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Yitzchak Becomes our 2nd Patriarch

In this week’s Torah portion, we see the mantle of responsibility for building the nation of Israel passing from Avraham and Sarah to Yitzchak and Rivka. While we have been introduced to both Yitzchak and Rivka over the last two parshiot, in this week’s portion, Toldot, we see them take decisive measures that endow them with the status of Patriarch and Matriarch, Yitzchak becomes יצחק אבינו and Rivka becomes רבקה אמינו .

Toldot begins with a verse that seems at first blush to contain a redundancy.           “And these are the offspring of Yitzchak son of Avraham, Avraham begot Yitzchak.” (Beresheit 25:19) Rabbi Soloveitchik of blessed memory explained that here the Torah uses the term “holid,” הוליד, which means more than just that Yitzchak was biologically a product of Avraham. “Holid” implies a unique relationship established between a father and son, that of “rebbe” (teacher) and “talmid” (student).  Our Jewish philosophy, mentioned by the Talmud, goes so far as to declare, “One who teaches his friend’s child is considered as having given birth to him.” There is no doubt that Avraham, teacher par excel lance, fulfilled his obligation toward his son. Avraham transmitted all of his knowledge, wisdom, ethics and values to his son Yitzchak.

In this way, the apparent repetition in the opening verse of Yitzchak being the offspring of Avraham is resolved. First of course, on the purely physio-biologic level, Avraham begot Yitzchak. A “midrash” brought down by Rashi in parshat Vayeira, read two weeks ago says, “Isaac looked exactly like Avraham. This was because people at that time were mocking Avraham and Sarah. Since Sarah did not conceive all these years with Avraham until just after being taken captive by Avimelech, perhaps the child Sarah was carrying was the product of conception between her and Avimelech?” The second mentioning in the verse, that Avraham begot Yitzchak, expresses the ultimate father-son relationship epitomized by the teacher-student relationship.

However, later in this week’s reading, we come across the account of Yitzchak reopening his father’s wells and the Philishtim contesting his rightful ownership over them. Yitzchak eventually digs his own uncontested well. He travels to Beer-Sheva where Hashem appears to him. We are then told of Yitzchak building an altar where he called upon God’s name. This event is immediately followed by Avimelech coming to Yitzchak to make a peace treaty. The Torah concludes this account by informing us that Yitzchak’s servants found water by digging another successful well on that very same day. What is the thread connecting all of these events?

Avraham was viewed by his generation as a philosopher-king. When he comes to purchase a burial place for his wife Sarah, the people address him as “prince of God.” (Beresheit 23:6) The Talmud even tells us that Avraham had his own monetary system. He minted coins with his own seal. They were the most sought after and valuable commodity traded on the market. Of course Yitzchak was afforded respect as Avraham’s heir apparent and successor.

When Avraham died, however, all the jealousy people had toward Avraham but suppressed, whether for his wealth or his philosophic insights and political stature, was taken out on Yitzchak. The wells that Avraham had dug during his life were filled after he died. They were dug by Avraham as a means to help people not only physically but spiritually as well. Their names evoked concepts of God that Avraham taught the world. To destroy Avraham’s philosophy of life, the people were willing to go so far as to jeopardize their physical wellbeing.  What would Yitzchak do in response to what was happening? After all Yitzchak does not appear to have the same outgoing personality as his father.

When Yitzchak re-dug his father’s wells and called them by the same names as before, the locals quarreled with him and disputed his claims. He persisted and found a new well which he named “Rehobot,” meaning “now Hashem has granted us ample space.” This success, notwithstanding, was merely perceived by the people that Yitzchak was just an extension of Avraham but not a patriarch in his own right.

When Yitzchak arrives in Beersheva, Hashem appears that night and says, “Fear not, for I am with you…. He built an altar there and invoked Hashem by Name.” (Beresheit 26:23-25) This event is a turning point in Yitzchak’s life. He now becomes his own man worthy on his own of spreading the true ideas of God, not merely perpetuating the knowledge he received from his father.  No longer is he looked upon as just an extension of Avraham. He derived his convictions from his own thinking. He has fully taken the mantle of leadership of this new philosophy of life. He too will be recognized as a king. God now promises His oath to Yitzchak as Yitzchak deserved this providence due to his own merit. In other words, Yitzchak establishes a firm continuation of the way of life of Avraham, not just as his son who, so to speak, is continuing the family business he naturally inherited. Rather he would from now on be viewed independently, separate and apart from his father as a great man and thinker.

Immediately we are told that Avimelech and the men that hated Yitzchak came to make a peace treaty with him. “We have indeed seen that Hashem has been with you.” They recognized Yitzchak’s philosophic greatness and closeness to God in his own right, regardless of the fact that he was Avraham’s son. That very day Yitzchak’s workers told him of a new successful well they dug. That news meant that from now on Yitzchak would make his own independent contributions to the revolutionary ideas of God. He would build on the ethical life one should live through his novel insights. What do we say in our prayers every day, “The God of Abraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Yaakov.” This phrase teaches us that while Yitzchak and Yaakov learned the true ideas of God from Avraham, each one in his own right discovered them and established them in the world to others independently of each other.

Parshat Toldot when read and studied carefully reveals to us how both Yitzchak and Rivka developed to become not just heirs to the inheritance of a previous generation but were worthy on their own to establish the nation of Israel. May their lives serve as a model and inspiration for us today.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan