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Yitzchak – the Heavenly Soul

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Adapted by Hananel Shapira

Translated by Kaeren Fish


 Yitzchak's path is different from that of Avraham and Yaakov. While the relationship between Avraham and Sarah, and between Yaakov and his wives, occupies a relatively modest place in the chronicle of their lives, when it comes to Yitzchak, Rivka is the active, entrepreneurial force in his home, and most of the recorded events of his life involve her.


In the stories that pertain to Yitzchak himself, there is an unmistakable echoing of Avraham's actions: "And there was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that had been in the days of Avraham" (Bereishit 26:1). Yitzchak wanders in his father's footsteps, and were it not for God's explicit command, "Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you" (ibid. 2), it seems reasonable to assume that he, too, would have gone down to Egypt because of the famine. Yitzchak's sojourn in Gerar includes a "she-is-my-sister" episode that is remarkably reminiscent of Avraham's story. Yitzchak also digs the wells of water that Avraham had dug previously, and re-names them with the same names that Avraham had given to them. He even gives Be'er Sheva its name after making an oath there to Avimelekh. All of these experiences recall the events of Avraham's life.


Yitzchak's marriage, as recounted in last week's parasha, is similarly organized completely at Avraham's initiative and under his strict supervision. The servant seeks a wife for "his master's son,” and the traits that he requires of Rivka – kindness and a readiness to "go forth" from her homeland – seem better suited to Avraham than they are to Yitzchak, who seems to have no special connection to them.


Commenting on the verse, "And Yaakov went out from Be'er Sheva" (Bereishit 28:10), at the beginning of next week's parasha, Rashi cites the midrash’s teaching that "the departure of a righteous person from a place makes an impression, for so long as a righteous person is in a city, he is its glory, he is its splendor, he is its magnificence; when he leaves, its glory is gone, its splendor is gone, its magnificence is gone." The question then arises: what about Yitzchak? He is still living in Be'er Sheva! The dream of the ladder, which we encounter further on in that parasha, leads us to the simple conclusion that the Divine Presence goes into exile along with Yaakov, even though Yitzchak remains in Eretz Yisrael. One might propose that the leadership has moved to the next generation, and therefore Yitzchak is "abandoned" by God in favor of Yaakov. However, in last week's parasha, too, we find that the Divine Presence rests with Yitzchak only after Avraham's death: "And it was, after the death of Avraham, that God blessed Yitzchak, his son" (25:11). It is difficult to avoid the sense that there is a consistent policy on God's part to avoid residing with Yitzchak, where possible.


This may be explained in light of the story of the akeda (the binding of Yitzchak). At the end of that narrative, Avraham descends alone from the mountain: "And Avraham returned to his attendants, and they arose and they went together to Be'er Sheva, and Avraham dwelled in Be'er sheva" (22:19). Where was Yitzchak? Chazal answer that he went and dwelled in the Garden of Eden for three years. Who is to be found in the Garden of Eden? Usually, people who are deceased. This comes to hint to us that while Yitzchak was not actually slaughtered, and a ram was slaughtered in his stead, he nevertheless "lost his life" in a certain sense (see Midrash Sekhel Tov on Bereishit 22:9), and "Yitzchak's ashes are viewed as though heaped up on the altar" (see Yerushalmi Ta'anit 2:1, and elsewhere), as we mention in our prayers on the Yamim Nora'im. It is quite appropriate, then, that the blessing corresponding to Yitzchak, in the three introductory blessings of the Amida, is "mechaye ha-metim," "He Who gives life to the dead" (see Yalkut Shimoni on parashat Vayera, 101).


The prophet Yeshayahu (29:22) speaks of "Yaakov who redeemed Avraham" (as do many midrashim, e.g. Bereishit Rabba 6:2). With the exception of one single prophecy (Amos 7:9), Am Yisrael is always referred to through association with Avraham or Yaakov (Yisrael): "the House of Yisrael,” "the nation of the God of Avraham,” etc. One might say that Yitzchak descends from the mountain only in order for Avraham and Sara to have continuity through Yaakov. When God promises, "In Yitzchak shall your seed be called" (21:12), we may understand that Yitzchak himself is not the seed; rather, Avraham’s seed shall come about “in” or “through” Yitzchak – i.e., Yaakov.


