Yitzchak and the Imperative of Religious Genius (Ideas #55)

With Ya’akov’s journey to the house of Lavan, the Torah’s spotlight moves forever away from the most elusive of the fathers, Yitzchak. Even at the pinnacle of his life – being brought up as a sacrifice – Yitzchak stays in the background. As we follow him when he marries in parshat Chayei Sarah, his role remains quite limited. This pattern continues throughout the rest of his life, which we see described in parshat Toledot. In the few scenes where Yitzchak is actually the protagonist, he seems to limit himself to two rather conservative ways of dealing with the world: to react when forced to do so, and, whenever possible, to rely on previous strategies of his father, Avraham (e.g. proclaiming his wife to be his sister, making a pact with the local leader, etc.)


When it comes to physical existence, Yitzchak does not seem to expend a great amount of energy. In line with this, the famous Italian commentator, Seforno (1470-1550) observes that Yitzchak allowed his sons to reach the very mature age of forty without taking an interest in their marital plans or lack thereof. As in other narratives, Yitzchak’s interaction with the world shows a genuine lack of engagement.  For someone as involved spiritually as Yitzchak, it is indeed difficult to expend much energy on the comparatively minor goings-on of the world around him.


At the same time, Divine providence keeps Yitzchak from enduring his father’s or his son’s worst experiences. When in the same situation as his father, Yitzchak does not have his wife taken away from him. When Yitzchak thinks of going down to Egypt, G-d appears to him to prevent him from doing so. In contrast, G-d appears to Ya’akov to tell him that he can go to Egypt. Finally, as opposed to both his father and his son, circumstances do not lead to his marrying more than one woman. G-d Himself not only allows for, but seems to encourage, Yitzchak’s lack of interest in the world. As a result, even without possessing the worldly cleverness and involvement of Avraham and Ya’akov, Yitzchak comes out of difficult predicaments smelling like a rose.


There are really only two places where we see innovative behavior on the part of Yitzchak. The first is when he is “suach be-sadeh,” which is traditionally understood to mean that he was praying in the middle of the day. While others had prayed before him, the demonstrative midday prayer in the open field seems to have taken prayer to new heights. Yitzchak’s other, even greater, novelty is his decision to bless Esav. This is, in fact, the first time we hear of a human being having the audacity to bless another human being – a seemingly very bold move for such a conservative character. These two examples show a clear contrast between his marked passivity in the physical world on the one hand and his active pursuit of spiritual innovation on the other.


We could say that Yitzchak led an ivory-tower spiritual existence. This view helps answer a major question asked by the Ramban: Why did Rivkah have to deceive Yitzchak rather than explain to him the correctness of blessing Ya’akov and not Esav? The implicit basis for this question was later elaborated by the famous 19th century Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin): Rivkah behaves completely differently from the other mothers (i.e. Sarah and Rachel) when they disagreed with their husbands’ actions. In view of Yitzchak’s character, a likely reason for Rivkah’s behavior could be that she wanted to preserve Yitzchak’s ivory tower existence; she wanted to shelter him from the seamier facts about his son Esav. While it was important to her that Esav not get the blessing, Rivkah sought to do it in such a way as to keep Yitzchak innocent and pure. Indeed, Chazal refer to Yitzchak as an olah temimah - a pure (unblemished) sacrifice.



Yitzchak’s weltanschauung represents somewhat of an anomaly in the lives of the Patriarchs. It does not resemble the worldly spirituality of either Avraham and Sarah, or Ya’akov and his family. Neither does it reflect the normative path of halacha, which guides the Jew through mundane involvement in the world. 


It can be said that praying in the middle of the day was symbolic of Yitzchak’s entire existence. The other prayer times, morning and night, which are associated with Avraham and Ya’akov respectively, fit more naturally with the daily routine of a man of the world. He leaves his home in the morning to go into the world until evening when he returns. Yitzchak was never fully in the world, and therefore could pray while most other men were working. No matter the time or place, Yitzchak’s entire being was focused on the spiritual.


Yet, there is no doubt that Yitzchak’s personal development contributed a great deal to the foundation of the Jewish people. For one, his ivory tower existence would serve as a model for many other great Jews later on in history. These very important people would likely not have found their proper path without Yitzchak’s example.



Of course, further analysis shows that Judaism actually articulates two tracks: The first for just about everyone – like Avraham and Ya’akov, almost all of us need to sacrifice some of our spiritual pursuits to bring G-d’s presence into the world. We must show the world the harmony and beauty of a Divinely inspired life and thereby fulfill our role as a “nation of priests.” We can only show this to the world, however, if we live in it.


But there is a second track as well. Like Yitzchak, there are some Jews whose religious genius is so great, that they cannot spare any of their time to fulfill the priestly role of religious leadership. Their lot is one of complete spiritual dedication. The Gaon of Vilna was such a person – it is told of him that when his sister came to visit him after many years of separation, he told her that he had no time to speak with her. In truth, he had no time. His time had to be solely dedicated to the development of his religious genius. He understood that his personal responsibility to the Jewish people was to develop that genius.


This unusual second track even finds its place in halacha. When Ben Azai chose not to marry because of his overwhelming devotion to Torah study, it would appear to have been against the halacha (Yevamot 63b). After all, Jewish men are required to marry and have children – Judaism is critical of monastic celibacy.  And so the first halacha in the Shulan Arukh’s Even haEzer section tells us that someone who does not get married and have children is considered like a murderer. However, three paragraphs later we read that someone like Ben Azai, who did not get married because of his total dedication to Torah study, is not considered a sinner.  There is halacha for most of us, which tells us who to bring G-dliness into the world; and then there is halacha for those who bring themselves to G-dliness. This was Ben Azai, the Vilna Gaon, and the progenitor of it all, our father Yitzchak.


On some level, the primary track of Avraham and Ya’akov remains superior. That is to say, it is more effective in the short term. All of Ya’akov’s children came out properly, which is not the case with the children of Yitzchak. Similarly, we know that the more worldly approach of the students of Rebbi Yishmael was more successful than the more rarefied approach of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai (Berachot 35b). Nonetheless, Yitzchak teaches us that we must allow for a second track as well – allowing the true religious genius to make the short-term sacrifices needed to bring about his unique contribution to the long-term success of the Jewish nation. In this, as in other realms, we have to acknowledge different roles for different people within G-d’s holy nation.