“Confronting Adversity, Lessons from Father Isaac”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, includes chapter 22 of Genesis, the chapter that describes the Akeidah, the dramatic and historic binding of Isaac. The Akeidah not only defines the life of Isaac, but also defines Jewish history and the destiny of the Jewish people.

As we have noted in previous studies, the seemingly passive life of Isaac is sandwiched between the lives of two dynamic patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob. According to a long-held tradition, each of the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is responsible for composing one of the three daily prayers–morning, afternoon and evening. The afternoon prayer, Mincha, the transitional prayer, is attributed to Isaac. This in-between prayer–not morning, not evening, is a most appropriate prayer for Isaac, so typical of his life, not as an actor, but as one acted upon.

When surveying the life of Isaac, we find three key life events that together typify what seems to be the passive nature of Isaac. In his youth, Isaac is taken to Mt. Moriah and bound on the altar by his father, Abraham, who seeks to present him as an offering to G-d. In his mature days, Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, goes all the way to Haran to find Rebecca, a woman whom Isaac has never met, who is to become Isaac’s wife. In his old age, Isaac is deceived by his own son, Jacob, who takes away the blessing that Isaac intended for Esau. It is no surprise, therefore, that tradition often refers to “pachad Yitzchak”–the fear and dread of Isaac! If not itself a tragic existence, Isaac’s life always seems to be hovering around the precipice of tragedy.

In Isaac’s actions we never see dramatic accomplishments similar to the often heroic actions of his father Abraham, or the frenetic activities and immense achievements of his son Jacob. Unlike Abraham, Isaac does not set out to do battle with and vanquish four of the greatest kings of his time. Unlike Jacob, Isaac does not confront an Esau-like personality and come out “shalaym“–whole. Isaac never undertakes historic journeys of “lech lecha,” as Abraham did to the land of Canaan, nor does he wrestle with angels, or confront anyone like the wily Laban and come out on top, as did Jacob.

And yet, it is always Isaac who is elevated to the head of our prayers as we say, “Z’chor la’noo ah’kay’daht Yitzchak,” we beseech G-d to have compassion on us for the merit of Isaac who was bound on the altar.

It is not tragedy that defines Isaac; after all, life can only be evaluated and measured at its conclusion. While it is likely that, as a consequence of the Akeidah, Isaac always bears in his core the threat of death and annihilation, nevertheless, Isaac always emerges quite whole and alive. Just as he emerged alive and well from the Akeidah, Isaac emerges alive and well from the very passive role that he played in his own betrothal to Rebecca. He also emerges quite well from the deception by his son Jacob, for indeed, the blessings that he mistakenly bestowed upon Jacob were the proper ones.

To be sure, it is only on the surface that Isaac’s life appears to be one unending series of setbacks, tragedies and defeats. To a great extent, the life of Isaac is a virtual paradigm of the life of the Jewish people, always near the precipice of great calamity, but most often emerging safely, and surviving the dreaded challenge with unexpected joy. In the thicket of darkness and danger, there always seems to be a ram ready to be substituted for the bound and endangered Isaac.

Perhaps the most defining statement regarding Isaac is the repeated verse (Genesis 22:6 & 8) that describes Isaac and Abraham ascending Mt. Moriah to the Akeidah: “Va’yayl’choo sh’nay’hem yach’dav,” and the two of them went together. Isaac walks together with Abraham, even to the Akeidah. Similarly, the nation of Israel, not only remains firm in its faith in the Al-mighty throughout its long and challenging walk through history, but teaches the concept of faith to all peoples and nations who are prepared to listen. That is how Isaac conveys to his progeny, the Jewish people, a most valuable lesson of survival, so that they may emerge whole and erect from would-be tragedy, and not only prevail, but come out stronger and more confident.

May you be blessed.