Of the three Patriarchs, Isaac is generally seen as being the least interesting and engaging. He rarely speaks, is passive, and seems to always be the victim of circumstances and forces surrounding him. Despite the fact that Parshat Toldot is about the life of Isaac, many people, when discussing this parsha, tend to overlook Isaac and focus on the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esav.
I would like to examine a very different Isaac – one who is very much in control of his reality and takes it to a level that neither Abraham nor Jacob succeeded in doing. During a period of famine, Abraham leaves the Land to seek his sustenance in the land of Egypt (Gen. 12:10). Jacob, too, leaves the Land, during a period of famine, to be provided for by Joseph (46:5,6). But Isaac is told explicitly by Gd, in our parsha (26:2), not to go to Egypt but to remain in the Land. According to Rashi, Isaac is an unblemished “burnt offering,” for whom, being outside the Land, is unbecoming. This explanation seems to be very formalistic and depicts Isaac’s relationship with the Land as incidental, a result of his consecration on the altar of Gd at Mount Moriah. But Isaac’s relationship with the Land began from the moment of his birth. In fact, Isaac is the only one of the Patriarchs who was born, bred, and lived his entire life in the Land of Israel. Hence there seems to be an intrinsic connection between Isaac and the fact that Isaac is the only one of the Patriarchs who, during a famine, plants in the Land (26:12).
Moreover, he does this in an arid area, the Negev. Nevertheless, he produces a hundredfold. What is the secret of his success?! – Gd blessed him. Isaac’s unique role is to “make the desert bloom,” to transform the Land of Israel into a Garden of Eden. The original state of the world was one of blessing. When Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of Knowledge, however, the land becomes cursed (3:17,18), producing thorns and thistles. When Cain kills Abel, it is further cursed, with not yielding its full strength (4:12); and in the generation of the flood, everything is erased from the face of the earth.
Isaac brings blessing back into the world. Not only does he work the Land, but he prays there – “And Isaac went to converse/meditate (lasuach) in the field towards evening. In the Talmud (Berachot 26b), the rabbis expound on this verse and say that Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer (minchah). For Isaac, worship/service of Gd is to be actualized by working in the field and not only by bringing sacrifices. The Land is his Temple and through working the land, he experiences an “I-Thou” encounter. Gd is revealed not in a pillar of fire or in a cloud, but in the abundant produce. By serving Gd in the field, Isaac invites the presence of Gd back into the physical reality. This leads Gd to reciprocate by blessing the work of his hands, thereby restoring the harmony between humanity and creation.
But there is one more element to this story. The Philistines do not recognize Isaac’s meteoric success as a blessing from Gd. Instead they are jealous of his success (26:14) and see it as being at their expense. In response, they stuff up the wells that Abraham had dug, in clear violation of the pact that had been made with him earlier (21:30). The total harmony between Isaac, Gd and the Land, ironically, results in a major rift between Isaac and the Philistines, culminating in Isaac’s expulsion (26:16). But Isaac is undaunted. He continues engaging the Land, but this time by digging wells. First he re-digs the wells of his father. Then he digs two new wells, which lead to greater tension and animosity. The wells, which bring life to the desert and should be a source of blessing, have now become the powder keg which is on the verge of explosion. And Isaac then digs a third well. No explosion, no hostilities. Instead there is space for all to live and Incredibly, as a follow-up to this incident, Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, comes to Isaac and expresses his desire to make a pact with him. Avimelekh declares that, he and his people, now recognize that Gd has been with Isaac and that his success is a result of the blessing of Gd.
What a dramatic turn of events! Isaac makes a party for them – they eat, they drink. An agreement is reached and Isaac sends them in peace. Isaac’s conviction and determination to remain true to his principles – to his mission of bringing blessing to creation, and through that, of bringing the presence and awareness of Gd back to the world, ultimately achieves peace and harmony between him and the Philistines. The day after Isaac sends the delegation of Philistines away in peace, he can routinely dig a well and be confident that this will be a source of blessing for all.
Isaac sets the precedent and becomes the model for the Jewish people living in the Land of Israel. May the engagement with the Land in our days ultimately lead to peace and harmony among us, between us and our neighbors, and may all see this as the blessing of Gd.