27 September 2015

Concerning “Beating Yishma’el at His Own Game”: Yitzhak's Legacy

Erev Succoth

This post is dedicated l’iluy nishmath Akiva ben Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu. May his widow and son know no more sorrow, and merit greeting Mashiach with all Am Yisrael.

Yitzhak is represented by the sefirah of gevurah - the essence of judgment, limitation, awe and fire. "It is the restraining might of gevurah which allows one to overcome his enemies, be they from without or from within (his evil inclination)." Wikipedia

Gevurah, the middah of Yitzchak, is about an inner strength. It demands determination and an unwillingness to quit. It takes great strength to get back up again after falling. Tiferet Center

All Jews know that Yitzhak is the second, middle forefather of the Jewish people, the son of Avraham and Sarah. In fact, most Bible readers know this too, whether Jewish or not. It is also known that, as children, Yishma’el was highly jealous of Yitzhak and tried to kill him, pretending it was a game.

So, let’s start this a little further along. 


Of the three avot, Yitzchak is the least well-developed in the Torah. His story spans barely one parshah, in which he shares center stage with and is often eclipsed by the activities of others-- Avraham during the akeidah (binding of Yitzchak); Yaakov, Eisav, and Rivkah in the struggle over the birthright and blessings. Moreover, when we do encounter Yitzchak in the Torah, he emerges as a most enigmatic figure. Occasionally, he exudes majesty and charisma. This is exemplified by his willing participation in the akeidah and by his dramatic first meeting with Rivkah, in which she literally falls off her camel in his presence (Bereishit 24:64). In other contexts, however, Yitzchak appears to be at least partially manipulated by events that swirl around him and his role is almost transitional, the bridge between a father who was the celebrated founder of monotheism and a nation, and a son, Yaakov, whose evident achievements qualified him to bear the name and legacy of "Yisrael". Yet, Yitzchak's status and stature in Biblical literature and religious history is unquestioned, even as his contribution needs to be more fully assessed and understood. Who is Yitzchak really and what is his legacy?  Read more...

The Significance of the Rehovoth Well

Many teachers and rabbis perceive Yitzhak as restrained and limited to “mundane affairs” and keeping his father Avraham’s flame alive, doing nothing innovative for himself. But they miss the addition of one well – Rehovoth – to the wells he dug, and the struggle with the other two – Esek and Sitnah – that he went through to get there.
If the wicked king Omri (father of Ahab, who was even more wicked) could be praised and merit kingship for the addition of one city to Israel in First Temple times (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 102b), surely the idealistic and righteous Yitzhak must be lauded for the addition of one well! Cities get built around wells, if there are no rivers, lakes and other surface-level bodies of water (such as in much of Israel) …we have the city of Rehovoth to this day; and so Yitzhak’s legacy of building up the land of Israel is revealed in modern, pre-Mashiach times.

The Part Israel Plays…for Jews Today 

What I find in most commentary on Yitzhak is that it all notes the fact that his life and times take place in Israel, but then appears to shunt it aside, as though it has no meaning at all for the Jewish people today. If, as Rav Frand says, we need to take this progenitor of our nation as our model, then we need to study the aspects of all his actions seriously. Consider whether anything Sarah’s son did would have the same meaning anywhere else in the world, or any meaning at all, for that matter.

What I am about to say relates strongly to R' Frand's advice for beating Yishma'el at his own game. He said,

So, what do we do? How do we defeat this enormously powerful enemy called Yishma’el?...From the time that they were children, Yishmael made it his life’s mission to kill Yitzhak. The Pirkei Eliezer says this...Yishma’el never, ever got over that he was not the chosen son; he never got over that he was not the true heir. He never got over that he was not given any portion, any land. Esav got Har Seir. Klal Yisrael got Eretz Yisrael. Yishma’el was left out in the cold, and he has never gotten over that, and he has never forgiven us, and that is why he wants to wrest Eretz Yisrael from us ad hayom hazeh (until this very day).  This goes back all the way to Yitzhak, and that ancient battle continues till today. This not merely a battle about a piece of land called Israel…this is a spiritual battle, this is a cosmic battle that is going on in Himmel, in Shamayim (heaven)... And for us to vanquish Yishma’el, we must adhere to the legacy of our grandfather Yitzhak Avinu more than the way the Arabs and the Bnei Yishma’el and…the adherents of Islam, adhere to their legacy that they got from Yishma’el. That’s what the battle is about, that’s where it’s going to be won. Who is going to be a better grandson of their grandfather? Who’s going to be more makpid  on the legacy of their grandfather? We or them? The B’nei Yitzhak or the B’nei Yishma’el? And the more successful, and the more passionately, and the more religiously we adhere to that legacy, we will be successful…who is going to be a better adherent to the traditions of their grandfather. (emphasis mine)

Rav Frand goes on to define the essence of Yitzhak, including two components: Av Avodah (Pillar/Father of Prayer) and Moser Nefesh (Sacrifice of Self – putting one’s self in harm’s way to obtain a worthy goal)  – and then points out that Yishma’el is just as good, if not better, than we are at these things. My only question is: As important as proper attire and decorum during prayer are – and of course we should take more care with them than for a job interview! – and as important as standing up to our bosses when it comes to taking off from work when haShem wants us to – where does the legacy of our grandfather regarding Eretz Yisrael fit in? When is each and every Jew, whether we live in Israel or outside – even those who refuse to come home – going to insist on taking back what Yitzhak handed us as an inheritance and a heritage? It might be said that Yishma’el is better than us at this, too. Who controls the Temple Mount, and who moves freely there, doing as they please (certainly not what haShem wants, either from them or from us)? They do. Who allows them to hold that exalted place, while we are not allowed to move our lips, even to drink a glass of water? We do, to our shame.

