Thursday, November 23, 2006

Yitzchak: Deconstructing the Right to Life

On the surface, the life of Yitzchak appears to be nothing more than a replay of the life of his father Avraham. Consistently, in one event after the next, their life stories match: A period of childlessness, two sons in conflict, refugees of famine, prophetic promises of Israel, wife charades as sister, terrific financial success, water rights contested, treaties with Avimelech… Just in case we missed the point, Yitzchok redigs his father’s wells and gives them the same names that his father gave them! In sync with the uncanny rerun of circumstances and challenges, Yitzchak is determined to live his father’s life.

At one point, however, G-d says no. When a dry spell causes a food shortage, Yitzchak, as expected, sets out to walk in his father’s footsteps. He heads south for the fertile land of Egypt, just like his father did so many years earlier when the last famine hit. But G-d stops him:

G-d appeared to him and said, “Don’t go down to Egypt... Live as an immigrant in this land.” (Bereishit 26:2)
Avraham can escape to Egypt but Yitzchak cannot?! Everything else in Yitzchak’s life matches Avraham’s quite nicely; why can’t he go to Egypt like his father? Why must Yitzchak suffer through the famine?

Back in parshat Lech Lecha at the Covenant between the Halves, Avraham received a prophecy that foretold a great national exile:

Know that your descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs… for 400 years. (Bereishit 15:13)
A 400 year exile? The Jews weren’t in Egypt for 400 years, just 210 (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 48). How do we get the number 400? Well, if you count backwards 400 years from the Exodus it takes you to the birth of Yitzchak (Rashi Bereishit 15:13). (It works out exactly to the day. Yitzchak was born on the 15th on Nisan in the year 2048 and the Exodus was on the 15th of Nisan in the year 2448; cf. Rashi Bereishit 18:10.) The divine prophecy that Avraham’s “descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs” must therefore begin with Yitzchak.

There’s an obvious problem here. Yitzchak was born in Israel and never left. How can he be considered a foreigner in a land that was not his if he never left home? Wasn’t Israel his homeland?

The answer is discomforting, but inescapable. Yitzchak was a foreigner in his own land.

G-d tells Yitzchak “Live as an immigrant in this land. Not “settle,” but, "live as an immigrant," be a ger, a stranger. This is the fullfilment the prophecy of "Ger yihiyeh zaracha." Even when Yitzchak is at home, he is not at home.

Yitzchak is doomed to lead a lifelong exile, but it is not of the usual type. It is not an exile from Israel, nor is it an exile from G-d. (In the very same sentence that G-d tells him to be a ger, a stranger, G-d promises to be with him; cf. 26:3.) So what kind of exile is this? It is an existential exile – Yitzchak simply does not belong. This kind of exile is far more acute when experienced in your own home. This is why Yitzchak may not leave Israel.

Why is this Yitzchak’s fate? Why must Yitzchak forever be the foreigner? Because he has no right to life.

Yitzchak should never have been born. His mother was sterile and his father was old – they laughed with incredulity at the suggestion that they would have a child. Even after his miraculous birth, Yitzchak should have died at the Akeida. This is why his name is “Yitzchak,” laughter. His very existence is laughable. He has no place in this world.

This is what the Zohar means when it describes Yitzchak as the personification of din, strict justice. Life relies on the constant flow of G-d’s kindness and compassion for its survival. As the Psalmist said, “He gives bread to all flesh – because His kindness is infinite” (Psalms 136). In contrast, G-d’s attribute of justice provides for no one. Can anyone claim that they deserve life? A world of strict divine justice, the world of Yitzchak, simply cannot exist (cf. Rashi Bereishit 1:1). Avraham, the exemplar of divine kindness, is free to go find food in Egypt. But Yitzchak, the paradigm of strict justice, has no permission to escape the famine.

Maybe now we can understand why Yitzchak does not receive anything on his own merits. When G-d informs Yitzchak that the land will belong to him and his descendants, and later when G-d blesses him, both times G-d makes a point of saying that these gifts are in the merit of Avraham – a point G-d does not make when speaking to Yaakov (cf. 26:3-5, 26:24; compare 28:13).

