re-digging the wells of our forefathers
Jewish tradition attributes a special quality to each of the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham is associated with chesed, loving-kindness, Isaac with gevura, bravery, and Jacob with emet, truth. Looking at the stories of the Bible, each of these attributions seems strange indeed.
To the reader of the Bible, it is hard to understand why Abraham, who banished his older son Ishmael from his house and was prepared to sacrifice his second son Isaac, should be associated by Jewish tradition with the quality of kindness. Similarly, it is difficult to fathom why Jacob, who deceived his father and brother Esau in order to obtain his birthright, and was deceived in turn by his uncle Laban and his own sons, should be associated with the quality of truth.
But strangest of all is the association of Isaac with the quality of gevura, heroism. While Abraham does demonstrate notable acts of kindness, and Jacob does maintain his truthfulness in difficult circumstances, it is hard to find any example of bravery in the stories of Isaac. Indeed, Isaac’s life, lived in the shadow of the terrible trauma of his near-sacrifice by his father Abraham, is one not of heroic action, but of passivity. Not only does Isaac lie passive throughout the drama of the binding of Isaac, but for the rest of his life his fate is dictated by others. His wife is chosen by his father, and his inheritance, contrary to his wishes, is determined by the scheming of his wife Rebecca and son Jacob. In what way then does Isaac merit the label of hero?
The act which attracts the attention and admiration of the rabbis takes place in this week’s Torah portion. Isaac re-digs the wells of his father Abraham, which had been blocked up by the Philistines. In doing this, Isaac demonstrates personal courage of a very powerful sort. Many of us, note the rabbis, are valiant when it comes to fighting our own battles, and gaining reputations for ourselves. But it takes courage of a very different scale to fight a battle where the credit is not our own, or where we are not blazing our own new path.
Isaac, who had many reasons to feel that he had spent his life in the shadow of his father Abraham, still found the courage to put aside his own personal agenda, and to perpetuate the legacy of his father Abraham. Not only did he re-dig his father’s wells, but he emphasized his commitment to continuing his father’s legacy. As the Bible tells us: “He called the wells by the same names that his father had called them”.
What is heroism? For the Rabbis, it is putting personal ambitions aside for a greater goal. In Pirke Avot , the Mishnaic compendium of wisdom, the sage Ben Zoma asks:
Ezehu gibor ? – “Who is a hero?” His answer: “One who manages to overcome his own temptations”. By putting aside ego and personal ambition, and committing himself to consolidating his father’s legacy, Isaac became worthy of being a model of heroism.
In many ways our generation parallels that of Isaac. The dramatic events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel were brought about by a remarkable generation. Looking back at the devastation of Europe that they arose from and the paucity of the resources they had at their disposal, we can only feel awe at the scope of their achievement. An air force comprised of planes reassembled from parts left as scrap by the departing British army has become the envy of the Middle East; a foreign ministry that began with a staff of 6 in a two room-office in Tel Aviv now has 93 missions and diplomatic relations with 160 countries. Rather than feeling daunted and inadequate by the scale of previous generation’s successes, the Rabbis’ approach to Isaac suggests that we should recognize that our task is different; it falls to us to consolidate these achievements and build on them. In doing so, the Bible tells us, in this task of re-digging the wells of our predecessors, we too can strive for the attribute of heroism.
In others’ words
Israel’s first two Israeli-born Prime Ministers describe the role of the second generation of Israel’s leadership:
“I was fortunate to be the first among Israel’s prime ministers to be born after the establishment of the state. The founding generation struggled to establish the state and build its foundation. Our generation faces other challenges. This is a turning point in our history. During more than 2,000 years of exile, generations of Jews fought and struggled to get back the homeland we lost. Now, after the founding of the state, our main task is to secure, reestablish, and develop the homeland we got back. The torch has been passed on to us, by the generation born with the founding of the state in 1948 and in the 1950s, the generation which broke the siege of the Six Day War and repulsed the joint assault of the Yom Kippur War.
“We have the responsibility to carry the age-old hope of generations into the next century.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 18, 1996
“The first challenge of Zionism establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was realized by the founding generation. “The challenge before us is to realize the second stage of Zionism and that is establishing the existence of the State of Israel as an outstanding member and the center of the Jewish People’s existence, determining its borders and ensuring its long-range security while maintaining all of the State’s vital interests.”
Prime Minister Ehud Barak, August 12, 1999
On a lighter note
Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg had just got married. On their way to their honeymoon, Mr. Goldberg said to his new wife “Would you have married me if my father hadn’t left me a fortune?”
“Of course”, she replied sweetly. “I would have married you if anyone had left you a fortune.”