By: Rabbi Danny Burkeman,
“The Rebound Patriarch”
In one of my earlier jobs, my arrival
coincided with the Chief Executive moving on to take on new challenges in
another sector. There was a great deal of disappointment surrounding this man’s
departure as he was highly respected within the community, and had really
helped to elevate the organization within the community. In the couple of weeks
in which we overlapped I found him to be an impressive orator, very charismatic
and generally a good guy. His successor really did have ‘big shoes to fill’.
And in many ways it is not surprising that this new CEO’s tenure was rather
short-lived, as the organization failed to adjust to a new man at the helm. In
relationship terms he was a ‘rebound Chief Executive’ and paved the way for a
new person to come in and establish themselves as the longer term successor.
Following a larger than life personality can
be a daunting challenge, and often the immediate successor is doomed to failure
as their predecessor’s shadow looms large. This happens in business, it happens
in relationships and I would suggest it also happens in the Torah.
Isaac is our rebound Patriarch, sandwiched as
he is between Abraham and Jacob. Abraham is the person with whom God first made
the covenant, and Jacob is the man who becomes Israel, after whom we are named.
Isaac sits in between the two and holds on to the baton for only a few chapters
before passing it on to his son.
Isaac, the promised son for whom Sarah and
Abraham waited, has a difficult beginning to his story. He first loses his
half-brother, Ishmael, who was expelled after Isaac’s weaning party (Genesis
21:8-10). His relationship with his father is next broken after Abraham
attempts to sacrifice him atop Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-18). And following
this break with his father, his mother dies almost immediately (Genesis 23:2).
The one source of comfort for Isaac appears to be his wife Rebecca, delivered
to him by Abraham’s servant towards the end of last week’s Torah portion.
This week our Torah portion begins with the
birth of Esau and Jacob, and it concludes with Isaac’s blessing of Jacob as his
successor in God’s covenant. Isaac only has one section in which he is the
centre of attention, and not the son of Abraham or the father of Jacob. And yet
in these few verses he offers us an important lesson in contrast to either his
father or his son.
According to the text Isaac was a successful
farmer: ‘he sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And
Adonai blessed him, and the man became rich’ (Genesis 26:12-13). However, his
success created envy amongst the Philistines, and they blocked up the wells
which had been dug by Abraham’s servants (Genesis 26:14-15). Isaac was faced
with a difficult choice: he could have fought to reassert his claim over the
land and the wells; Avimelech, the king, even acknowledged ‘you are mightier
than we’ (Genesis 26:16). But instead Isaac chose the path of peace, and simply
moved his flock and his family to new pastures.
However, despite his continued success in the
well digging business, the locals were still resistant towards him, and ‘the
herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdsmen’ (Genesis 26:20), disputing the
ownership of the wells. This was not the end of Isaac’s struggle, and for a
third time he dug wells, and for a third time the locals challenged him, and
caused trouble. And yet, rather than fight, each time Isaac simply moved his
community and looked for a new place to establish himself and his family.
Finally, he was able to dig a well, which he
named Rehovot, and there was no fighting or strife with the locals, and Isaac
declared ‘now Adonai has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land’
One could view Isaac as weak, lacking the
stomach for a fight or to stand up against a local bully. However, the benefit
of his strategy is present in the text. Following his successful resettlement,
God appears to him and offers him a blessing (Genesis 26:24). This blessing is
followed by the return of King Avimelech, the man who had first requested Isaac
to uproot and leave. This time there is no suggestion of a fight, and instead
Avimelech requests ‘let us make a covenant with you’ (Genesis 26:28). Isaac’s
approach yields a peace treaty with his former rival, and concludes with a
feast, where the two were able to eat and drink together (Genesis 26:30).
Isaac’s story is not as exciting as that of
either Abraham or Jacob; it lacks the action and the excitement of our other
Patriarchs. But Isaac, in his own quiet way, as our middle Patriarch, offers a
path which brought blessings and peace.
Throughout his life Isaac faced challenges
from within his family and from outside. But throughout his life he found ways
to build bridges and avoid conflict. He did not fight, not because he was weak,
but because he possessed an inner strength. It took bravery and courage to
at the start of his life, and it took
bravery and courage to uproot his family each time. And in the end, this
rebound Patriarch’s bravery and courage were rewarded with the ultimate
blessing of peace.