I’ve always felt a little bad for Yitzchak Avinu. He perennially seems to be in somebody else’s shadow. In Parashiot Lech Lecha, Vayera, and Chayei Sarah, he is a plot device in the story of Avraham and Sarah, more an idea – the promise of a child and heir, the threat of his being taken away – than a character. In most of this week’s Parshah, Toldot, and in Parshiot Vayetzeh and Vayishlach, he is a pawn in the story of his son Yaakov – an elderly father to be manipulated, separated from, and reunited with, but not an active character in his own right.
In fact, we really only have one chapter – in contrast to roughly ten each for Avraham and Yaacov – that is genuinely about Yitzchak. And what does Yitzchak do in that chapter? Repeatedly relive Avraham’s stories. Confronted with the same challenges which Avraham faced, he seems inevitably to hit on the same solutions. He gets one chapter in center stage, and he spends a significant chunk of it merely re-digging wells dug by his father, and re-giving them the same names. Poor Yitzchak.
The Chasidic tradition, however, doesn’t feel bad for Yitzchak, and instead offers us a valuable perspective on his importance and what we can learn from this elusive ancestor. This insight is beautifully articulated by the Me’or Einayim, who reads Isaac’s re-digging of wells as a metaphorical depiction of his re-opening the spiritual pathways forged by his father:
Avraham Avinu opened up channels of awareness, teaching all people how to dig within themselves a spring of living waters, how to cleave to the font of life . . . After the death of Avraham, the wellsprings of wisdom were sealed, blocked by the evil in humanity and the world. The lowliest, earth / physicality, became strong, and the power of water / spirit was diminished. Then Avraham’s son, Yitzchak, came along and, following in his father’s footsteps, taught the people of his generation how to dig again into the living source of waters.
From this perspective, Yitzchak is not simply a pale imitation of Avraham. He is a crucial part of the story of the Jewish people and our work in the world. Avraham is the trailblazer, the iconoclast, the once in many-generations leader with the ideas that change everything. Yitzchak is the careful implementer, the one who does the tremendously hard and fundamentally important work of making sure Avraham’s revolutionary ideas outlive him. Without Yitzchak’s patient and skillful tending of the wells of wisdom, Avraham’s big ideas go nowhere.
We have much to learn from this image of Yitzchak in our work as activists. Very few, if any, of us will be Avrahams. We will not be Cesar Chavez or Eleanor Roosevelt. We will probably not come up with the earth-shattering new paradigm, we will probably not be the hero whose actions and words upend humanity’s understanding of itself. And that can sometimes lead us to assume that our activism is trivial. Unimportant. Boring. Derivative. Just like Yitzchak.
We are wrong. Our activism is crucial precisely because we are like Yitzchak. Because we do the slow, painful, fantastic work of re-digging the wells – making sure that the most important ideas of preceding generations don’t fade from memory, making sure they get translated for our time, making them real in the world. Like Yitzchak, we can and must make sure that the work of justice is bigger than one or two great heroes, that our most cherished values make the crucial and fraught transitions from radical insight to movement to structural reality.
Let us not devalue our work as the patient re-diggers of the wells of justice. Just as our tradition has held up the crucial example of Yitzchak Avinu, let us honor ourselves and press on as we slowly build and rebuild the world to come.
Sarah Mulhern is a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew College, where she is also working towards a Masters in Jewish Education, and a member of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. She serves as the Rabbinic Intern of Congregation Kehilath Israel of Brookline, MA, and is an alumna of the T’ruah Rabbinical/Cantorial Student Fellowship in Human Rights Leadership.