Yitzchak is din. It does not matter how holy he is, he will always deserve nothing. This is why Yitzchak’s life is virtually identical to Avraham’s. Everything Yitzchak experiances in life must flow directly from his father’s merits – it has no other source. Yitzchak can produce no life of his own; he can only receive and relive his father’s life.

In “Contemporary Halachic Problems” (vol. II pg. 191), Rabbi J. David Bleich describes the feelings of a Jew visiting Hebron today:
One experiences the dichotomy existentially. “This is all mine. Yet if it is mine, why do I feel as a ger? Why is it that I feel that I am a stranger?” There is ambivalence and a tension in the air which foster antithetical emotions…
In our times, the Jewish nation seems to be in Yitzchak mode. Like Yitzchak, we look back at our origins and see a continuous string of miracles. Like Yitzchak, we should have been destroyed in the holocaust. We are incredulous at our own existence and we feel that we do not belong. But yet, G-d gifts us with Israel and obviously desires that we remain there. Like our father Yitzchak before us, we are doomed to be foreigners in our own land.

In Israel and in exile at the same time. Strange indeed, but this was Yitzchak then and this is the Jew of today. May the redemption be soon!


  1. Sandy Gordon11/23/2006 8:05 PM

    Based on the end of this essay, you state that we resemble Yitzchak, which represents justice, since we too feel like strangers. Isn't the world supposed to be a mix of justice and mercy?
    Sandy Gordon

  2. Rafael Araujo11/24/2006 8:11 AM

    Yasher Koach on your insights!

    Tzarich biur - if according to your explanation, Yitzchok has no merit of his own and it flows from Avrohom Avinu, why do we invoke time and again the zchus of Yitzchok Avinu. When HKBH heard the cries of BY in Mitzrayim, he "remembered" his promise to all three of the Avos. Yitzchok is mentioned seperately, as we find the the initial brocheh of Shmoineh Esrei. How does this square with your mahaloch?

  3. Rebbetzin Gordon-
    Yes, you are right that there is chesed and mercy too. All is not Din - if it was we wouldn't be here. But don't forget that we have an Av named Yitzchak. We do not have only Yaakov the synthesis - we have Avraham the man of Chesed and we have Yitzchak the man of Din too. This means that such modes can exist independantly. (Hopefully) never for us in the absolute way that it was for Yitzchak, the personification of Din, but Din nonetheless. Certainly Din is being experianced by many today in Israel. My point is that this does not mean rejection from G-d. It is just a different type of relationship. It is Yitzchak.

    Reb Rafael-
    You have raised an excellent point. Allow me to clarify my post. Yitzchak was a Tzaddik over unimaginable proportions. As an Av, he serves as an eternal model for the Jewish nation. Certainly we exist today because of the merit of his divine service. I do not deny these basic truths. All I am suggesting is that his mitzvot may not have functioned for him. He lived in a world of Din. Faced with the full force of undiluted divine judgement, no man can survive.

  4. Rabbi Gordon -- Brilliant way to tie the parsha to current problems in Israel !

    Question (partially relating to your post three weeks ago):
    In the first bracha of Shemoneh Esrei we do mention Three Avos. However, we focus on "beneficial kindnesses" and on "recalling kindnesses of the Patriarchs". Why do we not remind ourselves of the strict justice and of our obligations to fulfill the mitzvot, or else...

    The second question: It seems to me that both statements of Avram Avinu and Yitzhak Avinu that their wives are their sisters, while being factually true, could be considered as “putting a stumbling block before the blind”. Both statements lead to potential adultery, which almost happen in both cases: “One of the people has nearly lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us!” (26:10). What am I missing ?

  5. Leo-
    In the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei we are in praise mode. We're not trying to do anything other than praise G-d. For us humans, it's much easier to praise G-d's infinite love and kindness than to focus on his justice. However, we do say that He is "Norah," awesome. This is in reference to His attribute of Din, the awe-inspiring justice of G-d.

    As for your second question: You are right, of course, but what was the alternative? They were scared for their lives! In such a predicament, what they did is exactly what the Halacha requires.

