Parshat Chaye Sarah 2017
He has survived the akeda, the almost sacrifice, he has gone out of his parents’ home and he is a living enigma for us. This is Yitzhak, the second of our three founding forefathers, and the one we know about the least. He is the only one of the three not to leave the land of Canaan. When there is a famine he is expressly forbidden – by God – to go down to Egypt as Avraham had done. Even when it comes to finding a bride for him, so that Avraham can have some einaklach (grandchildren), Avraham’s servant is given the task. And Avraham’s one caveat to the servant is – do not let my son Yitzhak go back to my home country.
We have encountered Avraham’s strong personality. Like it or not, he was a bit of the control-freak. And it worked for him. He amassed a lot of wealth, he defeated kings, he outwitted other kings and made a fortune out of presenting his wife as his sister. Twice. This man was no slouch.
And he keeps this up into what we would call extreme old age. Remember, he began his journeys at God’s order when he was 75, and he died at age 175. He fathered not only Ishmael and Yitzhak but also six other children by one or more concubines (although some commentators think they were actually Hagar – but more about that later).
Yitzhak has been a slippery shadow, a Zelig who is there but not there. A pawn. A cipher to be moved from one place to another. We don’t know him. Or do we? Perhaps this very quality of not making waves, not even a slight lapping sound of water, is Yitzhak’s strong point and weak point.
Think about it for a minute. Avraham told him he was taking him to bring a sacrifice, and when the time comes Yitzhak is bound and plunked on the altar. We don’t hear a peep of complaint. He is saved and goes off on his own – he doesn’t trust daddy-dear any more, and for good reason – but there’s not a word of reproach.
That would be his weak point – he can be pushed around (up to a point – next week we will see that he does take a stand against Avimelech and his servants). And perhaps this explains the theory that Avraham’s reason for not wanting Yitzhak to go back to Aram Naharaim is his fear that Yitzhak will be sucked into that culture – because of his soft, accepting nature.
But same quiet, unassuming nature emerges as perhaps his strongest trait.
Sarah wanted to distance Yitzhak from his half-brother Ishmael because the older boy was teaching him the wrong things (perhaps). But Yitzhak liked him. How do we know? After the akeda and his narrow escape he goes to Be’er Lachai Ro’ee. This is the well that Hagar found while she was out in the wilderness, the well that saved her and Ishmael from dying of thirst.
This is where Yitzhak spends his time. In fact, when his mail-order bride Rivka returns with Avraham’s servant, Yitzhak is coming back from Be’er Lachai Ro’ee. We can assume that he was spending time with Hagar and with Ishmael.
Some commentators speculate that one of Avraham’s concubines, mentioned towards the end of the parsha, was actually Hagar, who had been brought back to him by Yitzhak. And finally, when Avraham dies at the end of this parsha, having lived a full and good life, both Yitzhak and Ishmael are there. They have no problem with one another.
If we take this behavior into next week’s parsha, we can also contend that Yitzhak’s calm and accepting nature is what allowed him to love Esau as he did – not only because he was the strong, wild, devil-may-care person that Yitzhak was not but because Yitzhak simply accepted people as they were.
I don’t think many people would deny that accepting people as they are is problematic today. We have this movement toward inclusion, to accept homos and lesbians, blacks, yellows and purples, men, women and non-affiliated genders in our society. But the truth is that even if we pay lip service to such broad mindedness, too many people around us cannot stand, cannot accept people who are different from them.
Perhaps this is natural. Perhaps it is a reaction to too much political correctness, where we have been told that it is not nice to speak out or act against someone or something. It’s like the never-ending parade of corruption in high places – there’s just so much you can take.
Perhaps the trend to extremism that has depleted – actually demolished – what used to be the center, leaves us all even more ajangle than usual when we encounter something that doesn’t fit into a peg we recognize.
Perhaps we are afraid of what this unpeggable person or thing can do to the social order. Whatever it is, our general reaction is defensive, which means offensive (as in: “the best defense is a good offense”).
That’s what Yitzhak seems to contradict. He’s not dumb, he’s not a nerd, he’s not negatively passive. Perhaps he just knows who he is. He observes, understands and flows with the people and events around him. Perhaps he is the strongest of our forefathers.
Of course there are limitations to the effectiveness of such an approach, and progress and new ideas usually require more active steps. But between the activism of Avraham, and the frenetic activities of Yaacov, it’s good to have a period of seeming quiet for contemplation.
Would that we had such a gift in our daily public lives.