by HaRav Shlomo Aviner, Head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim
- “Avraham begot Yitzchak”
- The Fear of Yitzchak
- “Bitul Ha-Yesh – Self-Nullification”
- A Hidden Tzadik
- “Yitzchak Sowed”
- A Spirit of the World to Come
- “Avraham begot Yitzchak”
Fear grips us when we discuss Yitzchak Avinu. We fear discussing all of the spiritual giants of the world who appear in the Tanach, but all the more so when it comes to Yitzchak Avinu, about whom it is said: “the fear of Yitzchak” (Bereshit 31:42). Yaakov Avinu refers to the Master of the Universe as “the fear of Yitzchak” (Bereshit 31:42). It appears that the fear of the Master of the Universe is also the fear of Yitzchak himself. Rivka Imenu also feared Yitzchak. The first time that Rivka saw him from afar, she fell off her camel (Bereshit 24:64). The Netziv says that all of her life, along with the love, peace and friendship she shared with him, Rivka also feared him. She was therefore not brazen enough to tell him directly that it was preferable to bless Yaakov over Esav. Rivka feared him even though she was full of strength. After all, when Eliezer came as the agent of Avraham Avinu, Betuel did not want Rivka to go with him. Eliezer was extremely patient and said: “Let us call the young woman and ask her” (Bereshit 24:57). Betuel was certain that she would refuse to go with a stranger to a distant land. But Rivka said: “I will go”. Rashi expands upon the forcefulness of her words, telling us that she said: “I will go on my own, even if you do not want [me to go] (ibid.), i.e. do not start to speak to my heart, saying that you do not want me to go, for I am going anyway!” So we can see that she was already full of strength. Even sending Yaakov to deceive Yitzchak required great strength from her. But when it came to things relating to Yitzchak, to stand facing him, she was full of fear. We too are therefore not brazen enough to discuss him. But even if we were brazen, there is not much to discuss since not much is related about Yitzchak Avinu. Yitzchak hardly spoke and there are very few details about what he did. The Torah relates that he sowed seeds, harvested and dug wells. All is summarized in two verses. This is in stark contrast to Avraham Avinu who was active in many areas. Avraham was a warrior and conquered countries. Avraham called out in the name of Hashem, went down to Egypt and dwelled there, and experienced many amazing things in his life. Yaakov Avinu also had an eventful life, though it was stormy and full of deceptions. He received the blessing, left the Land, and was with Lavan. He survived all of these difficulties, and then returned to the Land, struggled with the angels, met with Esav, endured the episode with Shechem, and many other things. But there are no stories about Yitzchak Avinu! It is as if he did not do anything. Researchers of Tanach thus claim, in their shallow way, that Yitzchak did nothing of his own. He is merely a connector, a bland passageway between Avraham and Yaakov. He is the “son of” and the “father of.” Some of them even claim that part of what is related about him is simply made up in order to say something about this pareve figure.
In truth, they grasp the point precisely – Yitzchak is “nothing,” and being “nothing” is the highest level which exists. It is called “Bitul Ha-Yesh” – self-nullification. Yitzchak is an unknown phenomenon: a hidden tzadik (righteous person). A revealed tzadik is an active person, who runs from place to place, teaching, performing acts of kindness, etc. A figure such as this is understandable. But we are incapable of understanding a hidden tzadik. In an enigmatic statement, our great Rabbi, the Rambam, says that every person can be as righteous as Moshe Rabbenu (Hilchot Teshuvah 9:2). As is known, the Rambam does not use rhetoric. He speaks straight and to the point, especially in his books of Halachah. If he nonetheless uses rhetoric, he explicitly says: “This is homiletics!” Therefore, if the Rambam states that any person can be as righteous as Moshe Rabbenu, we must understand it according to its simple meaning. How so? Can we really be like Moshe Rabbenu?! Answer: we must pay close attention to the fact that the Rambam does not say that we can be as wise as Moshe Rabbenu, or that we can be a prophet like Moshe Rabbenu or a leader like Moshe Rabbenu, but that we can be as righteous as him. We learn from here that any person can be righteous! In every role in the world, a person can be evil or righteous. We do not choose the role which is designated for us in the world. The Master of the Universe places each person in a different place: one is poor, one is rich, one is wise, one is stupid, one is strong and one is weak. But regardless of the circumstances in which one finds oneself, one can be as righteous as Moshe Rabbenu or as wicked as Yerovam ben Navat. He can be a revealed tzadik about whom everyone knows and talks about, or he can be a hidden tzadik whom others do not recognize.
