Parashat Toldot: Courageous, conservative, or a survivor?

This week, we read the single parasha that describes the life of the Jewish nation’s second, middle, forefather – Isaac.

 (photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
(photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
Last week, we parted from our forefather Abraham, after three parashot that described the course of his life. Next week, we will embark on the tortuous life journey of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, which will take us through the next six Torah portions. This week, we read the single parasha that describes the life of the Jewish nation’s second, middle, forefather – Isaac.
The differences in the way Isaac is presented in the Torah in comparison to how Abraham and Jacob are presented are not only reflected in the amount of text dedicated to each one of them. There is a clear and distinct difference between Abraham and Jacob versus Isaac.
Abraham was the founding father, the persona who continues to excite human thought even close to 4,000 years after his passing. Abraham was the man who devoted himself to the Divine call to “Go forth!” Abraham was the one who fought gallantly to save a relative who had betrayed him; who brought guests into his tent during difficult times; who prayed to save the evil inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah; who was prepared to go against any intrinsic logic and obey G-d in His directive for the Binding of Isaac. Abraham was the person about whom G-d attested that he understood that His ways were “to perform righteousness and justice,” and therefore, G-d made an eternal covenant with him “to be to you for a G-d and to your seed after you.” The life of the third forefather, Jacob, during which he wandered from land to land restlessly, coping with the relationships which had turned into animosity with Esau, his brother, and with Laban, his father-in-law, was tortuous. Jacob’s ability to deal with these hardships made him a source of inspiration for millions of Jews throughout generations of exile. Jacob is the one who built the foundations of the Jewish nation. His 12 sons created the 12 tribes, which constituted the Jewish nation throughout the centuries, during which it established itself in the Land of Israel.
And Isaac? This week’s Torah portion tells us about his life. The main story told about Isaac – other than the birth of his sons and the blessings he bequeathed to them in his old age – is about the digging of wells in the Negev, a strip of desert land in the south of the Land of Israel: “And Isaac again dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of his father, Abraham, and the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them names like the names that his father had given them.” (Genesis 26: 18)
Note the emphasis on Isaac continuing his father’s path. He digs the same wells and calls them by the same names. Isaac is the continuation of Abraham. Isaac preserves Abraham’s accomplishments. He does not embark on a new path, nor does he wander from land to land. He spent his entire life in the Land of Israel and did his best to take care of his small family.
Why is Isaac considered one of the forefathers? The forefathers are not random personalities. They are the ones who laid the foundations for the Jewish nation for generations. So, what is it that Isaac taught us?
The answer is that because Isaac was who he was, he became one of the forefathers. Abraham taught us to breach a new path, to rebel against conventional wisdom, to embark on a road with an unknown end. Jacob taught us to survive hardships and to wander between enemies. Isaac taught us how to preserve the past and bequeath it to the future. The Jewish nation learned that there is no conflict among Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We can be both courageous and conservative, leaders and survivors – simultaneously.
The Jewish nation adopted Abraham’s and Jacob’s characters, as well as Isaac’s conservative one, thanks to which Jewish tradition was preserved for countless generations.
Each of us, in whatever situation we find ourselves, can learn from the three forefathers of the Jewish nation. Sometimes Abraham serves as our role model as a courageous innovator of a new path; sometimes we see the conservative and cautious Isaac as our beacon; and at other times we learn from Jacob how to survive. Isaac, our forefather, teaches us that preserving the past and walking in its footsteps is no less important than courageously breaching a new path.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.