The Isaac Covenant - Part I : The Covenant for Today

We are in the age of Yitzchak.

Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer

Judaism Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer
Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer
It is wonderful to revisit our ancestors as we once again contemplate Sefer Bereishis.  We are constantly reminded of the great Avos (Patriarchs), mentioning them in our prayers thrice daily, and are motivated to attempt to be worthy bearers of their great traditions. Interestingly, I daresay that most of us relate far more to the first and the last – Avraham and Yaakov (Abraham and Jacob) – then to the middle Patriarch, Yitzchak (Isaac).    

There are many reasons for this, as we will examine.   Nevertheless, I contend that perhaps Yitzchak ought to be the Av we relate to the most in our day and age.

Why do we tend to focus more on Avraham and Yaakov?  Clearly, they get a lot more “stage time” in the Torah.   We read about Avraham from the end of Noach, through Lech Lecha, Vayera, and Chayei Sarah.  We meet Yaakov at the beginning of Parshas Toldos, and he is the central character throughout the rest of the sefer (book).  

By contrast, Yitzchak is mentioned passively in Vayera and Chayei Sarah, and the only Sidra where he is sort of the central character is Toldos, and even there, not really.   Most of the Sidra is about the struggle between Yaakov and Eisav (Esau) and Rivkah (Rebecca)’s input in procuring the blessing, with Yitzchak a royal presence who is not the center of action.  He never says very much. The only time that he really takes center stage is in Perek 25, which is a story about him digging wells, his neighbors filling them, moving and digging elsewhere; being financially successful, coming to a pact with Avimelech.  That’s it.   In comparison to the great dramas in the lives of Avraham and Yaakov, it seems somewhat ho-hum.  How can we relate to and learn from Yitzchak?

Yitzchak ought to be the Patriarch we relate to most in our day and age

A fascinating Gemara (Shabbos 89b) comments on the verse in Yeshaya (63:16) “For You are our Father; for Avraham did not know us, and Yisrael (Yaakov) does not acknowledge us” (Isaiah 63:16) that the glaring omission of Yitzchak teaches us of the role Yitzchak will play in defending his descendants. In the future, G-d will approach Avraham, saying that his children have sinned. Yet instead of defending them, Abraham will respond, “Master of the Universe, let them be destroyed for the sanctification of Thy Name”. G-d, apparently “startled” by this response, will then approach Yaakov, as “he knows the difficulty of raising children; perhaps he will ask for mercy for you”. And Yaakov’s response? “Master of the Universe, let them be destroyed for the sanctification of Thy Name”.

Clearly dissatisfied, G-d exclaims, “There is no reason in old men, and no counsel in children!” and moves on to Yitzchak. Immediately, Yitzchak challenges G-d’s premise: “my children, and not Your children? Have you not called them, ‘My children, My Firstborn’ (Shemos 4:); and now, they are my sons, but not yours?”

Yitzchak then proceeds to minimize any actual sinning of the Jewish people. A person lives for 70 years, he argues; the heavenly court does not punish until the age of 20, leaving only 50 active years, of which he sleeps 25 (oy vey).  Of what is left he spends half (according to Yitzchak) of his time in prayer, eating and going to the bathroom; so how much sinning can one actually do? “If You will bear them, great; if not, I will take half and You take half. And if You say it should all be on me, I offered myself to You [at the Akeidah].

There is much commentary on this fascinating passage. Suffice it to say that a time will come, perhaps ours, when Yitzchak will be the only Patriarch prepared to be our defender in Heaven.   Which, given that Yitzchak, who is usually seen as the Father who represents Judgement (דין) as a counterpart to the Compassion (חסד) of Avraham, seems out of character and, I daresay surprising, to say the least.

At the end of the long Tochacha (Admonition) in Vayikra, a verse that we are quite familiar with from the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf appears:

(וְזָכַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י יַעֲק֑וֹב וְאַף֩ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֨י יִצְחָ֜ק וְאַ֨ף אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶזְכֹּ֖ר וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֶזְכֹּֽר  (ויקרא כו:מב

Then will I remember My covenant with Yaakov; I will remember also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham; and I will remember the land.  (Vayikra 26:42)

A quick analysis of this verse results in two obvious questions. (a) Why the reverse order from the usual, chronological and ancestral one? (b) Why are there seemingly three separate covenants listed, rather than just “I will remember my covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov”?