Yitzchak Avinu was thus a giant among spiritual giants. He was a giant like Avraham Avinu and perhaps even greater, since he was both Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu. As is known, the cynics of that generation said that Yitzchak was born from Sarah and Avimelech. In order to combat this notion, Hashem made Yitzchak’s features identical to Avraham Avinu’s (Bereshit Rabbah 53:6). But not only did Yitzchak’s face appear as Avraham Avinu’s, his experiences also paralleled those of Avraham Avinu: Avraham yearned to have offspring, Yitzchak yearned to have offspring. Avraham traveled to the land of the Philistines on account of a famine. So did Yitzchak. Avraham foresaw danger for his wife, who was taken captive — the same occurred to Yitzchak and his wife. Avraham had two sons who were polar opposites — Yitzchak had two sons who were polar opposites. Avraham removed one of his sons after his wife demanded that he do so; Yitzchak too removed one of his sons following his wife’s directives. Everyone can see the parallel life experiences between Avraham and Yitzchak. It is less obvious though, that their inner, spiritual worlds were also identical. Our Sages say that Yitzchak is called Avraham because Yitzchak is Avraham. He is a type of Avraham. There are different types of Avraham: There is Avraham who is Avraham and there is Avraham who is Yitzchak. The Midrash explains this idea on the verse: “And these are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham – Avraham begot Yitzchak” (Bereshit 25:19). The Midrash says “And these are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham – Avraham,” Yitzchak is Avraham. The Midrash adds: “This is a deep matter,” the soul of the father flows through the son (Bereshit 63:3). This reality applies not only when a father dies while his wife is pregnant and the son is named for him. Even when the father is alive, his soul flows through and shines within his son. All of the wells which Avraham Avinu dug and which were closed up by the Philistines were opened anew by Yitzchak Avinu. This applies to the simple wells of water as well as the supreme, spiritual wells which were closed by the Philistines, because the war with the Philistines and the other evil non-Jews is always fought on two fronts: there is a military, agricultural, and settlement war and a spiritual, faith-based, supreme war. Yitzchak opened the wells of Avraham and dug additional ones of his own.
- The Fear of Yitzchak
Maran Ha-Rav Kook explains in his commentary on the siddur, “Olat Re’eiyah” (vol. 1, p. 269), that the prayer “Shemoneh Esrei” begins: “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchak and the G-d of Yaakov” instead of “the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov,” because each of the forefathers had a different form of Divine service. There is the worship of the “G-d of Avraham,” there is the worship of the “G-d of Yitzchak” and there is the worship of the “G-d of Yaakov.” Maran Ha-Rav Kook explains that the main characteristic of Avraham Avinu is wisdom. As is known, while still in his youth, Avraham engaged in intellectual investigation and asked himself who created the world. He had great wisdom, and all of the kings from the east and west came to take counsel with him. The main characteristic of Yitzchak is awe of Hashem – “the fear of Yitzchak.” Obviously, Avraham Avinu also possessed awe of Hashem, since a person who does not possess awe is an ignoramus. Wisdom leads one to the awe of Hashem: “The awe of Hashem is wisdom” (Iyov 28:28). The Maharal in the introduction to his book “Mesilat Yesharim” says that this is “the wisdom” with the definitive “the”. Awe of Hashem means seeing that everything comes from the source of everything. People often think that someone who has awe of Hashem is primitive, but the Rambam does not. The Rambam says: “What is the path to love Him and fear Him? When one reflects…” (Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah, chap. 2). Through introspective and deep wisdom, one is filled with awe of Hashem. Yitzchak Avinu’s special characteristic was awe of Hashem, and through it he was filled with wisdom, since there is no greater wisdom than looking at the source of everything. On account of Yitzchak’s deep introspection, he also possessed the ability to look positively at the Nation of Israel more so than the other of our forefathers. The Gemara relates that in the future Hashem will turn to Avraham and tell him that He cannot redeem the Nation of Israel since they are full of sin. Avraham Avinu will answer Him: “They should be wiped out for the sake of the sanctification of Hashem’s Name.” Yaakov Avinu will respond in the same way. When Hashem turns to Yitzchak Avinu, Yitzchak will answer Him: “Most people live seventy years. Deduct the first twenty for which he is not liable for sin. Thus, fifty years remain. Half of them are night, and therefore only twenty-five years remain. Half the daytime is occupied with eating and drinking, when I person does not perform many transgressions. What remains? Twelve and a half years! I’ll bear the sin upon myself for half of the time and You accept half of the time on Yourself. And if you do not agree to this, I will bear responsibility for it all. Hashem will say to him: “I accept” (Shabbat 99b).
