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Who is Yitzchak?
Thereis an oblique Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis Parsha 63:3) that leads us to a fundamental question. Avram is called Avraham, Yitzchak is called Avraham as it says “And these are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham… (Bereishis 25:19)”. In the continuation of that Midrash it teaches how all of the Avos are called Yisrael, Ya’akov is called Yisrael as it says “Your name will no longer be Ya’akov rather it will be Yisrael” (Bereishis 32:29), Yitzchak is called Yisrael as it says “And these are the names of the children of Yisrael who came to Mitzrayim, Ya’akov…” (Shmos 1:1). If we make the calculation, what emerges is that Yitzchak was called Avraham and he was also called Yisrael. This assumedly means that Yitzchak’s identity was subsumed within the identity of his father and that of his son. Where does that leave Yitzchak’s own personal identity as an individual? It goes without saying that this Midrash is not referring simply to the names of the individuals in question, nor is the Midrash insinuating that these people had identity complexes. The Midrash is dealing with the purpose and function of the development of each of these Avos in the overall preparations and advancements necessary to produce the Jewish people. Avraham played a crucial role in developing the “Avraham” part of the distinct Jewish spirit, Yitzchak aided in that as well. All three of the Avos aided in the production of the “Yisrael” aspect of the Jewish soul. The fundamental question is how did our sages see the development of the Jewish spirit specifically unique and specifically ascribed to Yitzchak?
A Farmer by Trade!
The Torah has surprisingly little to say about the life of Yitzchak. In parshas Vayeira the Torah makes allusions to Yitzchak’s character as he travels with his father to his own sacrifice. In Chayeh Sarah we are privy to learn that Yitzchak spent time at Be’er Lchai Ro’i and that he davened Mincha in the field. In this weeks parsha we find the lion’s share of the “life story” of Yitzchak. The two main elements are that Yitzchak lived and dealt with Avimelech and the Plishtim and managed to not only earn their respect but out of all of the Avos he clearly had the greatest position of control and security in the land with regards to the Plishtim. Yitzchak planted seeds and received an unusual bracha of one hundred times more than what he planted. He became extremely wealthy in the land to the point where the Plishtim asked him to move away from town so that he wouldn’t single handedly, cut into all of their trade and business attempts to the point of bankruptcy. The Netziv points out that of all of the Avos this aspect is unique to Yitzchak that he lived in the land of Yisrael for his whole life, and he achieved unimaginable success here. In this way he is a model for how there will be Jews in the future who will live in the land and achieve such success physically and materially that they will be well founded and not have to leave the land.
The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim 88a teaches that each one of the Patriarchs had a different approach to experiencing their individual connection to G-d. Avraham related to the service of G-d as “climbing a mountain”, Yitzchak related to the service of G-d as “working the field”, and Yakov related to the service of G-d as “dwelling in a house”. Avraham was the first one to dedicate himself completely to the service of G-d. He was constantly growing, striving for higher and higher levels of closeness to G-d. This experience was like climbing a mountain. You always feel there is more to do, more to achieve. That fact itself motivates you to go further. The climb itself is the factor that generates excitement. Yitzchak experiences the service of G-d like working the field. The motivating factor that ignites Yitzchak’s service is the give and take. Man exerts energy and resources and G-d reciprocates with blessing. This element of working and receiving is what distinguishes Yitzchak’s service more than anything else. Yakov experiences the service of G-d as dwelling in a house. A person feels totally at ease and secure when in the confines of his own home. Yakov is motivated to serve G-d because of the closeness and security that is palpable through clinging to his ways. It is not the work or the give and take but the ultimate result, the cleaving itself, that motivates him. This is a very useful characterization for understanding the contribution of each one of the Avos. It also helps particularly well in terms of understanding Yitzchak and what the Torah has to say about him.
A Well Digger Too!