Yishma’el’s Remorse

Not to mention that Yishma’el, when he matured, repented of his attitude toward Yitzhak: He walked behind his younger brother at their father’s funeral (Bereshith 25:9). As elder brother, he had every right to go first; but because of the written Torah there, we learn that Yishma’el had had a better understanding, and thus a change of heart (Rav Frand teaches us this here, citing Rashi, who bases his commentary on Bava Bathra 16b.). But did his descendants get the message? From our standpoint today, the answer must have been NO; or else, they were as rebellious and lacking proper respect and behavior as Yishma’el had prior to his teshuvah. Therefore, unfortunately for us and for the whole world, in our day we cannot affirm that Yishma’el’s repentance was complete. Therefore, we must not accept his children lording over us, especially in Eretz Yisrael, and most especially, on Har haBayit.

Shame on us if we cannot turn this around because we must take orders from the nations!


Perhaps haShem’s purpose of deliberately keeping our second Forefather’s story as an adult short and contained in Parashath Toledoth is in some sense prophetic and bears a message for us. We — like Ya’aqov Avinu when he took Esav’s place and the blessing Yitzhak intended for him (the latter having mistaken Esav’s toughness for the strength needed to keep the world going in the correct path, not knowing that his favorite son was a murderer, thief, philanderer, etc…) — need to prove that we have the gevurah, the guts and the emunah to overcome our predicament, to get to the other side of our complete redemption with haShem’s help and oversight.

I propose that we add a new Hebrew phrase to Rav Frand's, to complete the third component of Yitzhak Avinu's legacy discussed here: Our forefather Yitzhak Avinu was Av Bniyath Eretz Yisrael (Pillar of Building Up the Land of Israel) — if for no other reason than because of the Rehovoth well. Let us continue in his path.

Am Yisrael Chai!!!!

May the Jewish nation be blessed during this week of Succoth, and hereafter, forever.

May the Rav’s nephew, Shmuel Aryeh ben Malka Feige, continue to receive a refuah shleimah.


yaak said...

If you want to go that route, you can add that Yitzhak was considered an Olah Temima and couldn't leave E"Y for that reason. He was therefore bound to the land unlike the other 2 Avot.

Neshama said...

The poor Jews are really shell shocked from roaming history in various foreign lands, creating strategies relating to the cultural idiosyncrasies of those countries' peoples, just to survive. They have been molded, not in the fashion of living on their own Land living with the Torah, but much differently. It will take time, some more time to unravel those foreign cultural mores. I believe HaShem is applying His Wisdom to unmold His children. Ask any mother, it is not easy raising boys, they are a wild, unruly creation, but with a Torah upbringing they are truly molded to really be HIS CHILDREN. Yitzchak Avinu is a role model. You developed this theme as much as I think can be. However, I believe we will see 'Yitzchak' re-enter history, as David HaMelech, to fight for the righting of many wrongs.

Very nice, Havaleh!

Chang Samayach.

HDG, Yerushalayim, E"Y Shlemah said...

R' Yaak, I certainly can, and I thank you for saying it for me (the part about being commanded not to leave). It doesn't change anything I wrote. Here's why:

Since this command is the background behind the many events of Yitzhak Avinu's life, including managing the well restoration project, I think it is even more laudable and notable that he took initiative to add infrastructure (the Rehovoth well) to the Land, creating the possibility for a new city. (Can you say, "extra credit"?)

When commenters (Biblical and otherwise) say that he was forbidden from leaving E"Y, it can sound as though Yitzhak was imprisoned! But the Torah, as you well know, goes on to say, "Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your offspring will I give all these lands, and establish the oath that I swore to Avraham your father." I think this was more like an assignment that had to be completed, and Yitzhak Avinu got a perfect score. I think an A+ is in order for enhanced real estate value. After all, he did get that famous 100-fold return on his farming investment and went on to become rich in livestock and in business in the very land where nowadays people joke, "if you want to have a small fortune in E"Y, bring a large one." And that was before the well issue came up!

It could be said that if not a single Forefather had been assigned never to leave the Land, there might not be a single Jew here in E"Y today. Enough people already justify themselves by Avraham Avinu's sojourning into Egypt (famine, lack of parnassah) and Ya'aqov Avinu's trek to Padan Aram (finding a spouse) for not coming here or not staying. I'm not saying they're all wrong; it's just all the more reason SOMEONE had to stay and show that it could be done, and done well (pun intended).

It may well be that Yitzhak's merit in spending his entire life here on orders from haShem is what justifies our return to Zion and gives place to the geulah process happening at this very moment!

Can you tell, I'm obsessed lately with this topic???

Many thanks again to you and especially to Rav Frand.

Neshama, given the conversation here between R' Yaak and me, do you still think I'm done? But I am ready to move on, and I have just the topic. Stay tuned!

Ben David haMelech, with the gevurah he inherited from his (fore-)father Yitzhak, will certainly right many wrongs, be"H!

Thanks for the challenge, both of you! Hag sameah!

Neshama said...

This is what I hope you will be extrapolating on: "may well be that Yitzhak's merit in spending his entire life here on orders from haShem is what justifies our return to Zion and gives place to the geulah process happening at this very moment!"

yaak said...

CDG, I wasn't challenging you. I was enhancing your idea.