skverer Chassid. They went together with the boy to Reb Yaakov expecting him to convince their son that boys from proper German-Jewish families do not become Chassidim. To their surprise, Rabbi Kamenetsky spent his time assuring them that it was not a reflection on them that their son wanted to follow a different path of service of God. Obviously, their son had certain emotional needs which he felt could be filled by becoming a chassid and they should honor those feelings. He even recommended a step more radical than the parents were willing to consider - sending the boy to a Skverer Yeshiva!(7)

The idea that there are many different valid ways for an observant Jew to express himself is relevant to many areas of our lives, one is development of one's personality. There is a tendency in many societies for certain character traits to gain more praise than others. For example, being outgoing and confident is often seen as very positive, whilst being shy and retiring is often viewed in a negative light. An extroverted parent who has a more introverted child may be inclined to see his child's quiet nature as a character flaw and try to pressure him to change his ways. However, the likelihood is that this will only succeed in making him feel inadequate.

It is the parent's job to accept that his child may be different from him, accept him for who he is and work with his strengths. Similarly a child may find it difficult to sit for long periods of time and focus on learning. If a parent or teacher places too great a pressure on the child to learn, then it is likely that when he grows up he will rebel. It should be noted that whilst parenting is the area most affected by this message, it also applies greatly to our own service of God. We too may experience feelings of inadequacy in some area of our lives because we do not 'fit in' with the consensus of the society that we live in. However, sometimes, we may be able to find more satisfaction in our lives if we allow ourselves to express our strengths.

What are the benefits of encouraging a person to express his individuality in Torah? We said earlier that the Yeshiva that most stressed this idea was Slobodka. If one were to look at the products of all the great Yeshivas he will see that Slobodka produced by far the greatest number of leading Rabbis.(8) And what is striking about these great people is how different they were from each other. By stressing the uniqueness of each individual the Alter was able to bring the best out of each of his students. If we can emulate him then we have a far greater chance of enabling ourselves, our children and our students to live happier and more successful lives.


1. Toldos, 26:18.

2. Rabbeinu Bachya, ibid.

3. Matnos Chaim, Ch.2. "The Ways of the Fathers."

4. Chofetz Chaim Al HaTorah, 2:9.

5. See Rosenblum, Reb Yaakov, Ch.2, p.50-56.

6. Ibid. p.55-6.

7. Ibid. p.328.

8. Included in this list are: Rav Aharon Kotler zt"l; Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zy"l; Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman zt"l; Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt"l; Rav Reuven Grozovsky zt'l (Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas), Rav Dovid Leibowitz zt'l (the first Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas and subsequently founder of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim), Rav Isaac Sher zt"l (Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka); Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt"l (Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron); Rav Meir Chodosh zt"l. The son of the Alter, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel was the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva.

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