Nonetheless, Avraham and Yitzchak had the same Divine worship. Their point of departure, however, was different. Avraham began from wisdom and through it reached awe of Hashem, while Yitzchak began from awe of Hashem and through it reached wisdom. Avraham established Shacharit and Yitzchak established Minchah. It is obviously not the same prayer. But Yitzchak also prayed Shacharit, which his father established. The Tosafot explain that Avraham Avinu also prayed Minchah, as soon as Yitzchak established it. Through his own Divine service, Avraham reached the Divine service of Yitzchak. This is all summarized in one short phrase: “And the two of them walked together” (Bereshit 22:6, 8). The two of them walked together to the most supreme trial, to the spiritual Everest of all history.
- “Bitul Ha-Yesh – Self-Nullification”
Yitzchak thus possessed the trait of awe. “Hashem’s treasure-house only contains awe of heaven” (Berachot 33b). The Maharal explains that there is an advantage to the awe of Hashem in contrast to the love of Hashem. In love of Hashem – “I love Hashem.” In contrast, there is no “I” in awe of Hashem. This is the advantage of “self-nullification” ((Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-Yirah), i.e. a person does not act in awe of Hashem. He nullifies himself to Hashem. On the face of it, it is not a positive thing for a person to nullify himself. But it all depends before whom a person is nullifying himself. If it is nullification before another person, it is negative. We recite a blessing over this: “Blessed is Hashem…who has not made me a slave.” As Maran Ha-Rav Kook explains (Olat Ha-Re’eiyah vol. 1, p. 71), the intention is not only physical enslavement but also emotional/psychological enslavement. But someone who nullifies himself before Hashem, enjoys the greatest level of existence. This is “and a spirit lifted me” (Yechezkel 3:12).
In truth, Yitzchak also nullified himself before other people, but only those whom he recognized as agents of Hashem. He did not search for a spouse by himself, rather Eliezer, the trusted servant of Avraham, who drew from the Torah of his teacher Avraham and gave it to others to drink, is the one who brought him a spouse, and he accepted it. Yitzchak understood that this servant, in this area, was the hand of Hashem. The blessing to Yaakov also came through Rivka, i.e. Yitzchak understood that Rivka arranged it. She knew what she was doing. In this area, the hand of Hashem acted through Rivka. The Akedah is the ultimate example. His father takes him based on a Divine command, and he goes: “And the two of them walked together.” “And where is the lamb for the offering? And Avraham said: ‘G-d will see to it Himself the lamb for the offering, my son.’ And the two of them walked together” (Bereshit 22:8). This is self-sacrifice, the climax of climaxes of self-nullification.
The Chasidic Rebbe of Piacezna, Ha-Rav Kolonymous Kalman Shapira, lived during the Holocaust. Every Shabbat night he would deliver a Dvar Torah in the Warsaw Ghetto. He would write it down after Shabbat. For many years after the war, his Dvrei Torah remained hidden in a jar among the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Rebbe was murdered along with his entire family during the Holocaust. His book called “Aish Kodesh – Sacred Fire” was published not long ago. The Rebbe of Piacezna says that although Yitzchak was ready to be slaughtered, in actuality, he was not. It is not the same thing to be ready to be slaughtered as it is to be actually slaughtered. The Rebbe asks: was it possible to have the Akedah against Yitzchak’s will? He answers: certainly! Noone asked the millions murdered during the Holocaust if they were willing to be slaughtered, and yet they were slaughtered. This is Akedat Yitzchak against their will! The Rebbe states that this was the completion of the Akedah. The will without the actualization of Yitzchak combined with the actualization without the will of the millions murdered for the sanctification of Hashem’s name form a whole. He says that the millions slaughtered are not “like the Akedah of Yitzchak” or a “continuation of the Akedah of Yitzchak,” rather their deaths are the actualization of the Akedah of Yitzchak.
- A Hidden Tzadik
Question: How does a hidden tzadik contribute to others when he has amazing inner world?
Answer: His contribution is on the level of souls. The secret of souls is that everyone is connected. When a person is full of kindness, his kindness influences all of the souls. When a person performs a good act, he exalts all of humanity – Jews, non-Jews and even animals. When a hidden tzadik lives in society, people sense, either consciously or unconsciously, his greatness and absorb it. The influence of a hidden tzadik on the world is therefore greater than that of a revealed tzadik. The revealed tzadikim draw their spiritual strength from the hidden tzadikim. Furthermore, revealed tzadikim also have a hidden part. We know revealed tzadikim, but we do not truly know them, since they also possess a hidden righteousness, and it is greater beyond measure. It is possible to say that the revealed part is only the excess of the hidden. There is a statement in “Orot Ha-Kodesh” (vol. 3, pp. 347-348) in which Maran Ha-Rav Kook relates to a revealed tzadik and a hidden tzadik. He explains that the revealed tzadik desires the best of the best and the best of society, and he acts to attain it. The hidden tzadik desires the best of humanity and existence. He is not restricted by time, but strives to elevate all of existence. This does not mean that on account of his broad sight he was not involved in immediate small issues, but that this is only a small part of the overall reality. Maran Ha-Rav Kook explains that there is a tzadik who is both hidden and revealed, and there is an inner tension within his personality. There is also a tzadik in which the hidden and revealed are united without tension between them. And there is a supreme tzadik in which the revealed side and the hidden side are one. Since he is a hidden tzadik, he also influences all of existence.
- “Yitzchak Sowed”
The meaning of “the fear of Yitzchak” is not that Yitzchak Avinu went around gloomy all day, bent over and sad. It is related that Yitzchak was sporting with Rivka, his wife. Avimelech saw this from afar, and did not believe that this was his wife, since the way of the world is for a person to sport with everyone, smile at everyone, flirt with everyone and insult his wife… Therefore, if Yitzchak was sporting with this woman, it certainly was not his wife! So Avimelech thought. Yitzchak also worked the land. He sowed and harvested one hundred gates, one hundred times more than everyone else. It appears that he was a good farmer. He dug wells, and was completely connected to the Land of Israel. He was the only one who did not leave the Land. Avraham Avinu was an “Oleh Chadash” (a new immigrant) and Yaakov Avinu was forced to leave the Land for many years. But Yitzchak was born in the Land and died in the Land, and he did not leave it. He lived in “Gerar,” which is located in the area of Gush Katif. The name “Gerar” is preserved today as the valley next to Gush Katif. He occasionally came to Be’er Sheva and Hevron, but he lived mostly in places in the south. Avraham Avinu was in Beit El in Binyamin and Elon Moreh in the Shomron and also in Be’er Sheva in the Negev, while Yitzchak lived in Gush Katif and south of Mt. Hevron. Yitzchak was a settler and suffered greatly at the hands of the Philistines. He dug wells, and the Philistines came and said: “It is ours.” And from then on and always, everything belonged to them… Yitzchak did not argue with them, for he knew with whom to deal. He dug the well a second time, and they also claimed ownership over it, as was their way. Yitzchak knew that they hated him. Yitzchak did not look at the world with fear and trembling. He was a person who nullified himself towards the Master of the Universe, and he was filled with the power of action. On the verse: “Yitzchak went to meditate in the field,” Maran Ha-Rav Kook says that the word “Si’ach” (meditate) is an abbreviation on “Sekel” (intellect), “Yecholet” (ability) and “Chaim” (life) (Orot Ha-Kodesh vol. 3, p. 106). Yitzchak possessed much intellect, had great ability and the strength of life. Maran Ha-Rav Kook says: do not err and think that Avraham Avinu had the character trait of kindness and Yitzchak Avinu did not. Yitzchak also had the trait of kindness. After all, Yitzchak was the student of Avraham. Yitzchak prayed Shacharit like Avraham: “To relate Your kindness in the morning,” and the trait of Yitzchak was built upon the trait of Avraham. The characteristic of Yitzchak is above the characteristic of Avraham (see Shemoneh Kevatzim 6, #163). The stature of Yitzchak is his self-nullification, which is referred to as the characteristic of strength.
