By: Rabbi Richard G Lampert, Rabbi Emeritus,
North Shore Temple Emanuel
, Chatswood, NSW, Australia
This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac
”(Genesis 25: 19). Our sages hold that there is nothing superfluous in the Torah – if something is repeated, there must be a reason for the repetition. Surely there is repetition in the opening sentence of this week’s sedra. If Isaac was the son of Abraham, then surely Abraham must have begat Isaac!
So why the repetition? There are so many explanations – but the one I wish to share with our readers this week is that sometimes points need to be stressed.
When we pray, we acknowledge all our founding ancestors: “
We praise You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah and God of Rachel
”. Yet we know that Abraham, whose name we give to those who choose to become Jews (ben/bat Avraham Avinu), was a dominant figure in his time and in our history. Jacob, later called Israel, was likewise a dominant figure; after all, we are termed “
– the Children of Israel.”
So where does Isaac fit into this picture? One is reminded of the giant of 18th century Jewry, Moses Mendelsohn. Everyone knows the name of his 19th century grandson, the great composer Felix Bartholdy Mendelsohn – yet there are very few who know the name of Moses’s son or of Felix’s father. (I believe it was Abraham, but I’m not too sure!). Moses Mendelsohn is known because of the power of his intellect and his work in inspiring the
or Enlightenment movement; Felix is renowned for his beautiful music. For what is Abraham renowned? For begetting Felix and providing the genetic link between Moses and Felix and for little else! And so it is with Isaac.
Isaac the quiescent one: Think of the incident (Genesis 22) when he and his father ascended the mountain with Abraham determined to sacrifice him. What did Isaac do? He merely asked the question: “
Here is the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice
?” And when his father bound him and placed him on the altar, he said nothing.
Isaac the dreamer: “
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at eventide
.” (Genesis 24) (And he couldn’t have been much of an oil painting! It is interesting that when Rebecca, his intended bride, saw him in the field that evening, she got such a fright that she fell off her camel! Some translations render the passage as “She alighted from her camel” but the Hebrew says “
Vatipol mei’al hagamal
– and she fell off her camel!”)
. When the Philistine king, Avimelech, took Rebecca, thinking that she was Isaac’s sister (Genesis 26), Isaac did little to apprise him of the true fact: that beautiful Rebecca was in fact his wife. (His father Abram had done the same thing (Genesis 12) when, years previously, he and Sarai had gone down to Egypt because of the severe drought in Canaan, and Sarai was taken to Pharaoh’s palace for the same reason, and Abram said nothing.)
Isaac the gullible. His son Jacob dresses himself up in goatskins and hoodwinks his old blind father into giving to him, Jacob, the blessing that Isaac had destined for Esau. (Genesis 27)
Isaac was no Abraham. Isaac was no Jacob/Israel. They were the giants of the stories in the Book of Genesis. And yet, we still say “God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob.”
What did Isaac do to deserve this ongoing mention in the prayers of the Jewish people for nigh on 4000 years?
There is, in fact, in the whole of his recorded life only one incident that portrays Isaac as an active participant in affairs. The Philistines had stopped up wells of water that his father Abraham had dug during his lifetime. Isaac went about and meticulously and painfully re-dug them, removing the stone and sand that had choked up the wells, thus making the water available again. However, when the Philistines claimed the wells, Isaac the
abandons his claim to them without putting up a fight. But at least, if there was no progress, there was no retrogression.
As the late Rabbi Professor Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, former Orthodox Chief Rabbi of South Africa writes in his book
Sparks from the Anvil
, Isaac was no pioneer, no fighter, no blazer of new trails, no creator of new spiritual values. But despite his many limitations, Isaac saw clearly where his duty lay, and in fulfilling it, more than justified his existence and 4000-year-old mention in the Amidah prayer.
There is tale told of a great Chassid rebbe who said, “When I stand before the Throne of Glory, and I have to give account of myself, I will not be asked, ‘Reb Yid, why were you not a Moses, why were you not a Rambam?’ No, I won’t be asked these questions because I am not a Moses, nor am I a Rambam . But I will be asked, ‘Reb Yid, why were you not yourself! Why didn’t you live up to your own potential to contribute to this world and work to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people?’”
There are many Isaacs in our communities. Not everyone can be a pioneering Abraham or a go-getting Jacob/Israel. But the steady influences of the Isaacs among us ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. They ensure that the wells will be unstopped and that there will be life-giving spiritual water which provides the link between the generations.
We need the Abraham Mendelsohns to ensure that there will be a Felix Mendelsohn. We need the Isaacs to ensure that there will be a Jacob/Israel.