Isaac - The Middle Stage in Serving God
The Torah devotes a great deal of time to discussing the lives of Abraham and Jacob, detailing numerous events pertaining to them. In contrast, Isaac receives relatively little attention to the extent that there is only one Torah portion in which he is the central character; that of Toldot, and even in that portion there is only one story that features Yitzchak without any other Forefather. This is all the more striking given that Yitzchak lived a longer life than both his father and his son. Accordingly, it could seem more difficult to derive lessons from the life of the middle of the patriarch. However, on deeper analysis it seems possible that the paucity of the account of Yitzchak's life provides us with a vital clue into understanding his role in Avodat HaShem (Divine service) and how that is relevant to our own lives.
The Gemara in Pesachim(1) tells us that the Patriarchs described the Temple in different ways. Abraham called it a mountain; Isaac a field; and Jacob a house. The commentaries explain that these different descriptions teach us many lessons about how each Patriarch related to Avodat HaShem.(2) One aspect of these explanations is the contrast in the variety that is found in the three terms. A mountain provides a fascinating view, incorporating numerous variations in the formation of the rocks, and rising up to great heights. This symbolizes the eventful life of Abraham whereby he scaled untold heights in teaching about the existence of one God in the world. A house is the location of many vital events in a person's life, and particularly represents one's daily, mundane life. It symbolizes the fact that for much of Jacob's life he was forced to be involved in very mundane activities such as dealing with tricksters such as Laban and working for many hours in the fields. And yet he succeeded in elevating these seemingly unholy activities and making them holy.
In this vein, what is the significance of the symbolism of a field with regard to the Avodat HaShem of Isaac? Unlike a mountain, a field does not offer a fascinating view with great variety, and unlike a house, it is not full of a variety of objects. Rather, a field is a flat, featureless phenomenon. Yet it is simultaneously a place of great significance; it is the subject of intense work aimed at making the field yield as much produce as possible. This description can help us understand how Yitzchak related to Avodat HaShem. Isaac's Avodat HaShem was characterized by intense self-growth and self-nullification. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky notes that his character traits were far less conducive to teaching and inspiring large numbers of people than those of Abraham and Jacob.(3) Moreover, we do not see that he was involved in physicality to the same extent as Jacob.(4) Yitzchak's niche was far more connected to the realm of self-perfection, intense work on nullifying his own physical desires and solely acting according to God's will.
With this explanation we can now delve deeper into the significance of the Torah's limited account of the events in Yitzchak's life. The reason seems to be quite simply that such incidents didn't take place in his life. His role was not to teach hundreds of people, rather his avoda was to work diligently on his own Avodat HaShem and self-nullification. This kind of spiritual work by its very nature is not characterized by excitement rather it involves slow, gradual, and difficult self-development. And yet in a certain way Isaac's form of Avoda is perhaps the most important of that of all the Patriarchs in that it is the stage in one's life that defines a person's spiritual fortitude for his own life.
This idea is demonstrated by a concept that is discussed by Rav Akiva Tatz in his book, 'Living Inspired'. He explains that there are three stages in many aspects of life. The first is the 'inspiration' stage, whereby a person begins a certain endeavor or relationship and is given a great surge of inspiration. The second stage takes place when the initial inspiration wears off and is replaced by a realization that this endeavor is not so easy after all. This stage calls for a great deal of persistence and hard work and often without seeing tangible fruits to one's hard work. The third and final stage takes place after the hard work, where a person finally feels the fruits of all his efforts. This is a far deeper and satisfying feeling than in the first stage because the inspiration of the first stage is not earned, whereas the third stage comes about due to a person's efforts. A good example of this phenomenon is the relationship of man and wife. At the beginning of a relationship both people feel a great deal of excitement about the relationship and 'feel' that they are in love, when in truth they are infatuated. The second stages takes place when that initial excitement wears off and the couple faces the realization that marriage involves a great deal of hard work and self development. If both spouses do exert the necessary effort then they will at some point reach the third stage of a genuine feeling of deep love.
The three Patriarchs correspond to the three stages: Abraham represents the exciting beginning and Jacob relates to the final phase of perfection. Isaac embodies the middle stage, where the excitement has faded and now a lot of hard work is required. This pattern is extremely pertinent to all aspects of Avodat HaShem. When a person begins a spiritual journey he feels a great sense of inspiration at the new vistas open to him, yet soon after he comes to the realization that in order to be an Eved HaShem one must work very hard. For example, in order to become a genuine Torah scholar, a person must go through the excruciating process of learning an unfamiliar language, and then approach the numerous difficulties involved in understanding a Gemara. But after all that effort, when he completes a section of learning the person feels a truly satisfying feeling of completion as a result of great effort. This is the relevance of Isaac to our lives: He represents that stage of life which is not necessarily exciting and does not involve dramatic events, rather it involves self-development. When we view great Torah sages we are usually exposed to the great events of their later life but it is clear that they all attained their greatness through years of devoted Torah study and self-growth. One elderly man had learnt in the same Yeshiva as the great Rav Moshe Feinstein when they were young. He was asked to relate stories from Rav Moshe's time in Yeshiva. He answered that there were no stories - all that Rav Moshe did in yeshiva was learn! It was that consistent, determined learning that created the leading Torah sage whom we know so much about.
We have developed a much deeper understanding of the significance of Isaac in our lives. This is relevant to a person regardless of his stage in life. For a younger person, it teaches him that in order to achieve greatness he must first be willing to put in a considerable amount of time and effort into developing his Torah learning, character traits and relationship to God. For people who are in a later phase of life, the lesson is that it is still essential that he find some time in his daily life to focus on his spiritual development, which includes a fixed time for Torah study and a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) devoted to self-growth. May we all emulate our father Isaac and make the necessary efforts to achieve the third stage where we can really appreciate the fruits of our hard work.
1. Pesachim, 88a.
2. See Ben Yehoyada, Pesachim, 88a.
3. Emet LeYaakov, Toldot, 28:19.
4. It is true that during Isaac's tenure with the Philistines the Torah details his work as a shepherd, nonetheless it seems that this was only for a small portion of his long life, and more importantly whilst Yaakov is often associated with sanctifying the mundane, Isaac is associated with other strengths.