We see the unbound trait of kindness in Yitzchak. He loves Esav, even though he knows who Esav is. Even though it is written that his eyes were dim, a blind person also knows what Esav is engaged in all day long. Yitzchak knew that “Yaakov was a wholesome man who sat in tents” and that Esav was running around in the field hunting rabbits. If so, why did Yitzchak love Esav? He loved him without bounds. And even in the future when difficulties will be raised against the behavior of the Nation of Israel, and Avraham Avinu will not have what to respond, it will be Yitzchak who will defend the Nation. Israel will then say to him: “You are our father” (Shabbat 89b). Yitzchak possessed the trait of unbounded kindness and he therefore loved Esav. But Esav caused great distress! Yitzchak said that Esav will repent in the future. We know this because Esav’s head is buried in the Cave of Machepelah. But it is not yet the future and Esav is still completely wicked. Yitzchak constantly lived with the recognition of the future time. Maran Ha-Rav Kook explains that for this reason, Yitzchak had to marry someone who did not possess supreme kindness, but someone who was practical. This is Rivka Imenu, who is an incredibly kind person and also very practical.
Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, searched for a wife for Yitzchak. He knew that the young woman did not need to know everything, and did not need to be pretty or wealthy. What was important is that she had a good heart. Eliezer therefore said: “Can I please drink a little water from your jug?” and she responded: “Drink, my master, and I will also give your camels a drink” (Bereshit 24:14). She was the match for Yitzchak. As is known, a camel drinks a huge amount of water. Rivka went back and forth to the trough while Eliezer stood there amazed. She could have asked for his help, but she did not. The servant of Avraham knew that Yitzchak was a person of boundless kindness, spiritual kindness, and he saw that Rivka was a woman with pure and holy material kindness. He therefore thought that she was the perfect match for his master, Yitzchak. Rivka is the one who prevents the blessing from going to Esav because it is not the current reality. Yitzchak possesses a boundless kindness which is unaffected by time, but practical kindness is necessary to maintain proper order.
- A Spirit of the World to Come
Yitzchak Avinu is truly an example of self-nullification. There is no greater self-nullification than the Akedah. We said earlier that Yitzchak was not actually slaughtered. This is not precise, however, since it is written that his ashes were piled upon the altar (Bereshit Rabbah 94:5). It does not say that his soul departed, but that he will rise during the Resurrection of the Dead and Avraham will recite the blessing: “Blessed is Hashem who revives the dead.” Tears fell from the eyes of the angels into the eyes of Yitzchak, and as a result he was blinded (Bereshit Rabbah 65:10). This is the supreme completion of Yitzchak Avinu. Maran Ha-Rav Kook explains (Orot Ha-Kodesh vol. 3, p. 135) that a person possesses two souls. One soul is a Divine, holy soul – an image of G-d. This is called the “super-ego” in Psychology. The second soul is an impure, animal, base soul. Psychology calls it the “id.” A constant war exists within a person between the Divine soul and the animal soul, between the good inclination and the evil inclination. This is a life and death struggle. It is impossible to strike a compromise between purity and impurity. Additionally, the holy soul is divided into two spirits, both of which are good: a spirit of this world and a spirit of the World to Come. This means that there are good things in the world: to build, to perform acts of kindness, to elevate oneself, to fix, to wage war, to teach, to educate, etc. This is the spirit of this world. In contrast, the supreme and eternal spirit of the World to Come is above this world and time. There is also a war between these two spirits. It is not a war between enemies, but a war between two friends, each with a positive purpose. After the Akedah, Yitzchak was not of this world but of the World to Come. He was the spirit of the World to Come. But do not err: this does not mean that he did not act here. After all, we know that he sowed and harvested and “grew increasingly large.” He grew in this world but his sustenance was from the World to Come. His body was here but his soul was there. Yitzchak was here on loan, as an emissary, but he was in other world. This strange status did not cause him to look disparagingly on what was done here. He also worked and invested energy in this world, but all of his yearnings, thoughts, feelings and interests were for the World to Come. We must remember that Yitzchak Avinu is our father and we are all nurtured by the power of his spirituality, holiness and purity, and we must remember to increase these ideals in our lives.