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. Avraham, the master of hospitality, is the exemplar of chesed, loving-kindness. Yaakov, who learned the effects of mistruth the hard way, is identified with the trait of emet, truth. While practicing distortions, even if legitimate, he suffered his whole life from the deception of others; yet Yaakov is our role 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 was Yitzchak, more than other biblical figure, who was the epitome of passivity, the one who was acted upon and never showed any initiative. The story of the akeidah is the story of Avraham taking Yitzchak, even though Yitzchak was clearly not a baby. Yitzchak did not even choose his own wife. He dug the same wells that his father dug and, unlike his father, fought no battles. He did not, in contrast to Avraham, 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" (Breisheet 26:23). Surely a man of strength would not be so easily intimidated.

It is specifically his "weakness" that could explain his love for Eisav. Eisav, the man of the field, the brave hunter and active personality, was everything that Yitzchak was not. Not only is this a case of opposites attracting, 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 we do today. In rabbinic literature, gevurah means spiritual strength; it is koach that represents physical strength. Thus, "Who is a gibor? One who conquers his (evil) inclination" (Avot 4:1), 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 desirers 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 Avraham revolutionized the world. He was a prominent philosopher, world traveler, builder, surgeon, warrior and diplomat, just 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 Avraham 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 his parents. Striking out on his 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 "Yitzchak, the son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitzchak" (Breisheet 25:19).

Yitzchak may have been passive, but this was the passivity of great strength and courage. This passivity allowed him to be the vital link between Avraham and Yaakov, the father of “B’nei Yisrael”.