November 8, 2018 / Rosh Chodesh Kislev, 5779 • Parshat Toledot
Issue 534
Dedicated in loving memory of Mrs. Miriam Friedman

The sixth section of the book of Genesis describes the history (Toledot, in Hebrew) of Isaac and the birth of his sons, the righteous Jacob and wicked Esau. The narrative then follows Isaac to Philistia, focusing on his curious project of digging wells. Shortly afterward, Rebecca tricks Isaac into conferring his blessings -- and thus the future of the Jewish people -- to Jacob rather than to his actual firstborn, Esau. After realizing that Rebecca was correct, Isaac sends Jacob to Aram to marry a daughter of his kinsman.

Although Isaac is Abraham's heir and successor, the picture the Torah presents of Isaac seems the antithesis םf all that we know about Abraham. We see no expansion of his father's great undertaking of educating humanity; unlike Abraham, Isaac fights no great battles, never leaves the confines of the Holy Land, and takes no additional wives in order to enlarge his family. He seems content to passively let life unfold around him. The only active project the Torah relates regarding Isaac is that he dug wells. Is this -- of all things -- the only achievement the illustrious heir to Abraham is capable of?

On the other hand, the Torah records no hint of of dissatisfaction for Isaac's apparent passivity. There seems to a be a tacit understanding that Isaac was doing what he was supposed to be doing. Quietly, and without fanfare, he continued his father's enterprise, not by emulating his father's behavior but by taking it to the next level.

Isaac understood that as revolutionary as Abraham's work was, it was, by nature, of limited effect. Abraham's method of disseminating Divine consciousness was to spread it to everyone -- to reach the widest-possible audience by making no prior demands on his listeners. Since the world was not yet interested in what he had to say, stipulating conditions would have limited his influence. The disadvantage of his approach was that by not requiring any preparatory work from his audience, Abraham did not effect a permanent change in them.

This does not belittle the tremendous impact of Abraham's efforts -- he influenced thousands of people and attracted a sizable following. But these masses were nourished wholly by his inspiration, charisma, and personal example. When they left his presence and resumed their own lives, their enthusiasm for his teachings waned.

Isaac sensed that the very approach responsible for the outstanding success of his father was, paradoxically, also the greatest threat to its perpetuation. He understood that in order to ensure the continued success of his father's undertaking, his own discipline and respect for standards (gevurah) would now have to complement his father's loving-kindness (chesed).

Whereas Abraham's approach can be conceived of as a downward vector, bringing Divinity "down" to even the lowest rungs of humanity, Isaac's approach can be conceived of as an upward vector, elevating people so they can integrate increasingly higher levels of Divine consciousness into their lives.

This was the message Isaac communicated by digging wells. As opposed to filling a pit with water brought from elsewhere, digging wells reveals an already-existing source of water merely concealed beneath layers of earth. If Abraham's message was: "Come revive your minds with the refreshing water of Divine consciousness," Isaac's message was: "Now that you have been revived, look for your own source of water. Dig away all the dirt and you will reveal within yourself a wellspring of Divine awareness that will quench your thirst your whole lifetime."

In this regard, Isaac was the perfect model for humanity. We find him meditating in the field, shunning superficial conflict with his neighbors, and always focusing inward. He reached a spiritual perfection so radiant that it, coupled with his material success, drew others to him instinctively. He had no need to seek disciples; disciples sought him.

This is why this parshah is called Toledot, which also means "descendants." All the central personalities of Genesis had descendants, and the Torah sees fit to enumerate them. Yet it is only the chronicle of Isaac's lifework that is entitled Toledot. For only Isaac embodied the approach that ensures lasting results, that produces disciples -- spiritual "children" -- capable of standing on their own.

--From Kehot's


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