Former Shaliach in Memphis (2002-03) and London (2007-09)
In Masechet Shabbat (89b) we find an interesting story based on the verse from Isaiah (63,16) “For you are our father; for Avraham does not know us, and Yisrael does not acknowledge us; you, Hashem, are our father, our redeemer everlasting is your name”. The Gemara notices that Yitzchak’s name is omitted from those who don’t remember us – as opposed to Avraham and Yaakov – and around this fact a curious tale is spun.
In the days to come, Hashem will see that the Nation of Israel has sinned. After being given so many chances, it seems we have finally went overboard and there is no way to repent. Unfortunately, the only way to end this is, G-d forbid, to destroy us. Hashem doesn’t like that idea so much, He still loves us, and decides to turn to those who might be able to find some way to bail us out. It is a well-known fact that Avraham’s main attribute is loving kindness, two weeks ago he even prayed for the people of Sedom, therefore it should come as no surprise when He makes decides to turn to Avraham.
“Avrahm,” says Hashem, “your children have sinned”. Here, however, we are in for an unpleasant surprise. “Destroy them to uphold your great name”, says Avraham. This isn’t exactly the answer Hashem is expecting, and so, He decides to turn to Yaakov. If Avraham is willing to give up on us so easily it might be because he didn’t spend that much time physically looking after us. Yaakov, on the other hand, raised 12 boys, he won’t give up without a fight.
“Your children have sinned”, says Hashem to Yaakov, and yet again we receive the unsatisfying answer, “destroy them to uphold your great name”. At this point Hashem tells Himself that salvation won’t come from the elders or the youngsters and he must turn to Yitzchak.
“Your children have sinned”, says Hashem to Yitzchak and a fascinating discussion begins. First Yitzchak attacks the wording of the accusation. “What do you mean MY children? When they behave they belong to you as it is written ‘my firstborn Yisrael’ and when they sin they suddenly belong to me? It’s like a father whose son just scored the final points to win the school basketball championship. Everyone who’s willing to listen (and some who aren’t) will know that “That’s my son! I taught him everything he knows!” On the other hand, when the same boy comes home with his report card the father takes one glance and yells “Zelda! Look what your son did!” Either they’re always your son or never!
Next Yitzchak gives us a fascinating lesson in higher mathematics. “How long does a person live? 70 years? Until he’s 20 you don’t punish (punishment by heaven begins at the age of 20. Not to be confused with earthly punishment that begins at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah) so he has 50 years left. Half of that is night, your left with 25. Then eating, drinking and other human facilities take off another half which leaves us with only 12.5 years for a person to really sin. 12.5 out of 70 is really not that much! Why don’t you give them a break? You know what? How about Half on me half on You. And if that doesn’t work, than listen, I allowed my father to sacrifice me! Put it all on my tab.”
Of course The Holy One Blessed Be He forgives his children. The Children of Israel say the verse from Isaiah thanking Yitzchak, who in turn passes the credit back to Hashem. All’s well that ends well, but I still have one question on this Midrash. Why Yitzchak? Avraham and Yaakov’s reasons for praying were so good! With a quick glance it would seem that looking at Yitzchak’s life doesn’t really help us answer this question. What’s special with Yitzchak’s life?
“Wait a minute!”, I hear you yell, “What about The Akeda?!” So I would like to point out that the Midrash doesn’t seem to see The Akeda as a trial for Yitzchak, but rather as one for Avraham. Furthermore, throughout the Akeda, many verbs are mentioned. The great majority are pointed towards Avraham, there are a small amount that refer to both Yitzchak and Avraham together (and they walked) but only one (!) verb mentioned as done by Yitzchak alone. “And he spoke”. For every practical purpose Yitzchak is completely passive when it comes to The Akedah. Therefore I deduct that, while The Akedah might be the merit Yitzchak has that could erase 12.5 years of sinning, it is probably not the source of his inspiration to do so. If we return to Yitzchak’s life we will discover that it is as if someone copy pasted Avraham’s. Avraham goes to Grar – so does Yitzchak. Avraham claims his wife is his sister – so does Yitzchak. Avraham digs wells – so does Yitzchak, and he even names them with the same names Avraham did. In contrast to Avraham’s life before him – for whom everything is new and special – and Yaakov’s life after – who never has a dull moment – Yitzchak lives a fairly boring life.
And that, in my humble opinion, is the answer to our question. Even though it might be scary to do something no one ever tried, there is a kind of excitement from being the first. You are the creator, the leader, the trail blazer. But most Jews lead a life based on routine. I will have to do today what I did yesterday and the day before and the day before that. What my parents did and their parents and their parents’ parents till the day the Jewish people received the Torah. And this routine is difficult, trying and tiring. This is something that the innovator is not capable of understanding. “Of course it’s difficult,” he says, “but look how rewarding! We created something no one has before!” On the other hand the person whose job is to preserve doesn’t get to see the great changes. He only has the everyday difficulty of getting up for Shul, putting on Tefilin, watching what he says, being kind to a friend. That is why Yitzchak has the ability stand up for Bnei Yisrael. He understands the difficulty of preserving. May we successfully face the difficulties of the everyday and deserve to be advocates like Yitzchak Avinu.