Isaac’s Story: How Do You Follow in a Visionary’s Footsteps?

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By Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg

PARSHAT TOLDOT

In our parshah this week, we continue the family story of the line of Abraham and Sarah. Here we encounter Jacob deceiving the blind Isaac on his deathbed — wresting a “first born” blessing from him, much as he would later wrest one from the divine being with whom he would come to wrestle.

In these machinations and manipulations, Isaac shows little agency. Things seem to be done to him. As we have moved into the lives of Jacob and Esau, we are leaving the terrain of the life of Isaac (terrain that, incidentally, was spent entirely within the Land of Israel).

We know the great achievements, traveling adventures and original visioning of the Abraham and Sarah generation. We will learn of the complex challenges and growth of his grandson — the man who would become Israel. And, yet, in the quiet middle lay Isaac — estranged from his brother, marred by trauma, nursing loss and blindness (perhaps from the glare of his father’s towering figure?).

As Rabbi Alex Israel teaches, Isaac is the in-between generation; he is the placeholder; he is the passive glue that holds together two powerful figures — figures from whom we like to tell our story.

It is tempting to think of our heritage as one that derives from the grandfather or the grandson. We are inclined to situate our story only in the glorious doings and deeds of these two heroic generations. But without Isaac, we have no story.

True, he shows up in the Torah in passive ways: He is born; he is bound by Abraham for sacrifice; he is not even allowed to go and find a wife for himself. The text even points out that he will receive blessing not on his own merit, but on the merit of his father.

Adin Steinsaltz teaches that, “It is known that the sons of great fathers, talented and significant as they may be in their own right, have to contend with the parental glory and from the beginning feel themselves as inadequate, burdened with a lesser or with greater degrees of helplessness” (Biblical Images).

This is no less true for Isaac than for children of great parents today. How do you follow the footsteps of a visionary? What is your duty to the revolutions of your parents’ day?

Rabbi Israel reminds us that though Isaac is passive in so many ways, he remains in the land, farming and establishing his family. And, even more, he re-digs the wells from the time of his father — sources of life and blessing that had been stopped up since they were first dug.

Sometimes, our task is to smash the idols in our father’s shop. And sometimes our path calls us to wrestle toward a new name and a new way of being. But we exist also in generations called to solidify what has been gained. Heroism is also about the art of preservation. When we firm the foundations of our world, we honor the past, and we set the stage upon which the future can grow.

The Torah is our story. It is Abraham’s story. It is Isaac’s. And it is Jacob’s. It is yours. Where do you fit in the telling? What are you called to overturn? What are you here to preserve and strengthen? 

Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg RJE is a graduate of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish institute of Religion. She serves as the rabbi-educator at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, where she holds the helm of their Mensch Lab: the learning environment for Beth Am students. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

1 COMMENT

  1. I love the quesions Rabbi Tornberg leaves us with: What are you called to overturn? What are you here to preserve and strengthen? We have seen in our own Jewish communities how hard, almost impossible, it is to follow after a charismatic leader. My personal feeling is that the problem Isaac manifests is in tracing his father’s footsteps: He digs wells where Abraham did; he repeats the story of going to a foreign king and pretending that his wife is his sister, supposedly for self-preservation. Just as Abraham had. The way to live one’s life is “To thine own self be true.” Rather than attempting to merely mimic the actions of great people of the past generation, to find one’s own footsteps.

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