November 17, 2012: Continuity and Tradition (Toldot)

This week’s Torah portion begins: Eileh toldot Yitzchak, “this is the story of Isaac, ”but then immediately shifts away from its eponymous character to his children, Jacob and Esau. In fact, the Torah provides less information about Isaac than any other patriarch. Abraham travels far and wide to found a new dynasty and religion. Jacob travels even further across the landscape of personal and spiritual evolution; half the Book of Genesis is devoted to Jacob. In contrast, Isaac seems little more than a stick figure, a vital bridge between past and future, but insignificant in his own right. Like the middle child, Isaac tends to get lost between the towering figures that flank him on either side.

Nevertheless, Isaac exhibits a few positive attributes that are unique to him: he remains in the Land, he remains monogamous, and he remains Isaac. Unlike Abraham, who leaves for Egypt as soon as he arrives in the Promised Land, and unlike Jacob, who spends his youth in Padan Aram and his old age in Egypt where he dies, Isaac remains rooted in place—a point that the text goes out of its way to emphasize: “Adonai appeared to him, saying: do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land that I point out to you.” (Genesis 26:2; cf. Genesis 24:6) Additionally, in contrast to the prevailing practice of taking multiple wives in Biblical times, Isaac remains faithful to Rebecca throughout his life. Indeed, when she is barren, Isaac does not turn to a concubine to produce progeny, as did both Abraham and Jacob, but instead, he turns to God, “pleading with Adonai on behalf of his wife.” (Genesis 25:21) Finally, at key points in their lives, both Abraham and Jacob acquire new names that signify sudden, seismic shifts in role and identity (Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel), but Isaac keeps the same name throughout his life, indicating “a certain stability and consistency of character.” (Rabbi Bruce Kadden, “URJ Ten Minutes of Torah: Toldot, 5773)

The Torah’s scant biographical information about Isaac appears in only one chapter, Genesis 26, in the middle of this week’s portion. The first part of the chapter recounts Isaac’s sojourn among Abimelech and the Philistines, when Isaac passes off his wife Rebecca as his sister, exactly matching Abraham’s sojourn among Abimelech and the Philistines one generation earlier, when Abraham passed off his wife Sarah as his sister. (Genesis 20) Historical criticists claim that the doublet provides evidence for two distinct sources, the J-source and the E-source respectively. From a literary point of view, however, the textual duplication underlines Isaac’s adherence to tradition—Isaac is literally walking in his father Abraham’s footsteps.

The second half of Chapter 26 reiterates Isaac’s fidelity to his father. “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up.” (Genesis 26:18) Each time Isaac contends with opposition, but he perseveres by digging a new well, until he establishes a permanent claim. To my mind, “finding the well of living waters” (Genesis 26:19) symbolizes uncovering and returning to the wisdom of tradition that has, perhaps, been neglected. As a digger of wells, Isaac epitomizes conservatism. Afterwards, he digs one final well, Be’er Sheva—the same Be’er Sheva that Abraham dug. To my mind, Shev’ah, meaning “oath,” refers to the covenantal oath that Adonai swore to Abraham’s descendants throughout all the generations. As a digger of Be’er Sheva in particular, “the Well of the Oath,” Isaac assumes the mantle of his father’s covenant and assures the continuity of the Abrahamic tradition.

It is undeniable that Judaism comprises great, at times revolutionary, ethical force to challenge and transform society and provide hope and motivation to the oppressed in the face of injustice. After all, the name “Hebrew,” from the word oveir, “to cross over,” refers to the original Hebrew, Abraham, the “idol smasher,” who first crossed the prevailing barriers of normative society and turned to a new Source of moral authority in Adonai. (cf. Lerner, Jewish Renewal, p. 42 ff) At the same time, religion is fundamentally conservative. The religious heritage that we inherit from our parents and grandparents provides structure to our days and meaning to our lives. The authors of This House We Build describe the function of the synagogue as follows: “synagogue members look to their institutions for comfort. They want to pray just as they always did and in doing so feel connected to a people and a tradition larger than the sphere of their own life.” (p. 64) Jewish tradition is a sacred trust that we seek to perpetuate by bequeathing it intact to our own children and grandchildren, as countless generations have done for our sake. In this sense, we resemble, not Abraham, but Isaac, not the trailblazing pathfinder, but the guardian of ancient wells.

Of course, our loyalty to tradition is only one of several competing demands; we also live in a rapidly evolving world. How well we, as Jews, negotiate the competing demands of transformation and preservation will determine our own religious fulfillment and, ultimately, the survival of Judaism as a whole. In Kaballah, Abraham is associated with the divine attribute of chesed, the boundless outpouring of loving energy, and Isaac is associated with the divine attribute of gevurah, the restraining force that controls the flow of chesed and keeps it in check. The ideal for the individual, society and the world entails the harmonious balance between chesed and gevurah—enough energy to drive change, but not too much so as to overwhelm the recipient of change. According to the Kabbalistic framework, the figure of Jacob embodies the synthesis of chesed and gevurah, which is known as tif’eret. In light of the dichotomy between Abraham’s iconoclasm and Isaac’s conservatism that we have been discussing, Jacob, for whom we, as the children of Israel, are named, represents the ideal balance of a thriving Judaism for our time—“Judaism as an island of stability rooted in tradition and familiarity, and Judaism as a source of relevance rooted in a comprehension of modern life.” May we, the members of Beth Shalom, keep both parts of the equation operative and vital for our community.