Shiur #18: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina(Part VIII) - The Service of Yitzchak

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #18: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina

(Part VIII)

The Service of Yitzchak


Rav Yitzchak Levi



            Of the three patriarchs, the Torah speaks the least about Yitzchak. The long parshiyot of Lekh-lekha and Vayera and the beginning of Chayyei-Sara are devoted to Avraham, and the parshiyot from Toldot until the end of the book of Bereishit deal with Yaakov. Yitzchak's story is restricted primarily to the end of Chayyei-Sara and Toldot. In this lecture, I will try to draw information from these brief accounts about the Divine service of Yitzchak, the unblemished burnt offering (Bereishit Rabba 64, 3).




In contrast to what I said in the introduction, Chazal viewed the Akeida as a test of Yitzchak no less than of Avraham (especially according to those who maintain that Yitzchak was already an adult at the time). They understood that Yitzchak was not merely the passive object of Avraham's self-sacrifice; rather, he played an active and essential role in the Akeida.[1] His readiness to allow himself to be offered as a burnt offering based on his father's instructions[2] gave expression to self-sacrifice that was in no way inferior to that of Avraham, who had been directly commanded by God to make that sacrifice.


Thus, the Akeida established a special relationship, which had significance for future generations, between Yitzchak and the sacrificial service. God saw Yitzchak as if he had actually been offered up as a sacrifice on the altar:


"And Avraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son" (Bereishit 22:13). Rabbi Bannai said: He [Avraham] said before Him: Master of the universe, see the blood of this ram as if it were the blood of my son Yitzchak, the organs as if they were the organs of my son Yitzchak. As we have learned in the mishna: This in place of that, this an exchange for that, this a substitute for that – it is temura.

Rabbi Pinchas said: He said before Him: Master of the universe, see as if I had first sacrificed my son Yitzchak, and afterwards I sacrificed this ram in his place. This is what it means when it says: "And Yotam his son ruled as king in his place" (II Melakhim 15:7). (Bereishit Rabba 56, 9)


            And in Rashi's golden words (Bereishit 22:13-14):


What is meant by "in place of his son?" At every sacrificial act he performed on it [the ram], he prayed saying: May it be Your will that this act may be regarded as having been done to my son – as though my son is being slain; as though his blood is being sprinkled; as though his skin were being flayed; as though he is being burnt and is being reduced to ashes…

"There are seen in the mountain of the Lord" – the ashes of Yitzchak heaped up as it were and serving as a means of atonement.


            I noted in lecture 15 that sacrificing the ram in place of Yitzchak reflects the idea, associated primarily with the Ramban (in his commentary to Vayikra 1:9), that an animal is sacrificed in place of the person bringing it, who should in fact have offered his own self on the altar. In this sense, "the ashes of Yitzchak" – that is, Yitzchak's absolute readiness to sacrifice himself to God – constitute the foundation of the sacrificial service for future generations.


This special relationship between Yitzchak and the sacrificial service is also the basis for his relationship to the altar. As Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha says in Zevachim (62a), at the time of the return to Zion after the Babylonian exile the location of the altar was identified through the ashes of Yitzchak, which were observed resting on the site.




And he went up from there to Be'er–Sheva. And the Lord appeared to him the same night, and said, "I am the God of Avraham, your father: fear not, for I am with you, and will bless you, and multiply your seed for My servant Avraham's sake." And he built an altar there, and called in the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. (Bereishit 26:23-25)


            Like Avraham in his day, Yitzchak also builds an altar in the wake of God's appearance to him; like Avraham, he, too, calls out there in the name of God. The altar was built in Be'er-Sheva,[3] perhaps in the proximity of the place where his father had planted a tamarisk and called out on the name of God, the everlasting God (ibid. 21:33) (though this is not stated in Scripture).


            According to the simple understanding of the text, the altar was built to show gratitude for God's appearance to him and for His promise about multiplying his seed. The Meshekh Chokhma (ad loc.) explains that the altar was meant to publicize the prophecy or the miracle, or in other words, to make God's name known in the world:[4]


The altar was built in order to publicize the prophecy or the miracle… And similarly they called the altar "God is my miracle" (Shemot 17:15) or "God is peace" (Shoftim 6:24), and the like. Now following the first vision, where the prophecy was that he and his seed would inherit "all these lands" (v. 4), he did not publicize [the vision], for he feared the inhabitants of the land, lest their jealousy burn against him, and Yitzchak had never fought in his life. Moreover, it would go against the ways of morality, if when the inhabitants of the land were at peace with him, he should look to inherit their land. Accordingly, he did not publicize that vision and he did not build an altar. This was not the case regarding the second vision, where [God] did not mention the land, but only said, "Fear not… and I will bless you." [Then] he built an altar and publicized the vision. Therefore, they said: "We saw indeed that the Lord was with you" (v. 28) – this refers to the revelation of God's glory to him. Understand this.




And Yitzchak dwelt in Gerar… And the man grew great, and went forward, and grew until he became very great… And the Pelishtim envied him. For all the wells which his father's servants had dug in the days of Avraham his father, the Pelishtim had stopped them up, and filled them with earth. And Avimelekh said to Yitzchak, "Go from us; for you are much mightier that us." And Yitzchak departed from there, and pitched in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there. And Yitzchak dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Avraham his father, for the Pelishtim had stopped them up after the death of Avraham. And he called their names after the names by which his father had called them. And Yitzchak's servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water. And the herdsmen of Gerar did strive with Yitzchak's herdsmen, saying: "The water is ours;" and he called the name of the well Esek, because they strove with him. And they dug another well, and strove for that also; and he called the name of it Sitna. And he removed from there, and dug another well, and for that they strove not; and he called the name of it Rechovot. And he said, "For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land."

