Isaac planned to descent to Egypt (when the famine struck Canaan) (26:2). God said to him, ‘Do not descent to Egypt, for you are a perfect burnt offering, and a country outside of Eretz Yisrael is not worthy of you.’ (Bereishis Rabbah 64:3)
I. Isaac’s Uniqueness
Of the three Patriarchs, Isaac seems to be the least prominent. Several chapters of the Torah deal with Abraham, even more describe Jacob and the development of his family. Virtually throughout, Abraham and Jacob are the prime movers of their respective stories. But to Isaac, few chapters of the Torah are devoted, and even there, he seems generally more passive than active. Eliezer was sent to choose his wife. Jacob and Rebecca matched wits with Esau to secure Isaac’s blessings.’
The obvious conclusion was that Isaac was less majestic than either his father or his son, that he was merely a bridge between the two major pillars of Israel’s genesis. Like many superficially ‘obvious’ assessments of the events and people chronicled in the Torah, this one doesn’t even come close. The three Patriarchs are described by the Sages as equal to one another (Bereishis Rabbah 1:15), as the ‘strong steeds’ who galloped before God (Sanhedrin 96a), as the ‘chariots’ upon whom God rested His Presence on earth. The time will come when the salvation of his descendants will rest with Isaac:
“In time to come, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will say to Abraham, ‘Your children have sinned.’ Abraham will say before Him, ‘Master of the Universe, let them be wiped out in sanctification of Your Name.’
God will say, ‘Let me tell this to Jacob who endured the suffering of raising children. Perhaps he will pray for mercy upon them.
Jacob will say..’Let them be wiped out in sanctification of Your Name.’
However, Isaac will say, ‘Master of the Universe, are they my children and not Your children? When they said, “We will do” before they said, “We will hear”, You called them “My Firstborn” – now You call them my children and not Yours?…’ Isaac concluded ‘If You endure all the sins, good. If not, let half be upon You and half be upon me ~ I have already offered myself before You at the time of the Akeidah.’ (Shabbors 89b)
Isaac will prevail where neither his father nor his son will make the attempt. Let us look at Isaac’s ways a little more ~ at least to the minuscule extent to which we can comprehend the way of a Patriarch.
A New Path
Abraham and Isaac represented two very different approaches to the service of God. Abraham’s was that of Chessed-Kindness. Isaac’s was that of Gevurah-Strength. Isaac could have adapted Abraham’s philosophy. It would have been logical for him to have followed in the footsteps of his illustrious father. Abraham had found the spark of Godliness in the spiritual debris of the ten failed generations from Noah’s time to his own. He had recognized his Creator and had been rewarded with manifestations of the Shechinah that made even his idolatrous contemporaries regard him as ‘a prince of God.’
Isaac chose to beat a new path. Isaac’s greatness showed through his refusal to choose the easy way of imitation. He had no inner compulsion to rebel against the teachings of Abraham and Sarah. To the contrary, Isaac developed a new way to serve God, the path of Gevurah-Strength. He played an essential role in creating the tripod upon which Judaism eternally rests, because his mode of service was fused with Abraham’s to form the ‘Tiferes-Truth’ ~ the way of Jacob.
Isaac had to become ‘an original tzaddik despite the fact that he was the son of a tzaddik. To seek independently to find the meaning and significance of thought and deed is a spiritual triumph of majestic proportions.
In summarizing the rise of Abraham and his descendants until Moses received the Torah, Rambam shows the sharp contract between Abraham and Isaac:
On this path (of progressively more serious idolatry) the world went and developed until the birth of the pillar of the universe – our father Abraham….He arose and called out in a great voice to the entire world to inform them that there is a single God … from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom he went … until he gathered to himself thousands and tens of thousands. They are the people of Abraham’s household … He set up Isaac to teach and to exhort. Isaac made this known to Jacob and appointed him to teach … (Hilchos Avodah Zorah 1:2-3)
Abraham was the inspirer and teacher of tens of thousands. Isaac taught Jacob. Why did Isaac not create an army of followers to God and His Torah?
Chessed and Gevurah
The answer lies in a clearer understanding of the ways of Chessed and Gevurah. Though they seem to be widely different, they are truly complimentary. Neither can thrive ~ nor even continue to exist ~ without the other.
The urge to give and grow is a function of Chessed. It is sometimes generous and sometimes self-indulgent, sometimes compassionate and sometimes selfish. The teacher of the Torah may not always be motivated solely by the desire to serve God and Israel. This does not change the essential nature of their activity. Because the activities are directed towards others, they are manifestations of the Chessed impulse to give. Every person faces a challenge: he can turn his motives, attitudes and deed in the direction of Abraham whose kindness had the purpose of perfecting man and drawing him close to God ~ or he can turn his Chessed activities in the path of laziness, gratification of senses, and a deadening of the will to strive for greatness. For Chessed-Kindness can have both effects. Indulgence without discipline, Chessed without Gevurah, will lead to a state of corruption, immortality and sin.
Complement – a thing that completes or brings to perfection
Verse 25:19: “And these are the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham.” This verse follows the Talmudic dictum of the word (and these) indicates a continuation of what was said earlier. So the story of Isaac’s life is a continuation ~ but a continuation of what?
We see Isaac’s life from a new perspective. Abraham begot Isaac (25:19). In it’s many layers of meaning, the Torah is giving us more than the fact of genealogy. The philosophy of Abraham begot the philosophy of Isaac. Strength and kindness do not contradict one another; they complement and perfect one another. Not only must the expansiveness of Chessed-Kindness be followed by the consolidation of Gevurah-Strength but also fear and awe of God must flow from love of God. Abraham gave birth to Isaac; love of God brought in its wake an awareness of God’s power and majesty, and awakened an awe and a fear that made God’s servants tremble, lest they overstep the bounds of His Will in their zeal to serve Him better and spread His Name more widely. From such a complementary tension between love and fear, between kindness and strength, is born ~ Tiferes-Splendor and truth ~ the final level of perfection represented by Jacob. Isaac, therefore, is the logical and necessary step in the spiritual process begun by Abraham.
Isaac’s contribution to the unfolding development of God’s mission on earth brought an achievement that had not yet been possible in Abraham’s day. The principal struggle between good and evil is represented by the unforgiving hostility between slicing away the contamination of Esau from the emerging Abrahamitic nation. Chessed was inadequate to cope with Esau; the task required the rigorous application of inner strength and refinement that were Isaac’s contribution to the Patriarchal force. Abraham had his Ishmael who had to be removed from Israel, but there was an essential difference between Ishmael and Esau: Ishmael was not the son of Sarah and he was never considered to be an offspring of Abraham (21:12). Esau, however, was born to a Matriarch as well as to a Patriarch. He was entitled to continue to lineage of Abraham and Isaac. That made the challenge so awesome: Jacob or Esau, which will it be? A choice of that magnitude had to await the coming of Isaac.
Clearly, the life of Isaac could not have the narrative prominence of the life of his father. Abraham was the doer. Isaac’s role was just as important and just as difficult. His stage was not the world but his inner heart. This voice was not the one that carried to tens of thousands of converts but the inner voice that demanded rigorous appraisal and merciless refinement. Abraham’s academy was open to all who would listen; Isaac had one student ~ Jacob. We do know that the single product of Isaac’s academy became the father of a nation, the culmination of God’s purpose in creating heaven and earth.