Torah Study

Yitzchak’s Role

The Torah devotes three whole portions to two of the Avos, Avraham and Yaakov. In contrast, only parashas Toldos focuses on Yitzchak. And even in this parashah, only one story involves Yitzchak and no other forefather: the account of his sojourn in Gerar, the land of the Pelishtim (Philistines). Famine forces Yitzchak to move to Gerar, where he says that his wife, Rivkah, is his sister, as his father did many years earlier. Then the Pelishtim seal wells that Avraham dug, and Yitzchak redigs them. He endures considerable hostility from the Pelishtim and finally makes a treaty with their king, Avimelech.

At first glance, it is very difficult to learn any significant lessons from this story. In truth, however, it provides the key to understanding Yitzchak. The most striking aspect of Yitzchak’s actions is their similarity to those of his father. When there was a famine in Avraham’s time, he headed for Mitzrayim; Yitzchak did the same, until HaShem told him not to leave Eretz Yisrael. Then he redug his father’s wells and called them the same names his father had called them.[1] Rabbeinu Bechayei states that from Yitzchak’s conduct here, we derive the concept of mesoras avos, following the traditions of our forefathers throughout the generations.[2] Yitzchak did not want to veer one inch from the path trodden by his father.

Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita, explains Yitzchak’s role among the forefathers: Whereas Avraham was the trailblazer, setting the precedents and establishing the guideposts, Yitzchak consolidated everything his father had done, following precisely in his footsteps and establishing for all future generations the primacy of mesorah (tradition). His life’s work was not to carve out new paths, but to faithfully follow the one trodden by his father. Therefore, when famine struck, he immediately thought of going to Mitzrayim, because his father had done so. And when he came to Gerar, he dug the same wells Avraham had dug, and gave them the same names he had given them.[3]

However, another key aspect of Yitzchak Avinu seems to contradict the idea that he followed his father in every way: Chazal tell us that Avraham and Yitzchak possessed very different personalities. Avraham epitomized chesed, overflowing with kindness to everyone. Yitzchak, in contrast, excelled at din and gevurah, self-control. Indeed, a significant part of his greatness is the fact that he was not just a clone of his father. The Gemara, quoted by Rashi, explains that Yitzchak’s prayers for children were answered before Rivkah’s because there is no comparison between the prayers of a tzaddik born to a tzaddik and those of a tzaddik born to a rasha.[4] This is very difficult to understand. A person who becomes righteous despite his improper upbringing seems to deserve greater merit than a tzaddik born into a righteous family. Yet the “born tzaddik” faces an even more difficult challenge: not to become a carbon copy of his father. Avraham was the greatest role model a person could have, and it would have been natural for Yitzchak to emulate his father’s every action. However, Yitzchak did not content himself with that; he forged his own path in serving HaShem.

We have seen that, on the one hand, Yitzchak represents the mesorah, not deviating from his father’s path. On the other hand, his character was totally different from his father’s! How can we resolve these two aspects of Yitzchak? In reality there is no contradiction. All Jews are born into a tradition that goes back to Avraham Avinu; we are obligated to faithfully adhere to the instructions and attitudes transmitted through this mesorah. A person must not create his own values or lifestyle. At the same time, not every link in the chain of mesorah is identical. There are many ways of expressing oneself within that mesorah. The Chafetz Chaim, ztzl, asks why the Torah emphasizes that the Etz HaChaim was in the middle of Gan Eden. He answers that there is one central point of truth, but numerous points surround it, each equidistant from the center. So too, there are many approaches to Judaism, emphasizing different forms of avodah and different traits. As long as they remain within the boundaries of the mesorah, they are all equally valid.[5]

The Slobodka yeshivah in particular stressed the idea that people should not be forced into one specific mold. The Alter of Slobodka emphasized the uniqueness of each individual. He was very wary of highly charismatic teachers, lest they overwhelm their students with the sheer force of their personality.[6] Rav Yerucham Levovitz, ztzl, the great mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshivah, once visited the Alter. On the first day of his visit, the Alter reproved him so vehemently that the whole yeshivah overheard the shouts. This reproof continued day after day for nearly a week. What had upset the Alter? He felt that the dynamic Reb Yerucham was turning the Mirrer bachurim into his “soldiers” – each in his image – rather than allowing each to develop his own unique expression.

This emphasis on cultivating individuality permeated the teachings of Slobodka talmidim. Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, ztzl, a Slobodka alumnus, encouraged independence within the Torah framework. He felt that if a person tended toward a Torah outlook different from his family’s, he should not be prevented from pursuing it. A family close to Reb Yaakov was shocked when the youngest of its seven sons wanted to be a Skverer Chassid. The parents went together with the boy to Reb Yaakov, expecting him to convince their son that boys from proper German-Jewish families do not become Chassidim. To their surprise, Reb Yaakov assured them that it was no reflection on them that their son wanted to follow a different path in serving HaShem. If he had certain emotional needs that he felt could be met by becoming a Chassid, his parents should honor those feelings. Reb Yaakov even recommended sending the boy to a Skverer yeshivah!

The idea that there are many valid ways for an observant Jew to express himself is relevant to numerous areas of our lives, including personality development. All societies value some traits more than others. For example, being outgoing and confident is often seen as very positive, while shyness is frowned upon. An extroverted parent with an introverted child may see his child’s quiet nature as a character flaw and pressure him to change his ways. In all likelihood, however, this treatment will only make him feel inadequate. It is the parent’s avodah to realize that his child may be different from him, accept him for who he is, and work with his strengths. Similarly, a child may find it difficult to sit for long periods and focus on learning. If his parent or teacher pushes him too hard, he will rebel. Even a good student may feel unsatisfied learning Gemara all day.

Many people enjoy exploring other areas of Torah, such as Navi, halachah, or hashkafah. It may be advisable (with rabbinic guidance) to encourage children or students with such leanings to delve into these subjects instead of making them feel inadequate.[7] And as we have seen from the story with Reb Yaakov, there is no need to be afraid if one’s child or talmid chooses to express his Yiddishkeit differently.

While education is the area most affected by this message, it also applies greatly to our own avodas HaShem. We too may not “fit in” with mainstream society, and may find more satisfaction if we allow ourselves to express our strengths. Of course, this should be done with guidance and strict adherence to the mesorah.

What are the benefits of encouraging self-expression in Torah? As stated, the yeshivah that most stressed this idea was Slobodka, and it produced by far the most gedolim – and all so different from each other. By stressing the uniqueness of each individual, the Alter brought out the best in everyone. If we emulate him, we have a far greater chance of enabling ourselves, our children, and our students to live happier and more successful lives.


Notes and Sources

[1] Bereishis 26:18.

[2] Rabbeinu Bechayei ad loc.

[3] Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita, Matnos Chaim, ch. 2, “The Ways of the Fathers.”

[4] Yevamos 64a.

[5] Chafetz Chaim al HaTorah 2:9.

[6] See Yonoson Rosenblum, Reb Yaakov (ArtScroll Mesorah Publications), pp. 50–56.

[7] It is generally accepted in the yeshivah world that Gemara should take up the majority of one’s learning, but this does not mean a person cannot explore other areas of Torah.

From the book “Beacons of Light”



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