Parashat Chayei Sarah 5778
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Yitzchak, our second patriarch, is an elusive character, especially when compared to his father, Avraham, and his son, Yaakov, our other patriarchs. There is simply far less narrative and dialogue involving Yitzchak in the Torah. Nonetheless, from the scant details provided by the text, we can piece together a profile of his personality.
Avraham was a trailblazer and pioneer. He traveled great distances, both geographically and spiritually. In a sense, Yitzchak was more of a conduit; his job was to connect his children with the values and beliefs of his father.
As we have noted, there is a dearth of narrative describing Yitzchak’s life. In fact, there is only recorded dialogue between Yitchak and his father, only one opportunity to glimpse the relationship between these two spiritual titans. On the way to the Akeidah (“The binding of Yitzchak), they speak. Yitzchak opens the conversation, addressing his father warmly; he is answered with equal warmth:
Avraham took the wood for the offering and placed it on [the shoulders of] his son Yitzchak. He himself took the fire and the knife, and the two of them walked on together.
Then, Yitzchak said to his father Avraham, 'Father!'
[Avraham] responded, 'Yes, my son.'
[Yitzchak] said, 'Here are the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for the offering?'
Avraham replied, 'God will see to a lamb for an offering, my son.' And the two of them walked on together. (Bereishit 22:6-8)
There is a tenderness in their exchange that shines through, despite the brevity of the verses. Yitzchak seems to intuit that he will be the offering; he asks his father for clarification, but receives an equivocal response. Nonetheless he is unfazed, unswayed; he continues to walk beside his father, unchanged: Father and son “walked on together” - before and after their dialogue. They share a common mission, and a common commitment to seeing it through, together.
And this may tell us all we need to know about Yitzchak: He walked with his father. He followed the trail his father blazed. The few events of his life described in the Torah involve actions his father had done before him; the glimpses of his behavior mirror his father’s. At home and away, he conducts himself precisely as Avraham did, as is evidenced by the tactic he employs when forced to travel among the local populace: Like his father, he asks his wife to present herself as his sister. He dedicates himself to re-digging the wells his father had dug. For Yitzchak, this is not merely a practical question of water resources; he retraces his father’s steps to ensure that his father’s work and accomplishments will endure.
With all this in mind, we would do well to tread very carefully in cases where we think Yitzchak is innovative or pioneering - for example, when we find Yitzchak at prayer in the fields:
Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field toward evening… (Bereishit 24:63)
Although this is apparently the first mention of such meditative or devotional behavior in the Torah, there are commentators who imply that Yitzchak learned it from Avraham:
[Avraham] planted an eshel (often associated with a tamarisk tree) at Beersheva, and invoked there the name of the Almighty, the Everlasting God. (Bereishit 21:33)
The Rashbam, for example, explains that Avraham had planted an orchard so that he would have a place to pray. Like father, like son.
In this week’s parasha, Avraham is involved in searching for and securing an appropriate partner for Yitzchak. At the very same time the father is concerned about his son, tradition (cited by Rashi, Bereishit 24:62) tells us that Yitzchak went off to find a companion for his grieving father, who had recently lost his wife. What emerges is a portrait of an incredibly close, tender, caring relationship: The father is worried about his son, while the son is worried about his father, and each takes steps to alleviate the other’s loneliness.
Yitzchak and Avraham walked together. Their lives followed the same trajectory, the same path. The trail blazed by the father was religiously guarded by the son. Nonetheless, Yitzchak did teach the world something new: Yitzchak’s greatness was his complete devotion and fidelity to his father, and to his father’s beliefs and morals - and this is the legacy he passed on to us all. We are given only a few precious glimpses of his life and his inner world, but a close reading teaches us that no more detail is necessary: Yitzchak followed in his father’s footsteps, in thought, action and belief. Avraham and Yitzchak were completely dedicated to one another, and loved one another.
The two of them walked together.
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
For more Essays and Lectures on Chayei Sarah: