Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 10 November 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
ArtscrollLibrary

Blessing in Isolation

In the face of famine, Yitzchak contemplates relocating to Egypt, as his father Avraham had done. G-d appears to him and instructs him not to do so, and to ‘sojourn’ (gur) in the land of Canaan, the land that will be given, as promised, to the children of Avraham.

Yitzchak first settles (vayeshev) in Gerar. He runs into trouble there when the king of the Philistines, Avimelech, discovers that Rivka is in fact his wife, and not his sister as he had told them. The king then commands all of his people — at the threat of death — not to touch Rivka or Yitzchak. In the years that follow, Yitzchak experiences tremendous prosperity, and, with it, the envy of his neighbors. As a result of this envy Yitchak is chased away and settles (vayeshev) in the Valley of Gerar. Again he encounters hostility from the locals, who quarrel over several wells that Yitzchak’s servants had dug.

After these travails, Yitzchak moves (vaya’al) to Beer Sheva. There is no mention of his settling there. Until now, the hostility of the Philistines had forced Yitzchak into isolation. But perhaps, as the son of Avraham, he should have sought this isolation of his own free will. Avraham sought to isolate himself and his household from the atmosphere and society of the cities, and chose to settle in the desolate south, only gradually establishing ties with the cities. In his waning years, even as he was regarded as a prince among his neighbors, he returned to the south, to an uninhabited area near the wilderness of Shur. Avraham’s great spiritual mission required the benefits of isolation: the calm and contemplative life it affords, nurturing a relationship with G-d, and the avoidance of the negative influences of a society at odds with his values. Now, when Yitzchak moves to Beer Sheva, as a sojourner in the southern wasteland, G-d appears to him for the first time in many years. Until now, he is not assured of G-d’s protection, and the hostility of his neighbors grew unchecked. This may have been providentially designed to ensure that Yitzchak not become preoccupied with wealth and honor.

When Yitzchak removes himself back to his childhood environs, Beer Sheva, G-d reappears to him, assuring him blessing and protection in the merit of his father Avraham. Back in this place of isolation, the cocoon which supported and nurtured Avraham’s great spiritual mission, G-d appears to Yitzchak and refers to Abraham as avdi, my servant. This is the single instance when Avraham is called my servant, and in this single word, G-d expresses all that He expects of his son, Yitzchak.

Those re-pledged blessings once promised to Avraham immediately return. Yitzchak’s men find water at their first attempt (in the desert), and the king who had chased him away pays him a visit with every show of honor and respect. Until now he had struggled in vain to gain control of the wells his men dug and to live peaceably with the locals. Once he followed his father’s footsteps to the isolated Beer Sheva, these blessings are forthcoming.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 26:23-24;20:1

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