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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

The Wisdom of Isaac

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Isaac is often overlooked in the pantheon of our Avot v’Imahot, our foremothers and fathers. He is sandwiched between his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob. His father smashes idols and brings the belief in one divine being to the world. His son struggles with God and is renamed Israel and to this day we, the Jewish people, live on as his namesake - b’nei Yisrael - the daughters and sons of Israel. These two men go on great journeys, the stories epic in both their scope and also the impact that they have left to the world. Isaac, on the other hand, is very rarely the main character in the Torah. He is more often a part of another’s narrative, participating, but not playing the starring role. He is also overlooked in rabbinic literature, referred to far less than his son and his father.

Like so many people who are overlooked, or unfairly considered, I think we do a disservice to Issac, but also to ourselves by doing so. Issac, in my eyes, is the exact model we need to look to as an example in this moment of pain and crisis.

What is it about Issac that makes him so worthy of praise? While the Torah provides us little description of Issac, there are two verses that speak volumes about his character and the example he can set for us in these trying times. Va’yetzei Yitzchak lasuach ba’sadeh lifnot erev - And Isaac went out lasuach in the fields near evening. (Genesis 24:63) This word lasuach shows up only once in the entirety of the Torah and plays a central role in understanding this verse. Yet, even the rabbis admitted they did not know the real meaning of this word. Most rabbis interpreted it to mean “pray” - as in, ‘Isaac went out to the fields to pray.’ But, in the world of biblical Judaism, personal prayer was not the way our ancestors communed with the Almighty. In order to understand the meaning we must turn to Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra who lived and worked in 12th century Spain. Ibn Ezra interprets the word lasuach, through his deep knowledge of both Hebrew and Arabic, to mean “walk among the trees.”

We must read this verse while considering Issac’s traumas of the past. First, his older brother, Ishmael, and the woman who would have played a central role in his life, Hagar, were banished by his father. His father robs him of a sibling, of a larger family. Then, also as a child, he is led again by his father to be offered up as a sacrifice to God. He is tied on the altar and watches his own father raise the blade to take his life before, miraculously, a voice calls to Abraham which Isaac does not hear prevents his death. This is the childhood that therapist’s careers are made of.

Yet, somehow, Isaac has grown into a man that is at peace enough with himself to take pleasure in the simplest things - lasuach ba’sadeh - walking amongst the trees as the sun sets. What a beautiful testament to, and example of, spiritual resilience. As someone who has had trouble taking pleasure in the small things in life over the last month or more, perhaps you have to, I look to Isaac with a mixture of admiration and, I will admit, envy. May we all return soon to wandering the fields, whatever that may be for you, to find joy in this life, this world and all its wonders.

The second verse that shows the example of Isaac comes just one chapter later. Abraham, as it is written, at the ripe old age of 175, full of contentment from a life well lived, dies. The very next verse reads, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre.” (Genesis 25:8) Isaac AND Ishmael. The two brothers that had been torn apart in their youth, each with a legitimate reason to not respect, even hold feelings of hatred toward, their father, find the ability to set aside the past, to come together and honor their shared origins and history. Both brothers display a spiritual strength that is so rare, a quality to be admired and aspired to.

In the here and now, Israel and around the world of 2023, the vision of Isaac, the forefather of the Jewish people, and Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arab nations and of Islam, seems more distant than it has in years. I will admit that as I am bombarded by the cacophony of noise, of hatred, of fear, I have felt the fire of my hope for a better future flicker and wane. But we cannot, we must not, allow the hatred and violence to which we have been witness harden our hearts. If you want to see the proof that it can work, look no further than Israel right now. Each and every day, Jews and Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze work together, cooperate, care for one another - putting aside the differences that divide us in understanding that only together, all of us, can build a brighter future for all the children of Abraham. Isaac and Ishmael, standing side by side.

It may seem naive. For in this moment we fight, we wage a just war to dismantle an organization bent on our annihilation. Yet, one day the fighting will cease, the guns will fall silent and we will be faced with an opportunity to build once again. We will most certainly win this war, yet we must also look to our ancestors for inspiration to win the coming peace.

I pray that we find within ourselves the strength of our ancestors, Isaac and Ishmael, to set aside the deep wounds of the past, though they may be many. I pray that we find within ourselves the wisdom to know that together, side by side, in spite of our differences, we can come together to do great things.

And, when that time comes - and may it be soon - may we all be blessed with the strength to build a world in which all of us will have the strength, the blessing, and the privilege to go out and lasuach, to wander in the beautiful world that has been gifted to us.

Shabbat Shalom!

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