Weekly Ponderables & Halachah
This page is where you'll find a halachic riddle for you to solve, or PONDERABLE articles from the shul newsletter.
Answers/Opinions will appear in one week following each posting, along with a new challenge.
Sedrah Tol’dot [not Toldot!]
Haftarah Malachi 1:1-2:7 (the last prophet)
WEAK or GHANDI-ESQUE?
[portions excerpted/edited from the writings of Reb Tzvi Hersh Weinreb]
There are many "shtarkers" [strongmen] in the Bible. Samson, for example. But even kindly Avraham was a warrior, and a victorious one. Yaakov was proud of his triumphant use of "my sword and my bow." Moshe was able to slay the Egyptian who tormented his Jewish victim. Y’hoshua, Sha-ul, and David were all "shtarkers" who led their people in battle. One biblical figure stands out as a "non-shtarker," a gentle soul, perhaps even a pacifist: Yitzchak, the central figure of the this week’s sedrah, Tol’dot. Yitzchak commits no aggressive acts, however legitimate they might be, and never even asserts himself verbally.
There is much contrast between Yitzchak and the other major characters of the Bible. Yitzchak was a decidedly non-militant personality. But … in the Jewish mystical tradition, the trait of g’vurah, strength, is assigned to Yitzchak and not to the other Patriarchs. Thus, in Kabbalistic terminology, Avraham represents chesed, compassion, and Yaakov stands for tiferet, harmony. It is gentle Yitzchak who carries the banner of g’vurah. How are we to understand this perplexing attribution of strength to that patriarch who seems to least exemplify it? … There are two types of strength. One way is to exert power. Avraham chose that way when he waged war against the four kings in the story we read just a few short weeks ago. Y’hoshua and David found that way necessary in their struggles.
But Yitzchak 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 Sedrah, 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 26:13-22, we read "…The Philistines envied him…They stopped up all the wells his father had dug…" What was Yitzchak's response? Not war! Rather, "Yitzchak departed…" He left the scene, he dug new wells, but again he faced violent opposition. "The herdsmen of G’rar quarreled with him…" They continued to stop his wells. In response, he dug another well, and yet another. He persisted, swallowing his pride and suppressing every impulse to strike back violently. Ultimately, he prevailed: 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 Yitzchak possessed!" The Midrash validates this contention, namely that sometimes, "forgoing the military option is itself a show of strength." There is a verse in Proverbs which is particularly apt here: "Better to be forbearing than mighty; to have self-control than to conquer a city." (Proverbs 16:32).
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Could it have been his overarching need for “shalom bayit” and a desperation for peace that kept Yitzchak from – in his mind - interfering with Rivka’s dysfunctional rearing of their twin sons? A reluctance that, ultimately, led to the disastrous outcomes of Yaakov’s and Esav’s relationship? It might have been Yitzchak’s own upbringing. He had witnessed the argumentative environment in the household of his parents, Avraham and Sarah, and the resultant painful expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. Yitzchak apparently had no desire to replicate the stresses of marriage and parenting, and wed as a forty-year-old only after Avraham’s intervention. And he was childless until 60. [In her defense, Rivka’s only prior family experience had been in a household whose normal day-to-day interactions with one another and the outside world was characterized by being cunning, scheming, and deceitful. From a psychologist’s perspective, theirs would not have been considered to have been a union “made in heaven”.] But it is revelatory of his inner strength that he re-united with his brother Ishmael to bury Avraham: the schisms of their parents were not bequeathed to them.
Yitzchak had grown beyond their example. He had kept the torch of monotheism lit, passing it on to Yaakov. Thus, he is correctly regarded as a g’vurah.