June 23, 2024
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We know precious little about Yitzchak’s life. Unlike his father and his son, he lived a very pedestrian lifestyle, waging no wars, never traveling abroad and never convening with angels. Avraham’s dramatic career spans three parshiyot of the Torah, while Yaakov’s saga is chronicled over six parshiyot. Oddly, Yitzchak’s entire life is condensed into one parsha—most of which is dominated by his twin boys and their ongoing wrestling match over the title of first born.

The one and only “episode” in which Yitzchak is featured is his persistent struggle with local tribes over wells and waterways. Evidently, this unpleasant affair characterizes or defines Yitzchak, his personality and his role in the book of Bereishit. His constant restraint to provocation is both peculiar and impressive. As he accrues extraordinary wealth, he elicits the ire of local Plishtim who seal water reservoirs that Avraham had excavated. Avimelech, their leader, turns a blind eye to their harassment, and instead demands that Yitzchak relocate. Yitzchak enjoys the upper hand in this standoff and could easily have ignored Avimelech’s absurd claims. The raiding of vital water wells was a spiteful and criminal provocation that should have been punished. Furthermore, Yitzchak resided on lands he had legitimately farmed and cultivated. As an affluent man, Yitzchak could muster significant influence and support in rebuffing the anger of jealous villagers and in denying Avimelech’s unfair request. Yet, despite his leverage and the legality of his situation, Yitzchak complies with the unfair ultimatum and moves to the valley of Gerar where he must “start from scratch” and hollow out entirely new waterways. Though he receives temporary respite, Yitzchak’s land trials are just beginning.

Having relocated to the valley, Yitzchak is now contested by wandering shepherds who dispute his right to the water streams he had painstakingly excavated! Unlike the earlier adversaries who merely “sabotaged” Avraham’s wells, these random tribesmen actually claim this newly developed water stream as their own!! Astonishingly, Yitzchak complies and surrenders these hard-earned resources. Showing inordinate patience and persistence, he now digs an entirely new well, but this too becomes a point of contention with the local men. Excavating a fourth set of wells, the opposition finally fades and, Yitzchak, enjoying elusive tranquility, names the region Rechovot—signaling the uncontested prosperity that is now his. Repeatedly, Yitzchak chooses compromise over confrontation even though his policies of appeasement force him to construct new waterways and to renovate damaged ones.

Restraint and compromise become Yitzchak’s defining features. The book of Bereishit is nicknamed the story of the “Yesharim”—those who were “peaceable and fair.” Our Avot labored for hundreds of years to craft a world of morality and belief in one God. While preaching religious values, they built their world through kindness and honesty. More than any of the Avot, Yitzchak upholds this lifestyle of honesty and “peacefulness” even in the face of hostility and provocation. Avraham is the consummate ideologue, revolutionizing human imagination and introducing bold and new ideas. His name Avraham—father of nations—implies great responsibility and educational mission. For his part, Yaakov encountered constant struggle—both with his murderous brother and with his scheming father-in-law. His tumultuous life serves as a prototype for the turbulence and upheaval that our people would face along their historical journey. Yaakov’s name alludes both to his grasping the ankle of his brother as well to his bypassing that brother in securing his father’s blessings. Each episode highlights the unusual struggle Yaakov faced as the underdog. As history’s underdog, the Jews still managed to reshape the human imagination. Avraham and Yaakov lived moral lives, but their respective missions compelled them to lives of ideological and personal confrontation.

Yitzchak lives a very different arch. His birth elicits smiling and amusement, and his name is taken from the cheerful laughter that surrounds his entry into this world. Every personal milestone of Yitzchak generates happiness and public welfare. When he is weaned from nursing, great public parties are staged. The project of identifying a wife for Yitzchak delivers great riches to her family. Professionally, Yitzchak becomes a farmer, unlike his father who lived the nomadic life of a shepherd. Fundamentally, a shepherd “takes” from the land whereas a farmer contributes to the land. Basically, while Avraham is a “consumer” Yitzchak is a “producer.”

By providing unmatched prosperity to his world, Yitzchak demonstrates that a life of religious belief also improves the human condition. It is one thing to preach religion and theology, and quite another to convince humanity that a theological “leap into faith” will materially benefit their lives. For people to choose a life of faith they must be assured that it will also improve the conditions of their lives. Yitzchak provides this proof. This religious holy man also has the “Midas touch.” People smile at him and are attracted to his religion because they sense personal benefit and interest. His religion speaks to them.

However, Yitzchak’s mission carries a “cost.” For him to persuade humanity that religion benefits the human condition he cannot create an environment of strife or turmoil. If his world swirls with conflict and quarrel it will alienate his audience from religion and his message will be lost. People must sense his serenity and contentment forged by a life of belief and faith. For his mission to succeed he must forgo his personal “legal” rights and reconcile with his aggressors. In avoiding confrontation and achieving his larger goals, he must repeatedly waive his interests and withdraw from conflicts. By litigating his rights and pursuing his assailants he may win the battle of the wells but he risks losing the larger agenda. His flexibility and constraint in face of so much antagonism defines his legacy. By repeatedly avoiding strife, he brings a quiet peace to the world of Bereishit, further convincing humanity that belief in God would deliver prosperity. They sense the serenity and inner harmony that only faith can foster.

One of the great arts in life is knowing how to balance between confrontation and conciliation. When should legitimate rights be demanded and protected and when should they be waived for larger interests? Some people are natural “confronters” while others are natural “peacemakers.” Endless “confrontation avoidance” can ruin relationships, which generally thrive on frank and direct communication. Hurt feelings and grievances, if left unexpressed, can fester into deep resentment and erupt into anger and even violence. Additionally, constant restraint and “surrender” can encourage aggressive and abusive behavior. In its worst form, constant surrender can create a dangerous celebration of victimhood. In the modern world, the risk of constant pacification and the encouragement of abusive behavior has become a very serious concern. There are times to confront bullies and to combat aggression.

However, there is generally greater personal cost to a life of constant confrontation. A life of turmoil and endless interpersonal imbroglios erodes our inner peace and our emotional equilibrium. Confrontation may help us advance our public agendas but we, and those with whom we live, generally suffer in their emotional well-being. Confrontation carries a steep price in tension and personal anxiety.

Often Israelis are terrified about not becoming a “frei’er”—which loosely translates as a victim or pushover who is easily duped. Sadly, the deep obsession with not becoming a frei’er can encourage overaggressive protection of personal rights. Yitzchak’s decisions should caution us about the danger of “confrontationism.” It may provide short-sided gains but it usually carries long-term costs. The two must be calculated very carefully. People who desire a life of “yashar” follow Yitzchak in limiting their conflicts and choosing compromise over confrontation. They generally lead healthier emotional lives.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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