Parashat Toldot: The Conservative Patriarch

My father once explained the character of the biblical Isaac by quoting Abraham Mendelssohn.

He was a successful banker whose father was the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and whose son was the great composer Felix Mendelssohn. Later in life he lamented: “For the first half of my life I was known as my father’s son; the second half of my life I was known as the father of my son ”.

Isaac was the son of Abraham, founder of the Jewish faith and father of Jacob, source of the 12 tribes that became Israel. The two most notable events in Isaac’s life are the times when he was acted upon, not the active agent. The first is the akedah, when his father takes him to Mount Moriah as a sacrifice, and the second is when his son Jacob, in collaboration with Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, deceives him and takes Esau’s birthright. Even when next week’s parsha begins with “This is Isaac’s legacy,” it continues to say, “Abraham begot Isaac,” suggesting that his legacy is his father.

What are we supposed to learn from the life of Isaac? Isaac had a fundamental contribution to make these threads run through various aspects of his life. Isaac is the conservative principle, the preserver, the paradigm of continuity. Abraham has created something new. The question is whether Abraham’s innovation will endure. In both overt and subtle ways, Isaac consolidates what has been created. Since we live in an age where everyone is concerned about disruption and innovation, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of preserving what previous generations have forged.

Isaac exemplifies the idea of ​​creating a legacy of unbroken coherence.

In Chapter 26 are contained two of the characteristics of Isaac’s life that highlight his character. Isaac reopened the wells first dug by his father Abraham (26:18). This is a powerful symbol of the importance of continuity. The Philistines had plugged the wells, but instead of digging new ones, Isaac restores the old ones. A few verses earlier, God instructs Isaac not to go down to Egypt. Isaac is the only patriarch who does not leave the land of Israel. Abraham has been taken to a new land. Your son shows that his father’s choice can nurture a life.

Isaac is also the only one of the patriarchs whose name does not change. Abram becomes Abraham.

Jacob becomes Israel. Isaac is always Isaac. One explanation for this is that God names it and therefore the name never needs to change. However, it is also consistent with Isaac’s character, which is steadfast, conservative, a life of preservation, not innovation. Even their marriage is traditional in the sense that it is arranged and, unlike Jacob and Abraham, Isaac does not have a concubine.

Surely someone of Isaac’s stature has some innovation? Yes. Mincha, the afternoon service.

Isaac comes on to the field lasauch planadeh.

‘Esau and Jacob Reconcile’, by Italian painter Francesco Hayez, 1844. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The word lasuach is a hapax legomenon, a word used only once in the entire Tanakh. Rashi connects it with Psalm 102: 1 and says it is the language of prayer. Rashi is abbreviating a Talmudic discussion (Ber. 26b) that interprets the word in the sense of conversation (as in modern Hebrew – sichah). Who could Isaac be conversing with when alone? It must be a dialogue with God.

Even Isaac’s innovation is a symbol of continuity. God initiated the dialogue with Abraham and Isaac, in his fearful style, he assures that it will be a dialogue through the ages. Isaac keeps his name, his land, his family inheritance, and his connection to God. Abraham and Jacob may have burned hotter, but Isaac was the keeper of the flame.

The writer is Max Webb, Chief Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and author of David the Divided Heart. On twitter: @rabbiwolpe.

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