3 Heshvan 5778
23 October 2017
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London School of Jewish Studies

Yitzchak the Great

  • Subject: Book of Genesis, Parsha
  • Date:
  • Teachers/Presenters: Yaacov Finn,

This was originally written as a sermon.

Of the major characters that inhabit the Torah, we know the least about Yitzchak.

Unlike Avraham – whom the Torah goes to great lengths describing many events from his life, as well as his spiritual journey – and unlike Yaakov whose life story, fills up approximately half the book of Genesis. Yitzchak is only really given one week, our portion today. This is despite the fact that he lived longer than either of those two. And in truth, a reader of this week’s portion could be forgiven for thinking that we are really reading the story of Yakov and Esav.

Furthermore, when you actually pick out the events we are told about Yitzchak, it is rather disappointing. For starters the focus of Yitzchak’s activity in Parshat Toldos appears to be mundane affairs – the taking and subsequent return of his wife by Avimelech, planting crops and digging wells. All he seems to do is re-dig his father’s wells, he doesn’t seem to get a say in choosing his own wife and even his great ‘scandal’ is the same as his fathers, (telling Avimelech that Rivka was his sister and not his wife). We are presented with a picture, of a person living in his father’s shadow, unable to do anything of his own initiative with no great novel achievements to speak off. All this is even stranger when we consider the fact that our sages refer to Issac as the embodiment of Gevurah, of Strength.

  • So why does the Torah not speak more about Yitzchak’s religious legacy?
  • Are there no greater accomplishments of Yitzchak which the Torah could depict?
  • And finally, are we really supposed to buy the idea that Yitzchakis strength?

To answer this, we must first understand the role of his father, Avraham. Avraham was a trailblazer, defying societal beliefs and practices and raising a family with values that contradicted the norm of his time. He was a revolutionary, attempting to bring to the world a new concept – monotheism, and whilst this was an extremely difficult task, it was one that he excelled at.

However, any new ideology, any new enterprise can be shaky and difficult to keep afloat; and as history has shown these movements are very unlikely to survive once the founder is dead. Whilst Avraham was alive, there was no question that the project would continue.

After his death – the very real question of its continued existence could be raised. What would happen to monotheism? what would happen to the Abrahamic project? Would it be a flash in the pan, or something more enduring?

The Torah, this week, presents to us how Yitzchak sought to answer these questions.    How Yitzchak the heir worked to keep his father’s legacy alive.

Yitztchak’s role, was not to develop, not to revolutionise, not to change BUT to fortify the ideology laid down by his father. He had to maintain Avraham’s vision to allow future generations to mold it and shape it. He had to give it stability and a lasting presence in this world. This is why it seems that most of his life he is following the same path as his fathers, re-visiting the same places, re-digging the same well. To ensure the future of monotheism, Yitzchak had to re-enact his father’s life for a whole new generation, follow his father’s model without deviation.

I asked before, are there no greater accomplishments that The Torah could have brought, but in truth. Yitzchak’s greatest achievement was his lack of ‘new’ achievements.

You see, the natural human tendency is for children to push away from the paths of their parents, to push for change, to push for a new way of doing things. We are hungry for change, the status quo is never good enough, we are never happy unless we are innovating, changing, disrupting. However, constant change is not good, constant revolution is unproductive, we cannot live life in a perpetual state of innovation as if we do, then there is no time, to appreciate what we have, no time to build a lasting foundation a lasting legacy.

The greatness of Yitzchak was in large measure his ability to keep steadfast to his father’s path, resisting the urge to re-invent the wheel. Just like his father, Yitzchak faced the challenge of living with faith in a modern society, but unlike his father he also had the challenge of ensuring that the religion he received from his father  passed on to the next generation.

Yitzvhak in his own way, was a trailblazer, a silent revolutionary, an important part of the Jewish story.

For me, Yitzchak is the most important of the forefathers, as his challenge is our challenge. Just like Avraham we live with the challenge of living with faith in a modern world, in a world that is shunning faith. However, like Yitzchak we face the challenge of resistance, resisting human nature that demands that we re-create re-fashion a faith in our image, resisting a society that wants us to re-create a religion for the 21st century despite it not being related to anything ‘real’. Resisting pressure from a world that begs of us to remove, fundamental tenets of our religion. The answer is not to start again, not to rip the heart out Judaism, but to follow it like Yitzchak did, and use it in our everyday lives to guide us and to inspire us.

May it be the will of the almighty, that we are able to gain inspiration from the strength of Yitzchak, and just as he was able to ensure that the religion he received from his father was present to be passed on to his children so to may we merit to be able to inspire our next generation and show them that Judaism is still as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.