THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ISAAC
by Rabbi Alexander
Of the three Avot (Patriarchs) of the Jewish people, Isaac is probably the most difficult with whom to identify. The lives of both Abraham and Jacob are richly detailed in the Torah and fleshed out in the words of our sages.
Of the three Avot (Patriarchs) of the Jewish people, Isaac is probably the most difficult with whom to identify. The lives of both Abraham and Jacob are richly detailed in the Torah and fleshed out in the words of our sages. By contrast, there are precious few episodes in the Torah involving Isaac, and in most of them he appears together with either his father Abraham or his son Jacob.
But there is one particularly noteworthy thing we do know about Isaac: Alone of the three Avot, he spent his entire life in the land of Israel. When, during a famine, he planned to temporarily move out of the country, as Abraham had done and as Jacob would later do, Hashem told him: "Do not descend to Egypt" (Genesis 26:2). Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains, ". . .because the lands outside of Israel are not suitable for you."
In general, the narratives in the Torah are meant to teach us how to lead our lives. This is even more so with the events in the lives of the Patriarchs, which are specifically meant to be "signs for the children". In short, each of us has an Abraham-aspect, an Isaac-aspect, and a Jacob-aspect in our souls and personalities. So the question is: For the vast majority of us, who either have never lived in Israel or who do live there but sometimes travel outside the Holy Land, in what way can we emulate Isaac?
Part of the answer is that wherever we live, we aspire to live in the land of Israel - whether it be now, or when Mashiach (Messiah) comes and gathers all of us there - and we make this a major part of our daily prayers. But it actually goes much deeper than that.
We often think of the Jewish people as being divided into two general categories of people - those whose full-time profession is strictly Torah study such as full-time Yeshiva students; and those who are part of the general workforce, from "doctor, teacher, or Indian chief" on down. Generally, the idea is that people in the second category, which includes most of us, bring Gdliness into the outside world by using its resources for serving Hashem. We give tzedakah (charity) from our earnings, behave in accordance with the Torah's standards of business ethics and general morality, and so forth. This parallels what Abraham did. He went to the outside world and traveled around extensively to teach people about Hashem.
But Isaac worked differently. The land of Israel in which he spent his entire life was more than just a geographical location; it was a sanctified area, like the Torah scholar's study hall. Instead of Isaac having to go out and work on making the world more Gdly, he could stay where he was and have the outside world come to him. The people of the time clearly realized Isaac's spiritual greatness - as did the Philistine king Avimelech, who came declaring, "We have seen that Hashem is with you" (ibid. 26:28).
Each of us should strive to combine within ourselves both Abraham's and Isaac's methods of serving Hashem. Most of the time, the average person is an Abraham, having to go down into Mesopotamia or Egypt, or their modern analogues, and work on them from within. However, there are times when we have to be like Isaac, withdrawing for a time from the outside world to "recharge our batteries" with intensive Torah study and prayer, undistracted by mundane affairs. (The reverse is also true: an Isaac-person needs to take time out of his studies to help Jews who are "outside", both physically and spiritually, to come closer to authentic Jewish observance.)
In Isaiah's famous prophecy about the era of Mashiach (the prophecy that ends with "they shall beat their swords into plowshares. . .and not learn war anymore"), he speaks of the nations of the world saying, on their own initiative, "Come, let us go up to Gd's mountain. . .and He will teach us His ways so that we may follow His path" (Isaiah 2:3). In other words, in that time Isaac's approach will prevail. Instead of having to join the outside world in order to change it, that world will come to our doorstep for spiritual improvement, while we will be able to devote ourselves to the most intensive Torah study in human history. Not surprisingly, our sages tell us (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 89b) that at that time, we will say to Isaac, alone of the three Patriarchs, "You are our father" Then, finally, we will all be able to easily identify with the life and times of Isaac.
This article is adapted from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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