And he went from there to Be'er-Sheva. And the Lord appeared to him the same night… And he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there. And there Yitzchak's servants dug a well. Then Avimelekh went to him from Gerar, and Achuzat his friend, and Pikhol the captain of his army… And he made them a feast, and they did eat and drink. And they rose up early in the morning, and swore one to another; and Yitzchak sent them away, and they departed from him in peace. And it came to pass the same day, that Yitzchak's servants came, and told him concerning the well which they had dug, and said to him, "We have found water." And he called it Shiv'a; therefore the name of the city is Be'er Sheva to this day. (Bereishit 26:6-33)


            The story of digging wells is one of the most interesting stories told about the patriarchs. According to the plain sense of Scripture, it gives expression to their settling and establishing themselves in the land. In this sense, there is special significance to Yitzchak's focusing on the digging of wells – as opposed to Avraham and Yaakov, who occupied themselves primarily in tending their flocks.[5] Yitzchak's greatness lies in his further development of Avraham's achievements.[6]  Avraham was the first to move to Eretz Yisrael and settle there, and Yitzchak deepened his hold on the land – particularly in the south, where he had to stand up against the Pelishtim.[7]


            The Ramban in his commentary to v. 20, "And Yitzchak's servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water," explains that the wells allude to the three Temples:


But there is something hidden concealed within it, for it comes to inform about the future. For "a well of living water" alludes to the house of God that will be built by the sons of Yitzchak. And therefore it mentions "a well of living water," just as it says: "The fountain of living waters, the Lord" (Yirmiyahu 17:13). And he called the first [well] Esek, alluding to the first Temple, regarding which [the enemies] strove with us and made several wars until they destroyed it. And he called the second [well] Sitna, a more severe name than the first, and this [alludes to] the second Temple, which he called as it was designated, for it is said about it: "And in the reign of Achashverosh, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote to him an accusation (sitna) against the inhabitants of Yehuda and Jerusalem" (Ezra 4:6). And throughout its days, they acted toward us with enmity until they destroyed it, and sent us into [this] evil exile. And the third [well] he called Rechovot, this [alluding to] the Temple that will be built in the future, speedily in our days. It will be built without quarrel and strife, and God will enlarge our boundaries, as it is stated: "And if the Lord your God enlarge your border…" (Devarim 19:8). And it is said about the third Temple: "And the side chambers were broader as one circled higher and higher" (Yechezkel 41:7). And we shall be fruitful in the land, for all of the nations shall serve Him together.


            It seems to me that the connection between the well of living waters and the Temple stems from the fact that a well is a place where the living waters that flow in the depths of the ground are uncovered through human action.[8] Similarly, the Temple is the place where the Divine presence reveals itself as the source of living waters in the world.[9] This is the place where creation started and from where it spread out, and thus it is the source of material and spiritual blessing for the entire world.[10]


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] See, for example, Shemot Rabba 44, 5: "Remember Yitzchak their father who put his neck on the altar so that he would be slaughtered for their sake." This idea repeats itself in many other midrashim (and, based on them, in various piyyutim dealing with the Akeida), which understand that Yitzchak was Avraham's partner in the preparations, for example, in building the altar, arranging the wood, binding himself so that the act of slaughter not be disqualified, and the like.

[2] See Rashi on the verse: "And Avraham said, 'My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt-offering;' so they went both of them together" (Bereishit 22:8): "'He will provide Himself a lamb'  - this means: He will look out for and choose a lamb for Himself, and if there will be no lamb for a burnt offering, then: 'My son will be the offering.' Although Yitzchak understood that he was traveling to be slain, 'they went both of them together,' with the same ready heart."

[3] This location (as opposed to the altars of Avraham in Shekhem, Hebron, and Mount Moriya and the altars of Avraham and Yaakov in Bet-El) reflects Yitzchak's primary residence in the Negev – the region of Be'er-Sheva, Gerar, and the land of the Pelishtim.

[4] This understanding fits in with the plain sense of Scripture, for this altar – like most of the altars erected by the patriarchs (see lecture no. 14) – was not meant for the offering of sacrifices.

[5] In fact, Avraham engaged in both endeavors; it is not by chance that Yitzchak continued his involvement with wells, and that Yaakov took up tending flocks. (In many senses, Yaakov followed Avraham, and Esav followed Yitzchak).

[6] Repeating what Avraham had already done, which was so characteristic of Yitzchak, is an expression of the traits of din and gevura that are so prominent in him.

[7] Of course, there is much room for expansion here on the idea that "the deeds of the fathers are an omen for the children."

[8] Chassidic thought has greatly expanded on the deeper meaning of the digging of wells (see, for example, Sefat Emet, Toldot, 5642).

[9] This motif appears in various sources, for example, in the words of the prophets about the living waters that will issue forth in the future from the Temple or from Jerusalem (see Yechezkel 47; Yoel 4:18; Zekharya 14:8; and see Middot 2:6 and lecture no. 12), or in the aggada regarding the underground waters that threatened to inundate the world when David dug the foundations of the Mikdash (Sukka 53a-53b; Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 10:2; and see lecture no. 17).

[10] Man's service in the Mikdash allows for the manifestation of God's lordship over the world, in the sense of "For all things come of you, and of your own have we given you" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:14) (see lecture no. 1).