Yitzchak moved away from the Plishtim and the next main element of his “life story” was that he reopened the wells that Avraham had dug but that the Plishtim had blocked up. The Torah teaches us that everything in the physical world has a correspondence in the spiritual realm. What does well digging correspond to in the spiritual realm? Water is the source of life. Many times our connection to this source of life is completely hidden or even blocked. Digging wells is to open up and make useful our connection to this source. Our sages make allusion to a number of things that were really going on at a deeper level with regards to digging these wells. One is that the wells represent the three Batei Mikdash. In the Midrash we find that he either opened four or five wells. The opinion that says four understands that this “reopening” has to do with the four encampments of Klal Yisrael in the desert. The opinion that says he opened five understands that these wells are a prelude to the Five Books of Moses. This certainly thickens the plot. Of the three Avos clearly the Torah provides the least detail about Yitzchak’s life. His contribution seems to have been subsumed in “essence” by that of Avraham and that of Yisrael. Yet we find that in his opening of the wells he is spiritually opening the possibility for the Five Books of Moses, the Four Encampments of Klal Yisrael in the desert, and the three Batei Mikdashos. Not bad for a no-name forefather!
Boiling it down, Yitzchak was nothing but an extension of his father and a conduit to his son. This is his contribution, the inner fortitude to control himself and nullify himself completely to being a conduit of blessing from his father to his descendants. He reopened the wells that his father dug, and in doing so he allowed the next generation to benefit from this connection. Avraham developed the initial connection to all of these spiritual accomplishments and benefits, he just wasn’t able to actualize and concretize them in the physical world for the sake of his descendants. Yisrael and his children are the one’s who took all of these accomplishments and benefits and made them real, they brought them to full fruition in the physical world. But Yisrael never could have generated these accomplishments on his own within the spiritual realm, which was Avraham’s role. Yitzchak is the bridge, he is the one who carried the accomplishments and benefits generated by his father down from the spiritual realm, and made the access to them in the physical world a permanent possibility. Yisrael and his sons drew the water for ever more, in a figurative sense.
This is why the parsha puts such emphasis and detail on the blessings that Yitzchak gives to his sons. We find many passages in the Torah of people giving blessings to their descendants but this one stands out in it’s centrality as being not only a function of time or of situation but one that is an essential component of character. Yitzchak gives blessings. The whole parsha centers around this event and frames it as an event that was linked directly to the fact that Yitzchak was a farmer and a well digger, other aspects of his essential character rather than things he happened to do. In the end of Parshas Chayeh Sarah the verse says “And Avraham gave everything he had to Yitzchak” (Bereishis 25:5). Rashi picks up on the nuance of the verse “et kol” – Avraham gave “the kol” –i.e. “the everything” that G-d had blessed him with in the earlier part of Chayeh Sarah as it says “And Avraham was old and he came with his days, and G-d blessed Avraham with everything” – “kol” (Bereishis 24:1). This blessing of “kol” Avraham then gave to Yitzchak. Rashi on the verse in 25:5 says that G-d said to Avraham you will have all of the blessings of the world in your hand to bestow on whom you wish. Avraham then turned and gave that ability to “give brachos” to his son Yitzchak.
Yitzchak had two sons Esav and Ya’akov. Even from the womb these two boys exhibited vastly different natures. As the Midrash expounds that “the boys agitated in her womb” that means that when Rivkah would pass by the house of Torah study Yakov would push to get out, and when she would pass by a house of idol worship Esav would push to get out. After birth these respective natures continued to play themselves out.
Yakov was simple and pure by nature. He found satisfaction in spiritual pursuits, to the extent that he would spend most of his time studying and contemplating the ways of G-d. He developed a sterling character from a very young age, and he was destined for greatness in following in the ways of his father and grandfather. The Torah says that he was “tam” – simple. He was not looking for power and fame; he was satisfied with himself and the beauty of life in its simplest form.
