What Does it Mean to be Isaac?

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By Rabbi Shoshanah Torberg

Parshat Toldot

We see in our earliest Jewish ancestors a mirror of the kind of lives we live and also those we aim to live. They are not paragons of virtue or ideal heroes to whom we could never compare ourselves.


Instead, they are flawed and troubled, boring and lacking, and they struggle. They yearn, they grow and they are each, in all things, inimitably themselves.

In Parshat Toldot we are tempted to look at the life of Jacob, his struggles with his twin, Esau and the source and story of our namesake of struggle. We are Jacob. We are Israel. And we wear this name with pride. And, we are the people of Abraham — the venerable, adventurous, entrepreneurial, visionary grandfather. But, even so, we are and we also must be in every age an Isaac.

What does it mean to be Isaac? What does it mean to be Yitzchak — the one of quiet, mundane laughter? What do we know of his life, and what does this life tell us of who we are and who we need to be?

We live in a time and place that lauds the lone adventurer. We glorify individuality, initiative and celebrity. Looking around us, it can seem that a life of meaning needs to be a life of fame and renown; of travel and the largeness of the world; and the largeness of ourselves within it.

And this view gains strength in our Abrahamic story. Abraham is the father with the wisdom and vision to leave his land. He is the maverick that hears the voice of God, gains a following, amasses great wealth and builds a religion. He is the progenitor of the generations that will come. He leads in the way of leaders. From the helm.

This view gains strength in the story of Jacob.

Jacob is wily and adept, finding a way to the front of the line of heritage through cunning and strategic positioning. He has chutzpah, and he is daring, stealing first the birthright and then the blessing, duping both his brother and his father. While we chafe at the limitations of our father Israel, we know he reflects the wisdom of situational politics, deep theological knowledge, and the capacity to grow both in personality and in wealth and offspring. We are proud to be his children. He, too, leads from the helm.

We tell these stories again and again.

But, what of Isaac? Does he merely hold the place between these two great patriarchs, allowing the genetic line to pass? What is his role? What is the meaning of his life as we peer at him in the mirror? What does the look in his eyes tell us of our own task? Our own story?

Let us look at grandfather Isaac’s life.

We know that he is separated from his brother Ishmael by his mother Sarah’s demand. Sarah does not like the way that Ishmael is “playing” with Isaac. We do not know for sure the nature of this play. Perhaps it was destructive and abusive, but perhaps, too, she merely feared that Isaac would lose his inheritance to the child of her slave woman.

We know that Isaac is brought to the mountain. He is brought by his God-blinded father whose eye exceeds his heart, set as it is on that point in the distance. We never hear of their reuniting nor of their conversation down the mountain. They are forever severed by the interrupted knife.

Isaac reunites with Ishmael to bury their father. They reunite to share old wounds and to dwell with the unspoken that still lay between them. We do not hear that Isaac brings grand words or dramatic actions to the burial. Their task is burial. No other. Isaac emerges from the mountain not to invent or to innovate. He arrives to do what is to be done.

He marries, too. A Rebecca with whom to be reckoned. She assumes the mantle of crafting events and birthing the big picture of history. He intercedes for her with God to rectify her barrenness. He never leaves the land of his birth, settling in the land of Gerar.

The text in chapter 26 reads, “In that area Isaac sowed seed, and in that year he received a hundredfold, for Adonai blessed him. The man grew rich, and he went on growing all the richer until he was exceedingly rich. He had herds of sheep and herds of cattle, and a large body of servants, so that the Philistines envied him, and the Philistines stopped up the wells that his father’s servants had dug up in the time of his father Abraham, filling them with rubble.” (vv. 12-15)

Abimelech [King of the Philistines] then exiles Isaac from the area, because of the wealth and number that Isaac has achieved. Isaac re-digs the wells of his father, Abraham, and gives them the same names that Abraham had given them. Further, Isaac’s servants find more living waters and dig more wells. These are contested until, finally, they are able to dig far enough away from competing households to be free to build a future.

Exciting tales are not made of digging and re-digging wells. But, water is the lifeblood of future and possibility. Action-packed stories are not made of the life of the one who stays home his whole, long life. It would be easy to dismiss the sweep of Isaac’s life as that of an inauspicious place-holder of the family line.

But this interpretation fails to see the meaning peering back at us through the mirror: We are called not only to create, but also to conserve. We are called not only to celebrate the new, but also to fortify that which has come before. This story does not get top billing, but is a quiet heroism without which there can be no setting out on a grand journey. Adventurers arrive at the mountaintop, because someone did the work of preparing food for the journey.

Though our journey begins with Abraham setting forth, if Isaac does not unstop the wells, the story will cease. If we stop tending to the day-to-day moments of meaning and mundane holiness that support our grand schemes, then all we build will crumble.

May we cultivate and nurture kindness, chesed and compassion in our daily world. From all our unsung acts, we may grow as a people and heal a world. 

Rabbi Shoshanah Torberg is a rabbi at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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