The Disconcerting Patriarch and His Nation: Pt. 3

In Genesis chapter 26, we find an event that sounds somewhat familiar to us when considering the life of the Patriarchs: A famine hits the land once again, and Isaac finds himself forced to look for a better environment for the wellbeing of his family.

Interestingly enough, unlike when Abraham is forced to go down to Egypt for the same reason in Genesis chapter 12, G-d tells Isaac to stay within the boundaries of the Land of Israel. Indeed, for Isaac’s entire life, we see no indication of his leaving the boundaries of the Land of Israel, in obvious contrast to the other two patriarchs Abraham and Jacob. Why?

In his commentary on the Chumash in Geneses 26:2, Rashi states that G-d told Isaac not to go down to Egypt (that is, not to go outside of the Land of Israel) because Isaac was a “pure offering, and it is not good for you to go outside of the land.” The Artscroll Chumash also draws from another comment on this verse which explains that when Isaac was placed on the altar to be sacrificed by Abraham, he became the equivalent of an elevation offering, “a burnt-offering that is completely consumed on the altar. Just as an offering may not be removed from the Temple Courtyard, so was Isaac forbidden from leaving the sacred soil of the Land.”

Obviously, this shows how deep the Akedah truly was, and how much it truly changed Isaac to his very core. And yet, these are extremely symbolic terms. Is it possible to elaborate and get a better idea of what is being said here, about Isaac’s connection to the land? And also perhaps just as importantly, what exactly does this mean for us? What kind of example does Isaac’s connection to the land set for us?

In a rather Kabbalistic book called the Light of Ephraim, an interesting analogy is brought illustrating the Halachic act of getting married to the People of Israel’s relationship with G-d: A Halachic marriage contains three aspects to solidify the marriage: the first is the marriage contract itself. The second is money paid to the family of the bride. And the third is the marital relations. The analogy states that the contract is like the Torah that we study–to know boundaries of the marriage. Then, the money represents Shabbat, and the money we spend in preparation for making it a delight. And the third–marital relations–is to immigrate to the Land of Israel itself.

I find the analogy quite intriguing. That in this outlook, that what is meant to be the most passionate, real, intimate, and dare we say the act that is the sum of all affections in our relationship with G-d is to live in the Land. The act that more than any study of a “contract” or effort of a “payment,” which solidifies our commitment to Him. (Light of Ephraim, Chapter 10)

In Isaac’s case, we can see that obviously G-d does not want to lose this “intimacy” with him even for a moment. Thus, Isaac is meant to stay. Once again, how is it that Isaac is so very connected to the land, even more so it seems than Abraham and Jacob?

In my opinion, one of the greatest acts of love that can take place between two people is an act of self-restraint. Because most acts of self-restraint involve sacrifice. Whether it be a sacrifice of my ego in which I hold my tongue against someone who got under my skin, someone risking or even giving his or her life for their loved one, or even just those little sacrifices that may inconvenience me in my day, and yet I do the act anyway–restraining my ego and selfish instinct for the one whom I care about, to hold back the self for the sake of the other, the one we love, is in some ways the greatest gift we could give to the other. And as I wrote about in Part 2 of this series concerning Isaac, Isaac’s sacrifice was a huge act of self-restraint–gevurah. 

Since it is Isaac who exemplifies this trait of gevurah,  it is he who is most connected to the land, and dare we say most intimate with G-d. And that is why G-d tells him to stay even when there is a famine. Isaac is the one who thrives in the dark times, when things are hardest. While often we may picture Isaac as being rather stoic, a friend of mine once commented to me that his name is Isaac (Meaning “laughter”) because he “laughs in the face of danger!”

Interestingly enough, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, it is Isaac who is the original founder of the afternoon prayer, Mincha–a time in which the sun is hottest in the day, and in which one might feel the least motivated to pray, or for that matter realize and fear of the impending darkness of night is just around the corner. (Talmud Bavli. Brachot 26b.) Isaac demonstrates full on, uncompromised commitment despite the hardship. This is why he is so very connected to the land, because metaphorically speaking, the land yearns for the company of such a powerful, driven, mighty and yet loving soul! (Indeed, we see evidence as well of Isaac’s caliber even on the most human level, when in Genesis 24:64 and according to Rashi, Isaac’s future wife Rebecca is overawed when she first catches site of Isaac, even from a distance.)

However, where does this leave us? What kind of example does Isaac set for us in this case?

In answering this question, I believe another question needs to be asked: Why is it so hard to make the transition and move to Israel?

In speaking of the land,  we find that it’s a land full of hills, deserts, and forests. A land full of the varieties of nature–all in a very small compact area that is about the size of New Jersey. In many ways, the land is almost wild and unpredictable because of this variety, it certainly creates such an atmosphere among it’s people! Living in the Land of Israel requires gevurah, because things may not always go one’s way. For many, it may not meet the standards of where one lived in the past. To live in the Land of Israel, despite what many might perceive to be it’s imperfections (Though in reality, it’s such an amazing, beautiful place) requires not so much intelligence which we Jews as a people generally have in spades, but resilience and determination. Obviously, we could say that Abraham and Jacob also have these qualities, but I believe we could also say that these qualities are what Isaac exemplifies.

Why is it so hard to live in Israel? Because it is the place where the most impact is made! To strive in spiritual heights, despite the “heat of the day” which brings lack of motivation to so many of us, is to achieve a greater impact than when were comfortable in our efforts. To live here, we must remember that whether we are rewarded for our deeds or not, we make an impact even if we are praying alone out in a field.

This is not to say that living in Israel is overwhelmingly difficult to live in, indeed, for those of us who are deeply in touch with their Jewish identity, it is the most beautiful and sweetest place on earth to live. But it is to say that where there is an impact to be made, often there are hardships to strive through.

Another aspect of gevurah, “self-restraint,” is actually having an open mind. Often when people come to Israel, they bring their original country with them, and try or at least wish to make Israel change in accordance with their wants and needs. “The pay isn’t good enough!” “The people aren’t polite enough!” “The bureaucracy is terrible!” “It’s not safe!” “It’s not for me…” It is easy to love the land when things are good, but what happens when a “famine” hits?

More than anything in our generation, the land is teaching us strength. The Athenian general and historian of the Peloponnesian wars Thucydides once said, “The society that separates it’s scholars from it’s warriors will have it’s thinking done by cowards and it’s fighting done by fools.” After two thousand years of an  exile when we were restricted to the hypothetical world of scholarship and academia, in which we as Jews have been great scholars but lacking in warriorship, the land is teaching us to be both. To be more than scholars who sit on the sidelines, but to be involved with our whole being. The land beckons us to experience this, and to do this requires gevurah–a self-restraint of the ego-driven fear of going outside of our comfort zones–to the point that we are open to extreme changes within our lives.

When we do this, we become giborim– heroes, warriors–and we become a scholar-warrior nation of brave thought and ideals, that not only talks about but enforces intelligent morality and stands up against evil.

In doing this, in accepting it upon ourselves to be an offering to G-d, we become precious vessels of the land. We become connected to the land in ways that many could only dream of. This is what the spirit of Isaac, our disconcerting patriarch, is calling us to do: To let go of our comfort zones our need to control, and embrace a new life of complete trust and intimacy with G-d like we’ve never known before in embracing the Land of Israel with all of the sacrifices we may need to face.

May we follow his example of gevurah. 

About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He works in the City of David, and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and daughter.