A Chip Off the Old Block
This week’s Torah portion is dominated by the conflict between twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. Lost in this drama however is a small story that also appears in the parsha. While much has been written about the ethics and meaning behind Jacob’s purchase of Esau’s firstborn rights, and the deception that was employed by Jacob and his mother to secure the blessings from father Isaac, very little attention is given to the seemingly innocuous story that appears in between these two events.
The interlude is unique since it is the only episode in the Torah which speaks of Isaac where he is not a co-star to someone or something else, but on center stage acting on his own. In all other instances where we read of Isaac, he is being acted upon as an almost silent recipient of the doings of others. Whether it is the Akeida, where he is being bound by his father as a sacrifice, or whether it is the events found in this week’s parsha where he is a passive force being manipulated by his wife and son, Isaac is not an independent and active party but a passive one. With this interruption we finally have a lone story of Isaac doing things on his own without anyone else and being his own man.
And what does the Torah finally tell us about this man? It relates that there was a famine in Israel, “aside from the first famine that occurred in the days of Abraham” and Isaac’s reaction to it. He moves to another locale, which happens to be the same place that his father went to when he had the same problem of being forced to move elsewhere. Isaac does the exact same thing that his father Abraham does: he begs his wife to claim to be his sister in order to avoid being killed. The ruse is discovered, like it was with Abraham, and he makes a treaty with the leader, Avimelech, just as his father did. After this, we are told of how Isaac dug up the exact same wells that Abraham had excavated, which had since been stopped up. Isaac proceeds to give names to the wells and guess what he names them? Yup you guessed it, “And he (Isaac) named them the same names that his father had named them.” (26:18).
Lest you thought that poor Isaac is bringing this living-in-the-shadow-of-dad persona upon himself, listen to how the Torah narrates God’s promise to him:
Live in this land and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your offspring will I give all these lands. I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father and I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring because Abraham obeyed My voice…
That’s right, Isaac, you have nothing to do with all these blessings and promises of grandeur – they will all happen thanks to your dear old dad whom God initially made the promises with and “because Abraham obeyed My voice”. Poor guy, how is he supposed to forge an identity for himself when God Himself seems to pound home his non-status and lack of individuality?
The truth however, is that it is Isaac’s non-personality that makes him one of our great leaders and gives him a very pivotal role in the future of our people. Isaac did exactly what his father did because that was precisely what was needed at this time and place during these initial stages of the creation of Jewish history and destiny.
Abraham was the trendsetter. He was the radical monotheist that introduced to those around him and all of mankind this novel concept of One God and all its implications. Abraham got the ball rolling and became the man with whom God would make a world-changing covenant.
But we all know what happens when a son attempts to take over and continue Dad’s super-successful business. Lacking the same creativity of Dad who initiated it all with enthusiasm, hard work and charisma, it is no wonder failure almost always ensues when the kids assume the reins. How often have we seen a company or organization tank once the founder can no longer be the engine and driving force, and the kids or disciples take over?
The second generation is a very tough and thankless task and takes incredible will-power, discipline, strength and humility to keep afloat the initial success of the previous, founding fathers and mothers. Status quo is often a crucial link to the continuity of something great and successful. Status quo can never be the ultimate goal, but without it in stage two, whatever greatness was accomplished up until that point ends up on the trash heap of good ideas and one-hit wonders.
It is an important life lesson since we all know that the ability to merely continue, to keep what was, is crucial to any life endeavor and success. Starting a diet and following it on the first day or two is not the challenge. Sticking with it into the second, third, fourth and subsequent weeks is the hard part.
Isaac is the least spoken about forefather because his task was not one that demanded the limelight the way his father did. His job was to exhibit the strength of character necessary to continue Abraham’s legacy beyond one generation and thereby set it firmly in place for all future generations to build upon. The fact that he accomplished the same things that his father did was precisely his goal and purpose. It alone was a phenomenal achievement in its own right.
Great people are not always the ones animated by the charismatic Abraham figures. Often they are the quiet Isaac-type who go about their business in a solid and consistent manner, forming the bedrock of our societies, of our communities and our families. Isaac was the consummate “chip off the old block” indeed – one that provided the necessary material and foundation to build a nation that would end up radically changing the course of history for all time.
And he was talkin’ before I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”