  6. Rabbi Gordon--I really liked your explanation of Din, and it's relevance to how we see ourselves in the context of our total history.

    In light of Yitzchak as the archetype of Din, how do you understand Jacob's covenant with Lavan, where he invokes neither the G-d of Abraham nor the G-d of Isaac, but the FEAR of Isaac?

  7. Barry-
    This very verse is probably the source of the entire idea. G-d is the Fear (or Dread) of Isaac because Yitzchak's perception of and relationship with G-d is pure Din!

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful blog. I think you might find it of interest to know that the Talmud in Yevamos 64b puts forth the idea that Yitzchok was himself impotent. For a possible insight into this idea, see Pirqi d'Rabbi Eliezer ( ). I think this ties into your view of Yitzchok.

    My own view at the moment, in light of the Pirqi d'Rabbi Eliezer, is that his impotence was in fact caused by the Akeida and was a reflection of a larger effect on him caused by the Akeida. Marrying Rivka brought back a sense of balance to a degree. When the pasuk says Yitzchak was comforted regarding his mother's loss after he got married, we see the beginning of a process whereby Yitzchok comes back to a fuller life so to speak and begins a process of healing the rift in family life caused by the test of the Akeida (his mother's death being tied to the Akeida, the tension in the Rishonim trying to explain where Avraham went after the Akeida as opposed to joining either Rivka or Yitzchok, etc) . Rivka's taking him back to the place of the Akeida is a further step in that rehabilitation.

  9. I took a look at the Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer that you linked. (Amazing Ketav Yad!) The language there sounds to me like Yitzchak took Rivkah to the site of the Akieda, not the other way around. Minor quibble, your interpretation still stands as a facination possibility. But I must admit that it's a tad too speculative for my taste.

  10. Thank you good rabbi for your "minor quibble." Indeed the version of the text which I linked to does read that Yitzchok took Rivka (lakach es Rivka). Furthermore, the version in the first edition, while different, (lakcha Yitzchok) also indicates that he took her. See However, my reading was based on the standard edition (Warsaw 5612) which reads lachak Yitzchok, v'halach ima which would mean, in my reading of it, that [she] took Yitzchak and [he] went with her. In is interesting to note that in the latest version of the Pirqi d' Rabbi Eliezer from Zichron Ahron (Jerusalem 5765) they rely on the language of the first printing.

  11. O.K. I'm impressed.
    It is probably not uncommon in the history of jewish couples to have a debate on who was doing the taking and who was doing the following. "Ma'aseh Avos Siman L'Banim."

  12. Thank you for your excellent insights on Yitzchok. Your depiction of Yitzchok's non- existence on this world could explain the remarkable emphasis on Avrohom's role on the akeida and the almost total lack of recognition of Yitzchok's role. He seems to get very little credit for his readiness to participate in the akeida. Based on your presentation, his ephemeral existence in this world suggests that,for him, leaving it would not be such a big deal.
    Unrelated to the main points of your presentation, I have a problem with feelings of ambivalence and tension in Hebron after my recent experience of utter joy at the zchus of being able to visit there. I wonder what adjectives we should use to describe our feelings when we are in New York City.
    Noam Gordon

  13. For those of us not used to analyzing manuscripts, could you tell us a little about the Pirqi d'Rabbi Eliezer? Is it a recently discover medieval work? Is this a commentary by a Rishon, or a copy of a Midrash lost until now, or something else? As R. Gordon points out, it's amazing how clear the writing is!

  14. Lewis,

    The Pirqi d'Rabbi Eliezer is one of the hardest works to nail down in terms of dating. You will often see people dating it to the eighth century. Clearly, many items within it betray its later dating. However, it is equally clear that much of the work is a preservation of very old material.

    Regardless, the sefer is filled with astounding and creative ideas. I will take the liberty of mentioning another idea found in the sefer. Many midrashim record that Adam was created late on the sixth day of creation. Almost immediately, he and Eve sinned and were banished from the Garden of Eden at which point the Sabbath came in. Our sefer records that as the day of Sabbath came to an end, Adam began to fret that with the return of the mundane week, he would return to a path of sin and destruction.

