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Parashat Toldot

November 27, 2008

By Doug Alpert

How do we define greatness? And moreover, by what criteria do we establish those who we believe possess qualities of greatness as our leaders? I pose these questions as a means to understanding our patriarch-Yitzhak Avinu/Isaac. If one can suggest with a straight face that any one of our patriarchs is a forgotten patriarch, it would be Isaac.

From the beginning of this week’s parashah, Toldot, the Torah defines Isaac within the context of his father, Avraham. “Avraham was the father of Yitzhak.” (Bereshit 25:19) Rashi’s exegesis on this verse suggests that its inclusion in our Torah was to establish, in contravention to anyone who might be dubious in regard to Isaac’s lineage, that Isaac was really the progeny of Avraham and Sarah. And, to drive home the point, Rashi states that G-d shaped Isaac’s facial features to be similar to those of Avraham. Thus, lest there be any doubt, as we are introduced to the Isaac story after the death of Avraham, his biography is most prominently defined as being Avraham’s kid, rather than being his own adult personage.

If this is not bruising enough to Yitzhak’s esteem we find in the Talmud, “R. Hannan bar Rava said in the name of Rav: On the day our father Abraham departed from this world, all the notables of the world’s nations stood in line and said: Alas for the world that has lost its leader! Alas for the ship has lost its pilot.” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra, 91a-b) Not exactly a ringing endorsement for our next patriarch.

Avraham is not the only figure in Yitzhak’s life who, arguably, would overshadow his accomplishments. There is also the wife chosen for him by Avraham’s servant-Rivkah/Rebecca. Leon Kass, in his work The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, sees Rivkah as a godsend to Yitzhak, and that through her guile she sets the family along the right path. Kass sees her as the true hero of the story. And, Kass also sees Yitzhak’s primary mission as being to transmit the covenant received by Avraham from G-d to his progeny. He is essentially placed in the role of transmitter without making a courageous choice on his own behalf.

So where does that leave Yitzhak? Is there anything Isaac did accomplish that rightfully places him in the rarified air of our patriarchs? Or, is there room and/or need for someone of Yitzhak’s personality and character within the leadership ranks of our Jewish institutions?

The role of transmitter, or maybe more aptly stated, the role of a preserver of tradition in a world of whim and fluctuation, is both vital and necessary. Nahum Sarna in Exploring Exodus sees the fortunes of Yitzhak as an important part of the process that leads to the Exodus from Egypt and the fulfilling of the Divine promise. We read in this week’s parashah that Yitzhak, unlike his father, pursued agriculture and prospered until he became very great (Bereshit 26:13). So great was his success that he was perceived as a threat by the Philistine King Avimelech. “You have become much more powerful than us.” (Bereshit 26:16)

While we are more apt to laud those who perform “great” acts of courage, and go against the grain of what has preceded them, such traits are not always those we need at certain points in time. We do ourselves a disservice when we create such large expectations from our leaders. I think of this as being analogous to the expectations we create for G-d. Only going forward from Shemini Atzeret, when the rainy season is already here, do we ask G-d for rain. We do not ask G-d to do anything outside of what is within the natural order; we do not request a miracle, nor do we seek some highly visible act of greatness. The greatness occurs within the context of the normal, everyday events that comprise our existence.

Likewise, sometimes the test of great leadership is simply a life well lived, carrying out our work with integrity and success, raising a family (Yitzhak was the only one of our patriarchs to be monogamous), and treating others with dignity and respect. Yitzhak, in his own quiet, seemingly contemplative existence provides us with one exemplar of Jewish leadership, and his work preserves a chain that is unbroken between Avraham Avinu and our generation. It is incumbent upon us as Jews to recognize and honor these leadership traits that we can so easily take for granted, and to create an environment and culture in which the next Yitzhak will flourish and make a much needed and valued contribution to our future.


Doug Alpert is a rabbinical student at AJR.