Esav, on the other hand, was a hunter he was constantly out in the field trapping animals. At first glance it seems a bit disjointed that the first element of Esav’s innate nature expressed itself in pushing to go the house of idol worship and the later expression of that nature was to gravitate towards hunting. What is hunting? Certainly Esav’s preoccupation with hunting went far beyond the purpose of self preservation. If someone is in a situation where he must hunt in order to catch food so that he may live there is certainly no issue in that. Esav came from a home with plenty. Yitzchak was very wealthy and successful; there was no shortage of food in the home. Esav was hunting not because he needed to but because he wanted to. What was it about hunting that drew him so much? He needed to express his superiority over the creation. Initially this can be satisfied by hunting and utilizing the capacities of man to trap the animal and rob it of its natural freedom. Ultimately that doesn’t satisfy the need any longer and the animal has to be killed and its blood spilled because this taking of the life force itself is what provides the feeling of superiority. Our sages teach us that Esav was not only involved in the early stages of this need he ultimately developed the full spectrum of behaviors that this tendency leads to in its ultimate form, he reached murder of other human beings, rape and other extreme expressions of the need to feel control and superiority over any other entity that poses a challenge. This attitude is the foundation of all idol worship. The premise behind idol worship is that G-d created a vast universe. He set up intermediaries and powers to distribute the Divine Energy down into this world. Rather than subjugate my entire being to the infinite G-d it is much easier to maintain my self identity and expend effort in manipulating the intermediaries that G-d put into the world. The whole format of idol worship than is to maintain rigid self definition to the extent that I exercise that over various aspects of creation in the hopes that this power will fall under my grasp and I can use it to serve me in whatever way I please.
The Hidden Blessing
From in the womb it is clear that these two offspring, Ya’akov and Esav, would be set against one another in the world. Ya’akov was given his name because he was grabbing on to the heel of Esav to prevent him from coming out of the womb first. When Rivkah went to the house of Shem and Ever to ask them why she was experiencing such unusual pregnancy difficulties they told her that two kingdoms are in your stomach and two nations from your womb shall part, they will constantly be tied and at odds with one another and the great one will serve the younger one. What are they competing for? What is at stake? The Netziv points out that at the end of the parsha just before Yitzchak sends Ya’akov away to the house of Lavan to find a wife he says “And God will bless you and multiply you and make you a great nation, And He shall bestow on you the blessing of Avraham to you and your children with you to inherit the land of your upbringing that G-d gave to Avraham” (Bereishis 28:4). From this verse it is clear that one way or another, the legacy of the bracha of Avraham that passed down to Yitzchak is being passed now to Ya’akov. This blessing which is designated for those people, who accept upon themselves full responsibility to ensure that the spiritual purpose of the world and all of humanity be achieved, was never up for grabs. This was clearly both in the eyes of Yitzchak and the eyes of Rivkah, only meant for their son Yakov who was the carrier of this mission.
Fighting for Control of the Material Realm
What was up for grabs was the blessing regarding the material and physical element of life. Yitzchak had always hoped that Esav, whose name “made” – asui indicated that from day one he was the one who could gain dominion over the physical world. He could, if he were to put his mind and heart to the task, channel all of the resources of the world in such a way that they would produce full support for Ya’akov to be able to fulfill his mission in this world. Had Esav overcome his innate nature, and reached for his true potential he could have been the ultimate partner together with Ya’akov to bring the world both physically – Esav, and spiritually – Ya’akov to its full perfection. Esav however, wanted to have the control and superiority in this physical and material world without that world having any connection to the spiritual responsibility of humanity. He wanted to detach the privilege from the responsibility.
On one level it seems that the very dichotomy there was in their father Yitzchak got equally distributed between the two children. On the one hand Yitzchak is almost not there as an individual, he is totally bound to tapping in to those amazing levels of achievement that his father revealed to him in the spiritual world, on the other hand he is fully active in bringing those blessings down to earth and making them available to his own children as both physical and spiritual synthesis. Ya’akov clearly took the natural role of being the conduit through which the spiritual potential and achievements would be realized, Esav was supposed to be the one who would aide and facilitate and nurture these attempts and help them reach full actualization in the physical world as well. In the end Ya’akov had to accept upon himself to do both, Esav cashed in his chips completely. Do we really understand Esav? Is the portrait the Torah wants us to draw of him that of a savage hunter who lost all touch with himself and with civilization? Did he join a band of warriors and spend his life roaming around raping and pillaging? Eventually he settled down and many great and prominent nations descended from him. If Esav eventually married women and took part in building the world and producing offspring what was his message, what were his values that he passed on to the next generation?
