By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
One biblical figure who stands out in the Bible as a gentle soul, perhaps even a pacifist, is Isaac, the hero of this week’s Torah portion, Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9). Isaac commits no aggressive acts, however legitimate they might be, and never even asserts himself verbally.
I have long been conscious of the contrast between Isaac and the other major characters of the Bible. But only recently was I made aware of a fascinating problem. It was brought to my attention by Rabbi Yehuda Shaviv in his excellent book on the weekly Torah portions, entitled MiSinai Ba (He Came From Sinai). Rabbi Shaviv concurs with my view of Isaac as a decidedly non-militant personality. But he is troubled by the fact that in the Jewish mystical tradition, the trait of gevurah, strength, is assigned to Isaac and not to the other Patriarchs. Thus, in Kabbalistic terminology, Abraham represents chesed, compassion, and Jacob stands for tiferet, harmony. It is gentle Isaac who carries the banner of gevurah. How are we to understand this perplexing attribution of strength to that patriarch who seems to least exemplify it?
Rabbi Shaviv answers this dilemma thus: “Forgoing the military option is itself a show of strength.” I can accept his formulation, but the way I see it, there are two types of strength. One is to exert power. Abraham chose that way when he waged war against the four kings in the story we read just a few weeks ago. Similarly, Joshua and David found that way necessary in their struggles.
But Isaac knew the secret of another way of demonstrating strength. He faced challenges that he could have met aggressively. More than once, he faced hostility. In our parsha, we read of the enmity he confronted at the hands of the Philistines, who stopped up the wells he needed to water his flock. In verses 13-22 of chapter 26, we read “…The Philistines envied him…They stopped up all the wells his father had dug…” What was Isaac’s response? Not war! Rather, “Isaac departed…” He left the scene, he dug new wells, but again he faced violent opposition. “The herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with him…” They continued to stop his wells. In response, he dug another well and dug yet another well. He persisted, swallowing his pride and suppressing every impulse of striking back violently. Ultimately, he prevailed. Finally, he dug a well which was uncontested.
Some find his patience in the face of his enemies frustrating. But Midrash Tanchuma finds it admirable and remarks: “Behold! See what strength Isaac possessed!” The Midrash validates Rabbi Shaviv’s contention that sometimes, “forgoing the military option is itself a show of strength.”
There is a verse in the biblical Book of Proverbs that is particularly apt here. It reads, “Better to be forbearing than mighty; to have self-control than to conquer a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
Isaac’s method of achieving goals persistently but patiently is again demonstrated in a very different context in this week’s Torah portion. We are told that he was 40 years old when he married Rebecca, whereas his children were not born until he was sixty. He suffered 20 years of disappointing childlessness. It would have been perfectly appropriate for him to take another wife, or a concubine, during those years. After all, his father Abraham had done just that, marrying Hagar when Sarah could not bear him a child.
Isaac rejected that option. Instead, again patiently and persistently, he chose to pray. He prayed fervently, year after year. The great medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimchi, or Radak, remarks: “He prayed consistently and for a long period of time because he loved Rebecca exceedingly and did not wish to offend her by taking another wife. Therefore, he persisted in prayer until the Lord answered him.”
There are many texts in our tradition that give support to Isaac’s way of demonstrating strength. One is this Talmudic statement: “Who is the strongest of the strong? He who transforms his enemy into a friend.” This was Isaac’s way. He asks us to strive to convert our enemy into a friend.
Isaac’s way recognizes the necessity for great patience and forbearance. If we adopt Isaac’s way, we must be prepared for a lengthy process before our challenges are resolved. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, “An eternal people does not fear the long and arduous path.”
Patience is necessary for those who follow Isaac’s way. But a wise woman taught us that patience is but another name for hope. That woman was Jane Austen, who put these words into the mouth of one of the characters in her great novel, Sense and Sensibility: “Know your own happiness. You want nothing but patience—or give it a more fascinating name: call it hope.”