A Chip Off the Old Block
This week’s Torah portion is dominated by the conflict between twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. Lost in the drama however are other events that also appear in the parsha. While much has been written and discussed regarding 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’s the only episode in Isaac’s life where he isn’t a co-star to someone else or some other event. Only here does he take center-stage acting on his own accord. 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’s the Akeida, where he is bound by his father as a sacrifice, or whether it’s the events unfolding 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 figure 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 faced with an identical problem. Isaac does the exact same thing that Abraham did when faced with the same dilemma. 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 even God seems to emphasize his lack of individuality; that he is but a carbon copy of his father?
But in fact, it’s Isaac’s non-personality that makes him one of our greatest 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 that time and place during those initial stages of the creation of Jewish history and destiny.
Abraham was the trendsetter. He was the radical monotheist that introduced the novel concept of One God and all its implications to those around him. Abraham got the ball rolling and became the man with whom God would make a world-changing covenant. He is the founding father of the business in its most literal sense.
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 his enthusiasm, hard work and charisma, it’s 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 its driving force? He might get too old to continue or gone altogether, then the kids or disciples take over, and everything soon goes south.
The second generation always has a tough act to follow. It’s a thankless task and takes incredible will-power, discipline, strength and humility to keep afloat the initial successes of the previous generation. 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 at Stage 2, whatever greatness was accomplished up until that point ends up on the trash heap of good ideas and one-hit wonders.
It’s an important lesson since we all know that to simply continue, to keep what was before intact, 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.
Our rabbis tell us that each of the forefathers had a main character trait and Isaac’s was Gevurah – Power or Strength. 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 and took much self-discipline, will-power and Gevurah.
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 of 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 radically change 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.”