Ultimately Esav normalized and he came to realize what he was looking for and what he believed in. Perhaps the most distinguishing remark Esav ever made was in his complaint to his father about how Yakov swindled the brachos away from him. He says “this is why they called my brother Yakov for he has swindled me these two times, he tricked me into selling him the first born right and now he has taken my bracha”. In Hebrew the word for bracha – blessing and the word for bechora – the first born right are formed with the exact same letters. The Zohar teaches that bracha and bechora are really two sides of the same coin. This was Esav’s point of contention. He was unwilling to accept that the blessing – the privileges go hand in hand with service and work – the first born right. We shouldn’t think that Esav was just stupid or belligerent; to the contrary his mind was quite brilliant. Our sages teach that the head of Esav is buried in the cave of Machpeilah. Only a limb or body that was of the utmost completion can have the merit to be buried there. Clearly our picture of who Esav is has to take this into consideration. We are dealing with one of the greatest minds that ever passed through the world. His challenge was not in his mind it was in his heart. He couldn’t let go of his drives and instinctual passion for power and superiority. What Esav passed on to his children is a belief that the world both on the macro and micro level is essentially there to be conquered. G-d wants man to conquer the world and exercise his superiority over it. Why else would he have created us with that capability?
In the end Esav is not taking responsibility for bringing the world to its completion. He wants to live in a system where whatever he gains control over is his and he can reap the pleasure and benefit that is has to offer. God made the world for this purpose. Ultimately in some warped kind of way Esav thinks he is taking responsibility for the world but in truth he is just trying to gain control over it for his own purposes. If humanity happens to benefit along the way then so be it. Ya’akov gets the blessings of the spiritual legacy of Avraham and of Yitzchak because he accepts responsibility for fixing the world, a process that he can only figure out by contemplating and grasping the will of G-d who created the universe. Because Esav has chosen a course of self aggrandizement Ya’akov not only has this responsibility but he also gets the tangible material privileges of choosing such a path.
Understanding the Link
It is irresponsible to deal with the different perspectives of Ya’akov and Esav that emerge in this parsha without exploring the deeper root of the issues between them. Ultimately the main difference between them is whether taking responsibility for the world and deriving benefits from the world are inherently linked. Ya’akov recognizes that the two are inseparable.
Esav takes no interest in the spiritual realm at all. The spiritual realm is too ephemeral to be concerned with. The material realm is where all the realities of the world play themselves out and thus, this is where a person’s main efforts and interests should be expressed. Within the material realm as a detached entity, there is no reason to assume that there should be a link between taking responsibility for the world and deriving benefit from it. Taking care of the world we live in may help to preserve, sustain, and organize the available resources but it certainly won’t give you any more direct benefit from the world. In other words, why expend energy trying to fix the world and make it better, when you could be busy conquering it and amassing its various resources for yourself. In no way does involvement in fixing or preserving the world entitle you to derive more benefit from it. That is an unjustifiable and unsustainable slogan, that people will perpetuate for the sake of the common good, but only to the extent that they still feel that doing so isn’t minimizing the slice of the pie that they feel they are entitled to. Therefore the crucial element to unlinking responsibility from entitlement comes from ignoring the spiritual realm completely. The word Esav in Hebrew is from the root “asah” – made or done. Our sages point out that Esav was born “as a made man”. He was endowed with great physical and material agility and acumen; he never felt he needed to develop his spiritual side at all. This led to the statement he makes at the end of the parsha in screaming angst “first he took my bechora and now he has taken my bracha”. Why should responsibility and entitlement to benefit have any link?
Ya’akov on the other hand was born grabbing the heel of Esav. His name is formed from the same root in the Hebrew language for “heel”. The heel is the lowest part of the body. Yakov was born looking at his physical and material side as the lowest and yet still necessary part of his towering spiritual form. To him the spiritual dimension is vivid and real, there is nothing ephemeral about it at all. The physical realm is deeply imbued in every detail with spiritual elements. Everything that happens down here is bound to the spiritual realm and its workings. Within this view taking responsibility for the world – “tikun haolam”, can’t be achieved while ignoring the spiritual realm. You can’t freely associate the term tikun haolam with any human rights or environmental preservation issue you wish regardless of the spiritual and moral implications of the matter and at the same time assuage yourself that you are truly making a difference in the world. Within Yaakov’s view tikun haolam is meant in the absolute sense not in the figurative sense. As a result when undertaking a task in fixing the world, it has to be clear that this is truly aligned with the spiritual realities that exist in the world. Once a person is dealing with such an undertaking then he is actually involved in sustaining and fixing the world in the absolute sense, considering both the spiritual and physical ramifications of everything he does. This certainly entitles the person involved to benefit from the world that he has helped to maintain.