The Zohar (Tosefta vol. 1, parashat Noach, 59b-60a) notes that the righteous have their names repeated: "Avraham, Avraham,” "Yaakov, Yaakov"; "Moshe, Moshe,” etc. Even Noach shares this honor: "These are the generations of Noach; Noach was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generation" (6:9; likewise in the case of Shem – 11:10). No such repetition occurs in the case of Yitzchak, and the Zohar explains that a name is repeated because of the "two souls" that these righteous individuals possessed – "one soul in this world, and one soul in the world to come." But Yitzchak, "when sacrificed upon the altar,” remained with only his higher soul – and therefore his name is not mentioned twice. Thus, Yitzchak comes down from the mountain with a heavenly soul in an earthly body in order to establish Avraham's progeny.


What can we learn from Yitzchak?


In the spirit of the "Shabbat Irgun" celebrated this week by Bnei Akiva, mention must be made of the values we have grown up with, which are highly reminiscent of the manner and custom of Avraham: "calling in God's Name" wherever we go and working to "repair the world in God's Kingship,” as the Rambam describes him at the beginning of his Hilkhot Akum (1:3): "He would go about and call out and gather people, from one city to the next… He would teach each and every person in accordance with his intellect, until he had brought him back to the path of truth, until thousands and tens of thousands were gathered around him, and these were the people of Avraham's household." We have been educated in a spirit of activism and initiative with a view to realizing the aim of bringing the down the Divine Presence. From this perspective it is difficult for us to identify with Yitzchak, who seems oblivious to everyone around him, existing on the inspiration of the upper worlds in which he lives.


However, we must remember an important Jewish movement that developed some three hundred years ago, in Czarist Russia, against the backdrop of devastating disillusionment following the messianic anticipation aroused by Shabtai Tzvi, and the terrible crisis that followed. The battle waged by simple Jews at that time was a daily struggle for survival, surrounded as they were by a foreign and hostile environment. To such people it is difficult to talk about activism and perfecting the world. If a person living in such circumstances has a great soul, he will inhabit the upper worlds, in the company of the heavenly creatures, severed from and largely oblivious to the everyday problems of this world. His eyes will look to the distant redemption. He is like Yitzchak. Perhaps he is an "Admor,” the spiritual leader of a Chassidic community. If he is not gifted with a great soul, he will be struggling with the nitty-gritty problems of life, and will be able to hold onto the world of holiness only by "hanging on the Admor's coat-tails,” as it were: by being close to him or hearing his voice, even if he cannot understand the depth of meaning in his words. He will look to Yitzchak and "taste" something of the "shirayim,” the leftovers, of the royal banquet that Yitzchak ate when he was ready to bless his sons. The teachings of Chassidut offer a response to the needs of such people, too.




There is another way of understanding the path of Yitzchak, which in no way contradicts what we have said thus far. The Chassidic masters teach that Avraham's quality is "chessed" – kindness, while Yitzchak's quality is "din" – strict judgment. However, no one could possibly suggest that just as Avraham performed chessed his whole life, so Yitzchak multiplied strict judgment his whole life – for the world could not survive this. Avraham performed chessed, while Yitzchak accepted strict justice upon himself, without questioning and without relinquishing his faith in God and his consciousness of His Presence. When the Pelishtim take the wells which they had already blocked in the past, he finds a different place to dig, and does so without complaining. When Esav arrives and Yitzchak discovers that he has bestowed the blessings on the wrong son, he declares, "he too shall be blessed" (27:33). While Avraham receives a command from God to offer up his son, Yitzchak is ready to give up his own life even without being commanded to do so. Yitzchak accepts the unfolding of events, never asking why God is doing what He does.


This, too, is a great lesson that we must learn from Yitzchak, to serve as an example when we need it in the future.




(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Toldot 5772 [2011].)