There is something to be said for revolutionaries. For founders. For the people who have the foresight and the daring to chart a course untrodden. Revolutionaries put their ideals to the test by living the principles they believe can transform the world around them, and history will always be enamored by such people. Avraham was a revolutionary. God told him to leave his father’s home and his native land and to forge a new path, the results of which would only be realized long after his death. Avraham followed the call, and for that reason Avraham remains one of the most influential and inspiring characters in Jewish tradition and in Western culture at large.
But there is another type of leadership, modeled in this week’s parsha, that gets decidedly less fanfare but on which revolutionaries depend. In Chapter 26 of Bereishit we are given insight into the often-overlooked strength of Yitzchak’s persona and the critical role he played in the formation of the people of Israel. At the outset of the chapter we are told that there was a famine in Canaan, like there was “in the days of Avraham.” (Gen 26:1) Naturally, like his father, Yitzchak was inclined to go to the Land of Egypt, where crop yields were contingent on the overflow of the Nile. But God appeared to Yitzchak and instructed him to stay in the land. Yitzchak, unlike Avraham, is not granted freedom of movement. Where Avraham’s life was marked by change and progress, Yitzchak’s was marked by stable consistency. But stability is not stasis, and consistency is not stagnation. And in fact, the narrative that follows the injunction to “stay put” gives us insight into just what “staying put” looks like, and what it accomplishes.
Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold that same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy: He acquired flocks and herds and a large household so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Avraham, filling them with earth.” (Gen 26:12-15)
And so, the parsha tells us, Yitzchak went from one well to the next, undoing the damage that had been done, and reaching back down to the depths his father’s servants had struck during Avraham’s lifetime. Yitzchak met the bullying and intimidation tactics of the Philistine people with equanimity, resilience and a doggedness borne of his commitment to his father’s dreams. Ultimately, after witnessing Yitzchak’s extraordinary accomplishments, the Philistines propose a peace treaty stating: “We now see plainly that the Lord has been with you.” (Gen 26:28)
Yitzchak wasn’t confrontational, or aggressive, and he didn’t attract attention with grandiose speeches or mission statements. Yitzchak earned the respect of the people around him through his quiet successes, and then made sure to channel that respect toward the God whose call his father had answered. Every movement needs its founders. But movements, just as badly, need those willing to sublimate their egos for the sake of continuity and posterity. They need those willing to re-dig the wells that have been plugged up by the movement’s challengers. Yitzchak, often impugned for his passivity and meekness, proves in this week’s parsha to be the very link without which no chain of tradition could exist.
Yael Leibowitz teaches at the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning and the Pardes Institute. She is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).