In a masterful treatment that I can only briefly excerpt here, Rav SR Hirsch ZT”L explained that there were, in fact three separate covenants, and “the names of the Patriarchs represent not individuals, but historic archetypes through which the power of the Divine covenant becomes manifest”.   Avraham was recognized as “You are a Prince of G-d amongst us”.  Universally recognized as the supreme citizen of his time, object of admiration near and wide, he was beloved in his ability to bring the message of G-d to the world.   Yaakov famously led a life of unremitting hardship and trouble, from Eisav, Laban, Shechem, Joseph…. a life which had little respite from difficulty.  Yitzchak was unsurprisingly somewhere in the middle.

In Parshas Toldos, we see Yitzchak as a paradox.   Persecuted, but very successful financially.   Driven from place to place, dealing with the intransigence of his neighbors, being told “Leave us, as you have become mighty from us (from somehow taking our wealth)!”  He emerges unscathed, with their grudging admiration.  Avimelech and Fichol come to him to make a non-aggression pact. Yitzchak asks, “Why do you come to me; do you not hate me?”.  And in a statement worthy of the UN they say “Let there be a pact between us, so that if you do us no harm, as we have not harmed you (WHAT????) and we did only good and sent you in Peace (Are you Kidding???), for after all (We gotta admit) you are blessed by G-d” (Bereishis 25:28-9).  Yitzchak lives a life in which he is grudgingly tolerated and respected, not loved.   A life in which he has both financial success and the enmity and envy of his neighbors; without the crushing difficulties of Yaakov, but far from the glory of Avraham’s social status.

Which brings us to the three reversed “covenants” at the end of the long and frightful Golus (Exile) period.

Now we are facing the test of the second stage Isaac Covenant; to walk, free and independent among the nations, not to fear to be different, and to remain undeterred by envy. . . a test we still have to pass.  Only then can we look forward to the last stage of Golus, in which we will win the respect of the Nations not although we are Jews, but because we are Jews . . .

First and foremost, (note placement of the אתנחתא) a time will come that it will be evident that Hashem remembers the covenant with Yaakov. “I will be with them through all the long, long nights of their exile.  I will transform even the darkest night of their exile into a shining revelation of Divine Guidance.”   We will make it through; bloodied, but very much alive.  When the time will come that “their measure of suffering is full, when they have inscribed their loyalty to the Torah with their heart’s blood upon the pages of world history” it will be time for the covenant of Yitzchak.

“During the Jacob period, they had to endure the hatred of the nations.  Now, like Isaac, they will suffer the envy of the nations. . . In the midst of growing prosperity, living among nations wavering between humaneness and envy, they will have to preserve their unique character as did Isaac.  They will have to employ their resources, ampler and less restricted than before, for a more perfect and multifaceted fulfillment of their unique mission in the Golus. . .”

Rav Hirsch then goes on to describe a later stage of the Covenant of Avraham, and of the Land, which we can surmise will be at the time of the coming of the Mashiach.

In a tragic comment which we can look back at through the prism of terrible hindsight, Rav Hirsch further wrote of his time in Nineteenth century Germany regarding the Covenant with Yaakov, “This stage is – perhaps – already behind us.  As Yaakov, we have proved ourselves brilliantly”.  In recognition of the opening of the ghettos and the unprecedented freedom and opportunity that Western European Jews, he felt that “Now we are facing the test of the second stage Isaac Covenant; to walk, free and independent among the nations, not to fear to be different, and to remain undeterred by envy. . . a test we still have to pass.  Only then can we look forward to the last stage of Golus (exile)  in which we will win the respect of the Nations not although we are Jews, but because we are Jews . . .

It is so bitter to know in hindsight that this hope was premature, specifically in Germany.

Nevertheless, it is clear to me that in our time, we truly are living in the Yitzchak age.   With the unprecedented wealth, power and influence of Jews throughout the world, with the amazing resurgence and rebirth of observant Judaism, and most of all, with the great gift that is Medinat Yisrael, we have definitely passed into a different relationship vis a vis the Nations of the world.

This essay is long already, and I will  write a follow-up to fully develop this theme, but my prime contention is this:  There are not only two binary states, namely Golus and Geulah, Exile and redemption.   It should be clear to anyone with a clear view of the amazing times that we live in that we are in an intermediate stage.  Some call it Ikvasa D’Meshicha, the footprints of the Messiah.  Some call it Aschalta D’Geula, the start of Redemption.  

Rav Hirsch says that Hashem called it “Bris Yitzchak” – the Isaac Covenant.   It is a time when we must follow the way of our Patriarch Yitzchak, and only thus get through this singularly exciting, promising, and yet difficult time.  It requires strength, courage and fearlessness to face the unbelievable opportunities that we have, and not to run from them.

More about that, next time.