Venturing Out Into a Dangerous and Deceptive World
The difference in personalities and outlooks between the father, Avraham, and the son, Yitzchak is quite stark and apparent in their respective narratives. Avraham’s attribute was that of Chesed, of spreading out to the rest of the world and sharing God’s loving message of ethical monotheism with the world. Yitzchak was more withdrawn and did not view his role as needing to go out into the world. Rather, when the world came to him, he dealt with it righteously.
This trait becomes apparent in the narrative of Yitzchak digging wells, and then being persecuted by the Philistines for his actions. Instead of a confrontation or attempting a peace treaty, Yitzchak always avoided conflict by just walking away from his aggressors. Even when Avimelech, king of the Philistines, came to him with an offer for peace, Yitzchak did not initially welcome him with open arms, but instead asked them why they had come. They had to press him with a request for a peace treaty in order for Yitzchak to finally relent.
Avraham vs Yitzchak’s personalities
Rav Yaakov Lainer characterizes Yitzchak’s personality in a very positive and holy light. Yitzchak was so withdrawn from this world because he recognized that this world is a false reality and that there is only one true Existent Being, God Himself. He chose to remain as attached to Divinity as possible, and considered integrating into the world as a form of detachment from holiness and Divinity. By contrast, Avraham expressed his closeness to God by spreading God’s message and enlightening as many of God’s creatures as possible about God.
There is a place for both personalities and approaches, and this is evidenced by a passage in the Zohar. Commenting on the verse (Gen. 1:5) “God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness, ‘night,’” the Zohar cryptically states: “’God called the light “day”’ refers to Avraham; ‘and the darkness “night,”’ refers to Yitzchak.” The daytime is a time for productivity and going out into the world and influencing one’s surroundings.
Nighttime is the time when we withdraw from the outside world and are left to our thoughts and our dreams. Our sleeping state is when our souls detach from this world to some degree, we are physically paralyzed, and unconscious of our physical surroundings. Our dreams sometimes manifest mini-prophecies that give us insight into the Divine realm.
Noah and the raven
We may suggest that this is also the dichotomy represented in Noah’s efforts shortly before departing from the Ark. In order to see if the world was ready again for habitation, Noah first sent out the raven. Only when it refused to fly forth and instead circled the Ark, did Noah send out the dove. Why did he choose the raven first? The black raven represents the darkness of night, and a wariness and reluctance from spreading out into the world.
Noah, conscious of mankind’s state before the Flood, may have been expressing his own caution and hesitation to repopulate the world, by sending out the raven first. The raven’s actions were completely consistent with its nature; it flew around the Ark, but refused to fly out further into the unknown world. This was the trait of Yitzchak, and it has its place, when the individual feels threatened or compromised by integrating into the physical world.
But this was not to be Noah’s destiny. While realizing that the world is not perfect, and that he had a natural aversion from the world based on witnessing mankind before the Flood, he later realized that he had nonetheless been tasked with repopulating the world. While he may have preferred to be a Yitzchak, God wanted him to be an Avraham. He therefore sent out the white dove, representing the light of day, a time when we spread out and make a difference in the world.
Like father, not like son
Ultimately, one has to make a calculus based on one’s own personality and the circumstances one finds oneself in to determine whether to be an Avraham or a Yitzchak. There is something else quite telling about this dichotomy, found in the opening verse of our parsha (25:19):
וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת־יִצְחָק
These are the chronicles of Yitzchak son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak.
If the verse already stated that he was Yitzchak, son of Avraham, why the second phrase restating that “Avraham begat Yitzchak”? The Torah is teaching a profound lesson in human nature: When the father is an Avraham, the son will quite often be a Yitzchak. Sometimes a person’s personality can be outgoing and “larger than life.” Others around him, often the person’s children, realizing they can’t measure up to that degree of charisma and personality, will withdraw and choose the opposite way of socializing with others. The Torah is teaching that part of Yitzchak’s development into the man he became was due to Avraham giving “birth” to those personality traits that emerged in Yitzchak.
Avraham’s perception of Yitzchak
Rav Lainer has a second way of reading these words, “Avraham begat Yitzchak.” Recognizing that Yitzchak was more introverted, Avraham made it his priority to foster a more outgoing and effusive nature within his naturally withdrawn child. As a parent, he worked with Yitzchak and tried to draw him out as much as possible, knowing that as the patriarch of Israel, Yitzchak would need to pass the mantle of leadership to the next generation.
On a deeper level, Avraham also knew that Yitzchak’s perception of reality was more accurate than his own. Yitzchak correctly surmised that in order to be more connected to God, one needed to withdraw from the vicissitudes, falsehoods, and trivial events of this world. This is what our Sages mean when they side with Bait Shamai who asserted (TB Eruvin 13b), “It is more convenient (“נוח”) for a person to have never been created.”
Yitzchak was choosing to remove himself from a world of deception that could only draw him away from Hashem. He didn’t wish to take risks and venture outward into a world that could destroy his spirituality. But Avraham, knowing that Hashem creates each of us for a purpose in this world, encouraged Yitzchak to take an active role in the unfolding of Jewish history.
Yitzchak’s internal struggle
This internal struggle within Yitzchak to not venture outward is also what blinded him to the truths of Esav. Because he was withdrawn from the outside world, he knew only one thing, which was that Esav was his firstborn, and that it was therefore proper to grant him the birthright. The fact that he was tricked into blessing Yaakov instead demonstrated to him that he really wasn’t in control of his own destiny, and that ultimately, if Hashem wanted him to accomplish something in the world, Hashem would find a way for him to do so.
It was then that he realized that the path of his father, Avraham, the path of venturing outward and taking risks in this world, had merit. He therefore sent his son, Yaakov, away from the solitude and security of the land of Israel, letting him know that he should adhere to his grandfather’s path instead of his father’s.
This dichotomy between Avraham and Yitzchak continues to this day. There are those who prefer the path of Yitzchak, to withdraw from the shark-infested waters of modern society and to avoid confrontations with anything that could tempt us to leave the path of Torah.
Others choose the Abrahamic path of embracing the outside world and, like Noah’s dove, plucking an olive branch of goodness from this world and bringing it back to the Ark of the Torah community. Each of us should introspect and choose our destiny carefully. At the same time, we should respect the Avraham’s and the Yitzchak’s among us, and accept that we all have different life paths. Ultimately, we all have a role to play in bringing us to the final Redemption, may we see it, bb”a.