    To put his heart more at ease, God sent down a pillar of light as a sign that He would be with Adam throughout the week to help him and guide him. Upon seeing this, Adam raised his arms to the light to acknowledge the sign of salvation God had sent him. Each Saturday night during the Havdalah service, I think of this as we raise our hands to the light of the candle and take comfort in knowing God will be with me during the week.

    Back to the makeup of the sefer, though. There are many manuscripts existing, each with widely variant readings making it difficult to put forth a single authoritative version. We do know that we are missing substantial parts of it. We have 54 chapters - two dealing with the life of R' Eliezer ben Hyrcanis, nine dealing with the creation of the world, ten devoted to Adam and his sons and so on.

  15. Fascinating, thanks. Would it be correct to classify the Pirqi as a mystical work somewhat analogous to the Zohar? From what I gather, some or all of the Zohar was written down in 13th century, based on presumably much older traditions.

  16. I would hazard to guess that the later half of your comparison is on target. While most works on Agadata have mystical elements, I would not categorize the sefer as a mystical sefer. If you are familiar with the Tanna Dibei Eliyahu, I would say that is a closer match. They both deal with ethical ideas through Agadata not directly playing off Tanach.

  17. Anonymous-
    Thank you for all this valuable information and insight. Could I be so bold as to ask for your name?

  18. That your comments have at least a heuistic value is evidenced by the fact that they have prompted me to write this lechatchela. You began with a challenging if not entirely viable premise, but then you fail to take it anywhere. Each of the Avos had, of course, a different tafkid. That of Avraham (thesis)and Yaakov (synthesis) is easy to grasp and assimilate; but that of Yitzchak is not. Why? Not because he was a zombie, chas v'sholom as you appear to suggest, but because hs tafkid was and is antithesis.
    Why? Like all of the Avos, he blazed a trail to enable us to follow in his footsteps and literally give us the gevurah and chizuk to survive in Eretz Yisroel Consider: He had the seemingly impossible challenge to continue
    living in Canaan despite hardships that would drive others away to more hospitable countries. He had to stay for our sake so that, through the his zchus of his moser nefesh we could survive similar hardships. He met the physical challange so well, he became very wealthy. Another example of his meeting the challenge he was given of antithesis: Although his father had an overwhelming personality, his son had to generate a middah that was the antithesis of his father's, and he succeeded. Another example: Although his meddah was din, he had the challange of Asav who would be blown away by this medah. Instead of giving din to Asav as Avraham did to his other son, and as Yaacov did to his sons, he gave chesed, the antithesis of his midah, so he could pray for us saying "Just as I overlooked my medah of din despite having a son like Asav, and gave him chesed and ahavah instead, so please do the same for your children who are not on the same madraygah as Asav." Another antithesis: returning to the Torah (wells) of his father that had been stopped up, and negotiating a way to dig a new well or approach to Torah that would remain open to all. The Akaidah is another example, where HaShem instructed that it be dedicated on the day of Yitzchak's birth because his literal moser nefesh (sacrifice yourself despite it being antithetical to a promise to you concerning your children inheriting the land)- enabled the korbonos to be later offered there in his zchus; and so on. Hopefully you get the idea.

  19. Anonymous-
    I am a bit taken aback by your reaction to my piece.
    I love and completely agree with everything you wrote and I fail to see how it is in conflict with what I wrote. Of course Yitzchak is an Av. Of course Yitzchak introduces us to Din. Hashem is telling us about Himself through Yitzchak. In no way could any human today even begin to grasp the awesome greatness of this spiritual superman. My point is just this: We should understand how powerful Din really is. According to Din, we have no right to life. Yitzchak teaches us this too.

  20. i learned something really interestng in this topic today-
    Q: Why was yitzchak born so late into avraham's life?
    A: avraham's whole essence was chessed- the world had to have time to be filled up with chessed and ahava before the din and restrictions started. a little child is first taught to love torah and only when he is older and he can understand is he given the din, the rules. the people that lived in avraham's time were like small children who needed chessed before being given the din. This is why yitchak had to be born when Avraham was so old already.