WELL OF STRENGTH
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein
There is, perhaps, no more enigmatic figure in all of the Torah than our forefather Isaac. Aside from this week's portion, we are told virtually nothing about the man, his times, and his life accomplishments.
There is, perhaps, no more enigmatic figure in all of the Torah than our forefather Isaac. Aside from this week's portion, we are told virtually nothing about the man, his times, and his life accomplishments. Instead, we are left to believe that after his climactic feat of stretching out his neck to rece ive his father's blade, this towering persona retires to a quiet life of digging wells. Equally frustrating is the seemingly minor role he plays in the episodes in which he does appear. He is taken by his father to be slaughtered to Hashem; Abraham's servant Eliezer is sent to find for him a wife; his wife pressures him into sending away their son Jacob to search for a wife; his son Jacob manipulates him into giving him the blessings. Why does he seem to be buffeted about like a puppet, mere clay in the hands of those around him? What lessons are we to learn from the apparently unusual behavior of the second, great patriarch of the Jewish people?
Our sages teach us that the patriarchs were far more than biological progenitors of the Jewish nation. Each one functioned as a "gatekeeper" who unlocked heavenly portals allowing us to establish a relationship with Hashem in uniquely different ways. Through their embodiment of the very same attribute with which Hashem interacts with us, mirroring His ways, they were able to alter their spiritual genetic makeup, bequeathing to their descendants the divine qualities which were their lifelong accomplishments.
Abraham embodies Hashem's quality of loving kindness, chesed. Every action, every thought, every word was filled with expressions of love and concern for humanity. Isaac is the personification of the divine attribute of might, gevurah. In Ethics of our Fathers our rabbis teach us: "Who is strong? One who conquers his passions." Strength is not measured by what you do, but in what you do not. Self-control, discipline, regimentation are the tools of the mighty, the one who cannot be swayed by fleeting emotions and the whims of spontaneity. Logic would dictate that this quality should be present in all of Isaac's relationships and interactions. Surely no one would question that it took immeasurable fortitude to calmly offer himself to the slaughter, but what of the rest of his life? Where do we see this attitude shining forth?
Creation is a manifestation of Hashem's kindness. He had no personal need in bringing us to life. Hashem is the essence of perfection, the very antithesis of the concept of "need". His intentions were solely that He may shower His blessings and benevolence upon us. Hashem wishes to give us the greatest prize of all, the gift of eternity which comes only from bonding to Him via His commandments. However, there is one slight problem, so to speak, with His overflowing love.
The desire is so strong that if it were to go unchecked, Hashem would pour out His divine light in such quantities that the very purpose of creation would be abrogated. Instead of giving human beings the opportunity to earn perfection, to battle and learn to stand on their own, He would have given us the prize without our having to lift a finger. While it may seem enticing to live a life of tranquillity, one with no challenges or obstacles to overcome, we know deep down that this would not be truly satisfying. We would feel we had been robbed of our dignity, of the chance to achieve something of our own. It was therefore necessary for Hashem to constrain Himself, as if it were, to hold back His gushing love, thereby providing us a chance to "earn it the hard way". This by no means diminishes the love; on the contrary, it enhances it, making it more real. This is similar to the way we parents feel watching our children struggle with adversity. How we wish we could take the blows for them, to cushion them from the humiliation of defeat. Yet we know that to do so would destroy their sense of self, their feelings of competence and inner security.
This is the application of Hashem's attributes of chesed (kindness) and gevurah (might). His kindness wishes to bestow upon us the greatest good imaginable. The attribute of might, of restraint, prevents His kindness from overpowering us, from smothering us. It may well be said then that it is the quali ty of might which enables the quality of kindness to become meaningful and effective, giving us the space necessary to create our own eternity.
Isaac embodies might. It is his mission to facilitate the kindness of Abraham. How does he accomplish this? He "steps out" of the picture; he restrains himself and allows the memory of his father, the legacy of his father to perpetuate. He could have created followers of his own, had a party platform which conformed to his liking, yet he chose to negate his identity in order that the world should get an extra dose of the kindness of Abraham. Our sages tell us that Isaac was an exact double for his father. It is no coincidence. It was his job to be his father.
What is the difference between a well (b'er) and a spring (ma'ayan)? A well draws from a particular source and contains a finite quantity of water. A spring, on the other hand, is alive with a vitality of its own. Isaac digs wells, but not just any wells, he digs the wells which his father had dug and names them the names his father gave them. He is not alive in his own right, he is connected to his father's source.
In every interaction that he partakes, Isaac plays the passive role. He is not incompetent or a fool. On the contrary. He has mastered the ability to cloak himself in the background, to make believe that he is not there. Yet he remains, subtly bringing out the best in those around him by letting them feel important, by letting them sense accomplishment as they perform actions for him. This is true might indeed.
We as parents must take the lesson from the father whom our sages say is the "True Father" by learning to let go of our children, to not dominate their every decision. Like a shadow we must hover cautiously, touching and not touching so that they may come to discover their identity all on their own. This is true kindness, one that mimics the divine.
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, who grew up in Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a member of the Kollel at the Talmudic University of Florida in Miami Beach.
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