Toldot: The Strength of Yitzchak

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
Our Sages identified each of our patriarchs and matriarchs with the character traits that they best exemplified. Abraham the master of hospitality is the exemplar of chesed, of loving-kindness. Yaakov who learned the hard way the effects of mistruth is identified with the trait of Emet, truth. While practicing - even if legitimate - distortions, he suffered his whole life from the deception of others yet is our model for the faithful honest employee giving heart and soul to his unscrupulous boss Lavan.
Our Sages identify Yitzchak with the trait of gevurah, strength. Had our sages identified Yitzchak with kedusha, holiness or tahara, purity I would understand. Here was the child who never left the land of Israel, saw no evil in others and willingly sacrificed himself on the altar to G-d.
But gevurah and Yitzchak seem like an odd mix. It is Yitzchak more than other biblical figure who is the epitome of passivity, the one who is acted upon, and never shows any initiative. The story of the akeidah is the story of Abraham taking Yitzchak even though Yitzchak is clearly not a baby. He does not even choose his own wife. He digs the same wells his father digs and unlike his father is never found on the battlefield. He did not, in contrast to Abraham, have to reject his family ties and their way of life. After his dispute with the shepherds of Gerar G-d appears to Yitzchak and says, "do not be afraid" (26:23). Surely a man of strength would not be so easily intimidated.
It is specifically his "weakness" that could explain his love of Eisav. Eisav the man of the field, the brave hunter and active personality is everything that Yitzchak is not. Not only is this a case of opposites attract but Yitzchak appears to have fallen victim to a common parenting flaw; living vicariously through one's own children, wanting for them what you yourself missed in your own upbringing.
Our Sages understood gevurah differently than modern man. In rabbinic literature "gevurah" means spiritual strength; it is "koach" that represents physical strength. Thus "who is the gibor - one who conquers his (evil) inclination" whereas every morning we thank G-d "hanoten layaef koach, who gives the tired strength". Clearly Yitzchak was possessed of spiritual strength keeping alive the faith and traditions of his parents in a hostile world.
It appears that the true strength of Yitzchak lies precisely in his passivity. One of the basic needs of man is to become independent, to make a name for himself. No one likes to live in the shadow of others, especially parents. Many children often spurn opportunities to join their parents in business wanting to be "successful" on their own. Unfortunately history is replete with children of great parents who were "failures" unable to escape the shadow of their parents and unwilling to be an extension of their parents.
We can now truly understand the tremendous strength of Yitzchak. His father Abraham revolutionized the world. He was a prominent philosopher, world traveler, builder, surgeon, warrior and a diplomat to name some of his traits. Nothing would have been more natural than for Yitzchak to want to strike out on his own; to be known in his own right and not just as the son of Abraham and Sarah.
Yet Yitzchak in an amazing display of inner strength understood that for Avraham's revolution to be successful it needed a generation of consolidation, time for regrouping and internalizing the successes of this parents. Striking out on one's own would have sunk the revolution, splintering it before it was ready. It would take a couple of generations to become twelve distinct tribes, distinct but united in a common goal. Yitzchak understood this and happily copied his father. He was proud to be "Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac" (25:19).
Yitzchak may have been passive but this was the passivity of great strength and courage. The passivity that allowed him to be the vital link between Abraham and Yaakov, the father of "Bnei Yisroel". May we have the strength to emulate Yitzchak, willing when necessary to act for the greater good of the klal Yisroel and be the link that allows others to shine. Shabbat Shalom!