“This is the story of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham, Avraham begot Yitzchak.” Our parsha, which tells of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of our forefather Yitzchak begins by calling to mind the father-son relationship between Avraham and Yitzchak. As readers, familiar with the promises Hashem made to Avraham, we expect Yitzchak’s life to pick up from where Avraham’s left off. We expect Yitzchak to continue what Avraham started and advance his father’s mission. But in place of progress, what we seem to find as we read about Yitzchak’s life is a sense of repetition. Like Avraham, Yitzchak struggled for years with childlessness, and like Avraham, tensions over inheritance erupted between the children he finally had. Like Avraham, Yitzchak experienced a famine in Canaan, and like Avraham, Yitzchak feared for his life in a foreign space, so he pretended his wife was his sister. In perhaps the most tangible example of this phenomenon, we are told that “the Philistines stopped up the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Avraham, filling them with earth,” thus compelling Yitzchak to re-dig all that had previously been dug. Thus, a superficial reading of this parsha leaves us frustrated, wondering if Yitzchak’s life was nothing more than a redo of Avraham’s.
But in fact, a close reading reveals that there are as many differences between the experiences of Avraham and Yitzchak as there are similarities. While Yitzchak’s wife had been barren like his father’s, Yitzchak knew to believe in the possibility of miracles and prayed to God for a child. Likely shaped by his own childhood, Yitzchak wanted his sons to co-exist, which may explain why, ultimately, despite their complicated past, reconciliation between Yaakov and Eisav was achieved. When Yitzchak experienced a famine in Canaan he did not venture beyond the boundaries of the Promised Land, and as a result, although Rivka had to be passed off as his sister, she was never taken captive. Many of the events that Avraham witnessed repeated themselves in the days of Yitzchak. But Yitzchak had already internalized the lessons his father had learned, and as a result, his responses to those events were drastically different.
The men of Gerar tried to wear down Yitzchak’s resolve. They thought that if they could force him to keep redoing what his father had already done, they could intimidate him into surrendering. But Yitzchak knew then what so many of us are being reminded of today. Yitzchak knew that while Jewish history may appear repetitive, in fact it can be progressive, we just need to be wise enough to learn from the generations that preceded us. Yitzchak knew that we cannot always control what history throws our way, but we can react based on the lessons we have inculcated into our national narrative. Yitzchak knew that rather than wearing us down, evoking our parents’ experiences only makes us more committed to their dreams. And Yitzchak knew that while we cannot always control what happens to us, we must never capitulate to those who want us to disappear.
Mrs. 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).