Were we to compare our patriarchs’ impact on Judaism, Isaac would be a distant third. First place is a tie between his father Abraham, the champion of faith and hospitality, and his son Jacob, the spiritual wrestler. Isaac’s problem lies in how few columns in the Torah are devoted to him. Other than having survived the trauma of the Akedah, the information in parashat Toldot, is basically it. Isaac is best summed up as his father’s son and his son’s father. Like Abraham, Isaac experiences a famine and has his wife taken by a king. Like Jacob, Isaac’s future wife is discovered at a well. Even in Toldot which begins: This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac, the focus shifts in the very next verse to what will develop as Jacob’s story rather than the tale of Isaac.
Yet Isaac is not a passive individual; he accomplishes much and is a singular figure. Isaac is the only patriarch never to set foot outside the Promised Land; he is also the only patriarch whose name was never changed. Genesis 26 is the one chapter that focuses on Isaac. He sets about consolidating the foundations established by his father: building altars, unstopping wells originally dug by Abraham and digging new ones.
One could assume that Isaac stayed close to home because it was safe. He had had enough of adventure that time his father schlepped him up a mountain and bound him on the altar. But staying put was God’s idea. During the famine God instructs him: “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs- inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.” (Genesis 26:2-5) Even here, with this blessing, Isaac himself seems unimportant. Everything that is being done on his behalf is thanks to his father.
It therefore comes as a surprise that Isaac has a strong sense of identity, moreso than other figures in the Torah. This is dramatically brought to light by a few words that Isaac exchanges with Jacob, the original identity thief, who sets out to trick his father by disguising himself as his brother, Esau: He went to his father and said, “Father.” And he said, “Yes, who are you, my son?” (Gen. 27:18) Isaac asks – mi ata – “who are you,” a simple yet profound question.
This exchange carries echoes of a previous conversation that took place a generation earlier as Isaac climbed Mount Moriah with his father Abraham: Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.”(Gen. 22:7) The only difference in the two exchanges are the words mi ata – “who are you.”
…Isaac is often characterized as being merely the son of the great father and the father of the great son—a generational transition between Abraham and Jacob. He is not thought to be very substantial, forceful, or important. Yet, in his response to Jacob we see him in a different light.
Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives, Jewish Lights, 1995, pp. 107-108
Mi ata is Isaac’s personal gift to Jacob, it is the question of inner identity and moral behavior that Jacob will need to answer with each interaction he faces beginning with this encounter with his father. While trying to steal an identity, Jacob was presented with the challenge of shaping one instead.
Mi ata, “who are you?” is the question that challenges us daily; it is the eternal Jewish question.
Isaac and Jacob represent two different answers. Isaac’s identity has always been linked to the land of Israel. He built up and improved on his father’s groundwork. He found blessing, comfort and spiritual sustenance in his ties to the land. The very action of unstopping wells and digging up new ones is symbolic: As Yalkut Shimoni (Shir 537) teaches: the Torah is a well of living waters.
Jacob must leave home to discover who he is. His will be a long journey, one of constant wrestling between his identity as Jacob and as Israel. His connection to God only forms when he leaves home, and though he eventually returns, limping home, he ends his days in Egypt.
We as their descendants continue along the path of the ever-forming Jewish identity.
Are we shaped by beliefs and values? What roles is played by heritage, history, environment, experience, education? Is there an interplay of different factors? DO we share a national consciousness?
A recent analysis by the Jewish People Policy Institute compared Pew research studies on Israeli and American Jews, as well as conducting its own survey. Among its findings is that most Jews defined their “Jewishness” as a matter of culture, nationality or ancestry. “Taking care of other Jews and Israel,” “working to better the world” are seen by us as essential to being Jewish. “Studying Jewish texts, history and culture,” less so, “keeping the laws of Torah are at the bottom” for all but the Orthodox. For non-Orthodox Israelis, religion as a primary component of Judaism was significantly less than for all other groups.
Throughout our personal lives and our people’s existence we are constantly challenged by Isaac’s question-mi ata– “who are you.” Some of us dig wells and others wrestle internally. The critical elements are the implements we use to shape our identity: Can we do so without the basic tools of texts, history and culture? How we respond to mi ata determines not only whether we endure but if we thrive.
Rabbi Michal Shekel is the executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of Congregation Har Tikvah in Brampton, Ontario, Canada.