Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week we are introduced to Yitzchak.  But not really.  I don't think that we ever get to know this enigmatic character.  I believe that we read Bible stories to be able to learn positive human behavior.   Emulate the conduct of the good guys; reject the manner of the bad guys.  Often this leads me to trouble.  I have trouble trying to be like Avraham, his majestic goodness is just too perfect; his awesome altruism is just too absolute.  I fall short.  I have trouble trying to imitate Yitzchak, because I don't get it.  I get lost.  So, this week I'll try to fathom the nature and contribution of Yitzchak, which makes him one of the three Patriarchs and founders of our religion and way of life.  This is not an easy task.  He just doesn't exhibit the heroic magnificence of his illustrious father.

            First of all, allow me to introduce the topic by explaining that our Sages established many of our customs and liturgy based upon the reality that there are and must be, three Patriarchs.  The expression 'God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak and God of Ya'akov' is almost a mantra in our prayer book.  In mystical terms these three gentlemen represent the fundamental character traits of chesed (kindness), gevura (c-c-c-courage) and tiferet (splendor).  Many explain this triumvirate as representing the three pillars of our universe, Torah, avodah (Divine service) and gemillat chesed.  Our three dimensional world has three basic attributes and three avatars.  The Netivot Shalom (Reb Shalom Noach Barzovsky of Slonim, 1911-2000) suggested that we need these three founding fathers to counteract the deleterious behavior of the original generations.  They each are the tikun (repair) for the sin of the fruit, the sin of the generation of the flood and the sin of the Tower of Babel.  So, to establish the nation there must be three founders.  But what is the special contribution of Yitzchak? 

            We don't see Yitzchak doing all that much.  For a man who lived to be one hundred and eighty, we don't have much material to go on.  He doesn't seem all that comfortable with people.   Also, he seems very passive.  Most events surrounding his life seem to happen to him, rather than he taking charge of events.  His father attempts to sacrifice him, his marriage is arranged seemingly without his knowledge, his wells are destroyed, and his wife and son trick him into blessing the wrong child.  He appears to be the opposite of his father, who is the ultimate take charge guy.  Avraham lives in the largest available communities of Hebron and Be'er Sheva.  Yitzchak prefers the isolation of Be'er Lechai Ro'i, an oasis in the deep desert.  How is this fellow the heir to Avraham's revolution in human spirituality?

            Perhaps the greatest message in this mystery is that there are many potential models of Jewish success.  We are not tied to one paradigm.  The zadik or religious leader comes in many guises.  Avraham is the social version, and Yitzchak is the recluse type.  Matters of style aren't important to the mission.  But what is the mission?  A study of Avraham would lead us to believe that the mission is to spread the message of ethical monotheism as far as possible.  However, with Yitzchak we have no souls gathered for the cause.  If anything the followers brought into the tent by Avraham are lost and dispersed.  So, what does Yitzchak do for the furtherance of the operation?

            To answer this difficult question, I believe that we must rely on the mystics.  The power or character of Yitzchak is described as gevurah.  We usually translate this term as either courage or bravery.  But how do we view bravery?  The answer to this can found in a famous Mishneh in Pirkei Avot:  Who is the brave warrior (Hebrew:  gibor)? One who overpowers his own inclinations. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), "Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city." (Chapter 4, Mishneh 1).  The greatest bravery is displayed within the individual rather than against the outside world.  Ultimately our greatest foe is ourselves.  Yitzchak conquered the greatest natural inclination, namely self preservation, in the Akeida, that attempted sacrifice of him.  That inner strength to forfeit everything before the will of God is a rare commodity indeed.

            This gevurah is viewed as the tikun for the sin of the generation of the flood.  Apparently the three part sinful behavior of that time period included violence, theft and promiscuity.  The society became so corrupt that no one attempted to control any urges, no matter how selfish, no matter how debased.  In Pirkei Avot we also informed that there are three destructive character traits, which mirror the three positives represented by the Avot.  They are jealousy (kinah), lust (ta'avah) and the pursuit of honor (kavod).  Yitzchak's gevurah is the antidote for lust or desire. His gevurah enables him to rein in even normal levels of desire.  I think that his greatest level of gevurah was to continue the spiritual path of his father.  If Yitzchak were given carte blanche to develop a religion, I believe that he would have concocted a system based on asceticism and solitude.  But that's not what he did.  He worked hard to continue his father's ways.  That's the profound symbolism in the wells that he dug to replace those of his father which were being destroyed (Genesis 26:15-22).   He didn't dig anew; he refreshed his father's wells.

            The greatest display of gevurah or self control isn't the one time deal of the Akeidah. It's the life long struggle to continue his father's work, rather than replace it with his own.  It's relatively easy to be brave for a moment, but it's infinitely harder to display self control for a lifetime.  Yitzchak had that strength.  In the story of the Akeidah twice it states that father and son walked together.  That's true. They trod the same path, but in very different styles; same path, different steps.                          


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