It was a party meant for the utmost joy and celebration: Kind old Abraham and Sarah miraculously had a biological son together. Abraham invited a great number of their friends, and they had a great many friends! Abraham, who is known for his attribute of hesed, (Lovingkindness, seeing the good in even the darkest of people), was the kind of guy that according to a coworker of mine, “Didn’t really ever try to convert people, he just loved people.” Indeed, Abraham according to one tradition was the reincarnation of Adam, and acted as a great, caring, hospitable father figure to all those who came into contact with him.
Imagine then, in the middle of the celebration, one guest (According the Midrash Rabbah, the giant Og of Bashan) looking over at Abraham and Sarah’s precious gift from G-d, and saying, “He is nothing. I could crush that son of his with my little finger!”
Wait, what? How is it that in such a joyous party, that a guest and friend of Abraham would have the nerve to even think such a thing, much less declare it at the dinner table! How in such an occasion, do we go from joy to an extremely awkward, if not disgusting comment from an honored guest? What changed? What is it about Isaac’s birth, that even before he even begins to crawl, creates a certain aura of tension or even hostility?
To answer this question, let’s look again at Abraham, and who he is, and what his quality as a human being is. Once again, if we take the traditional view that he is like a father to everyone he comes into contact with, and that he is essentially all about loving people, then everyone is going to love him as well. Logically speaking, everyone will want to cling to him. Perhaps we could even go so far as to say that they see Abraham as a “universalist,” a citizen of the world. People love Abraham because he loved them first and acts as a father to them. Abraham seems to almost give without restraint, and somehow, still be able to maintain his wealth to give more. People love Abraham because he makes them feel like they are his adopted children. Thus, the fact that he has a son is going to make people uncomfortable. Because everyone is going to know: Isaac is the “favorite.” While Abraham’s friends are important, his child and his family that he raises are more important. Abraham loves everyone, but Abraham chooses Isaac. Isaac is the chosen one to carry on the Abrahamic monotheistic legacy.
In a word, what the birth of Isaac represents is exclusivity.
Indeed, in traditional Judaism, while Abraham lives as an example of hesed (Loving everyone, seeing the good constantly), Isaac lives as an example of gevurah–“Self restraint,” and “Self discipline,” which ultimately lead to the establishment uncompromisingly set moral boundaries that are not to be crossed. Thus according to Ibn Ezra, Abraham–the man of hesed–had thousands of students whom he taught about G-d. Isaac–the man of gevurah–had only two: Jacob and Esau.
It is natural within human nature to be drawn to the ideal of universal love and freedom. It is far less natural within human nature to commit to a lifestyle of self-restraint and boundaries.
It is an idea that often feeds indignation in the West today–often the only intolerable thing in a tolerant, universalist society is someone who maintains commitment to a “backwards,” “outdated” moral boundary.
And yet, this is also why G-d promised Abraham that he would birth a nation among nations, and not be a missionary to the entire world–because an ideology with only universal hesed towards the entire world can all too easily turn into imperialism, cruelty, and conversion of the masses through manipulation and/or coercion, as we have seen through the history of both Christianity and Islam and the empires that have been built through them.
Like Isaac, we the people of Israel are different for a reason. We are chosen and set apart for a reason. Truly, the tragedy is when the “Og’s” of the world get the impression that “chosenness” means that we think we are better, or that we only believe redemption is for us–because to the silent yet great contrary–what we as the people of Israel are here for, in the end, is for the redemption of the entire world.
Indeed, this is who we Jews are–to be hesed, “a light unto the nations,” and yet set apart as our own nation in the example of the boundaries of gevurah.
While anything concerning hesed is absent in our morning blessings, we bless G-d for “strengthening Israel with gevurah.” Because all too often, it is easy to go with the flow of hesed, but to take a stand against assimilation, to draw a boundary in gevurah, often poses as a difficulty, especially when we are desperate for peace within our surroundings.
This is the example that Isaac the “disconcerting patriarch” gives us. To stand strong as a nation in gevurah: Different from the Eastern ascetism. Different from the Western epicureanism and secularism.
May we as Jews stand strong in true Torah, whether in dark days or bright.