Of the three avot, “fathers” of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Isaac seems to be the least appreciated and least discussed. Abraham has three parshiot, Lech Lecha, Vayera, and Chayei Sarah largely devoted to telling his story; Jacob has two, Vayeshev, and Vayishlach. But we really only hear Isaac’s story in this week’s Torah reading, Toldot.
Why the lack of attention to Isaac? Is he somehow less important than his father and his son?
Let’s start with looking at what sort of person Isaac was. What are the impressions we get of Isaac from what we read in the Torah?
He seems to be relatively passive – in the episode of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, we see Isaac plaintively asking his father “here’s the wood and the fire, where’s the lamb for the sacrifice?” There is no record that he argued with either his father or God over the idea of being offered up as a sacrifice.
All the while his mother, Sarah, keeps pushing his brother, Ishamel, out the door and out of the family, Isaac is completely silent – neither egging his mother on, nor coming to his brother’s defense. He’s totally on the sidelines, not engaged, not a participant in this important family drama.
When it comes time for Isaac to get married – and the commentaries tell us Isaac was 40 years old at the time, showing he was perhaps not terribly eager – he is totally NOT involved in the process. His father sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac. Isaac is out meditating in the field when his wife to be shows up in a caravan. We’re then told Isaac takes her into his late mother’s tent.
When Isaac becomes a father, the Torah tells us: And Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his venison; but Rebekah loved Jacob. Even in his love, Isaac seems somewhat passive – he loves Esau because he brings him food he likes. The language used in the Torah for his love is even passive: in Hebrew it says “vaye’ah’hav” Yitzchak, in a passive form…more like “Esau was loved by Isaac.”
When we look at Isaac’s life and try to see what he did with it, other than blessing his child – and being deceived in the process – all that Isaac does seems to be a rerun of his father’s life. We’re told there was a famine and Isaac went to Avimelech king of the Philistines, and just as his father passed Sarah off as his sister, Isaac does the same thing with his wife, telling the men of the place that Rebecca is his sister. Just as Abraham prospered in Gaza, Isaac prospered in Gaza. And after that event the Torah takes several verses to tell us: “All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father – ‘the Philistines had stopped them up and filled them with earth…. and Isaac dug again the wells of water which they dug in the days of Abraham his father, and which the Philistines stopped up after the death of Abraham. And he called them by names as the names which his father called them.”
Isaac dug again the wells of water which they dug in the days of Abraham.
Why is this detail important? The Slonimer rebbe points out another little detail regarding this whole episode. In this week’s parsha we are told “And it came to pass the same day, that Isaac’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 Shevah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheva to this day.”
This detail is significant because a couple of weeks ago in parshat Vayeira we were told that Abraham had already named the spot “Beersheva.” But by Abraham it does NOT say “therefore the name of the city is Beersheva to this day.”
Abraham dug wells in that spot – but the wells he dug did not endure. Abraham moved on to other things, someone else, the Philistines, came along and filled in the wells he dug. And that’s why it does not say “the name of the city is Beersheva to this day”—the work Abraham did was to a degree undone by others. After Isaac came along and dug the wells again however, it was enduring. So there was something important that was contributed by Isaac’s redigging the wells. What was it?
By Abraham, we are told that the spot was called Beersheva because it was the spot where Abraham and Avimelech made a shavua, an oath. Sforno tells us that here, in this week’s parsha, Isaac calls it Beersheva because it was well number seven (sheva). Sforno says Abraham dug three wells, Isaac came and redug those three wells and then dug three more – Esek, Sitna, and Rechovot, for six, and then at the naming of the city he dug a seventh well.
The seven wells are symbolically important – seven of course is a number which in the Jewish tradition symbolizes completion, wholeness. The seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, is the crown of creation from which all blessings flow. The Zohar tells us that we have to set our table for an abundant meal on Shabbat because blessings do not descend to an empty table. This is what is being referred to in Lecha Dodi, the hymn we sing on Friday night, when we sing “ki hi makor habracha,” for she, the Sabbath, is the source of blessings.
Isaac had to re-dig his father’s wells, but he had to add something as well. His father dug three wells, which he had to maintain, and he had to add three wells of his own, and the seventh well I would suggest represents a harmonization of the six preceding wells. The three wells of Abraham symbolize Abraham’s chesed, his lovingkindness; Isaac is associated with the trait of gevurah, or strength, and his three wells are symbolic of that strength and discipline; and the seventh well represents the synthesis of these two traits, which is necessary for the world to endure. The world would metaphorically burst into flames if judgment were untempered by love; and it would quickly descend into chaos if love were left completely undisciplined.
Not everyone is a pioneer. Not everyone blazes new paths and starts something fresh. But in terms of building something that will endure, those who come after the founder – the second and third generations in particular – are just as important.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the founding of a religion, a nation, a corporation, or a congregation – enduring success is often a question of succession. Typically new entities have charismatic founders – people with “magnetic personalities,” people who are good communicators, people with a vision. They are often very disruptive, upturning the apple cart of the status quo in their field.
That turmoil and excitement might be necessary to get a new venture off the ground – but it’s not necessarily the recipe for continued growth and an enduring enterprise.
Among nations, look at the examples of Israel and America. David Ben-Gurion and George Washington were both men of great charisma. They were in many ways the founders of their respective nations. Yet who succeeded them? In both cases a much less charismatic character – in Washington’s case it was John Adams, in Israel’s case it was Levi Eshkol (Moshe Sharett was really a short interruption, not a successor). After all the excitement of a charismatic founder, there is a need for a little cooling off, to have a period when a calmer person comes along and “re-digs the wells,” consolidates the successes of the charismatic founder.
The same is very much true in the business world. One of the greatest challenges in the entrepreneurial world is how to make a transition from a charismatic founder to the next stage in management. The people like Bill Gates who start a company and grow it from something small to a major corporation are the rare exceptions.
Over half of all founders are replaced after a few years. Many companies have seriously stumbled because of a failure in leadership succession. Hewlett Packard struggled to find its way after the retirement of legendary co-founder David Packard.
B’nai Israel has had successive generations of leadership “redigging the wells” of earlier generations. We’re building a new building – just as earlier generations also took on the challenge of building a new building.
Isaac’s role in the founding of the Jewish people is often underappreciated. Yet if he hadn’t gone back and returned to the ground of his father, if he hadn’t revisited some of the same issues, but bringing his perspective and strengths to the situation, the Jewish people very well might have faded away. If Isaac hadn’t tended to his father’s wells, there would have been nothing for his son Jacob to inherit. A legacy depends on each generation doing its part.
The Vilna Gaon points out that when Isaac re-dug the wells, he calls them by the same name his father used – as a show of respect to Abraham. The Gaon takes this as a message that a person should not stray from the ways of their ancestors. Of the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Isaac is the only one who never has his name changed – as a sign of his constancy in not changing from the ways of his ancestors.
However, I would suggest that the message to us is slightly different. Isaac had to re-dig his father’s wells, but he also had to dig his own wells, and the seventh well represents bringing harmony to the work of his father and his own work.
The well is often taken as a metaphor for Torah, as both are sources of nourishment, sources of life for people in a desert – one physical, one spiritual. We have to return to the well of Torah, redigging some of the wells earlier generations have dug, but at the same time adding our own contribution as well, making the well our own.
Abraham may have been the charismatic founder of the Jewish people, but the quiet Isaac was needed to solidify what Abraham innovated. May the Almighty help us to be as successful as Isaac was in finding a synthesis between the wells his father dug and the wells of his own.