Toldot: In defense of Jews

Isaac wanted to make a point when he sowed a field himself.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Judaism Plowed field at Nahalal
Plowed field at Nahalal
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Our Patriarch Isaac had nothing better to do with his day than plant seeds? Surely Isaac could think of many things to do. He could study Torah, he could do good deeds, he could look after his children, after all, twins can be a handful. Why did he work in the fields? You might say he did this to provide for his family, but he was a wealthy man with servants. The proof is that he sent his servants to dig his wells.

The answer can be found in a famous Talmudic dispute. The great sage Rabbi Shimon once lamented that Jews waste their time working in the fields because if they spend all day at work, who will study the Torah? Rabbi Shimon suggested, that we spend your day studying Torah and G-d will provide for us. Rabbi Yishmael disagreed. He said, study Torah in the morning and night, and work the rest of the day.

The Talmud observes that many tried Rabbi Shimon’s approach, but failed. Many tried Rabbi Yishmael’s path and succeeded. Simply put, not everyone is capable of placing their trust in G-d and spending their day in study. The Baal Shem Tov taught that those who are blessed with absolute faith are meant to sit back and trust G-d to provide for them. But ordinary people, who aren’t comfortable gambling their future on faith, are expected to help themselves and only then does G-d bless their efforts with success.

Rabbi Shimon and several others were able to place their trust in G-d implicitly. But, the Talmud was telling us, most people are not capable of such implicit trust in G-d. Thus, the reason most people tread Rabbi Yishmael’s path in life is because they lack Rabbi Shimon’s purity of faith.

This is a pronouncement against our people, and the Patriarch Isaac, who foresaw that this would be the case, was unable to sit back and let this pronouncement go unanswered. Isaac, more than Abraham and Jacob, is the Patriarch that stands up for the Jewish people.

A Moving Defense
The Talmud tells us that before Mashiach comes, G-d, seeking an advocate for the Jewish people, will approach Abraham and inform him that his children had sinned. But Abraham will dash G-d’s hopes and reply that if they sinned, they deserve to be punished. G-d will then inform Jacob, who suffered much anguish over his children, in the hope that Jacob will stand up and defend the Jews. But Jacob too will suggest that if we sinned, we deserve to be punished.

G-d will then turn to Isaac and complain that his children had sinned. Isaac will mount a vigorous defense of the Jews, and say, dear G-d, are they my children and not yours? When you gave them the Torah and they replied that they will do, and they will listen, you declared them your son, your first born, but now that they have sinned, they are suddenly my children and not yours?

Isaac will continue with the following logic. A person lives for approximately seventy years. We are not punished for the sins that we commit during the first twenty years of our lives. This leaves us responsible for only fifty years of sin. Deduct, the nights which we spend sleeping, which leaves us with only twenty-five years of sin. Deduct at least half of that time for prayer, eating, and providing for our bodily needs, and that leaves us with merely twelve and a half years of sin. Can you not tolerate twelve and a half years?

Isaac will then conclude, dear G-d if you won’t forgive their sins, you must atone for them in the merit of my having been raised upon the altar as a burned sacrifice. When G-d hears this resounding defense, G-d will relent and bring the Mashiach.

This vision informs us that Isaac, more than Abraham and Jacob, is committed to the honor and defense of the Jewish people. Knowing that his children would be exposed as inferior of faith, incapable of rising to the level of absolute trust and dependence on G-d, Isaac would not sit back and let it slide.

Isaac, therefore got up and worked the field himself. He had plenty of workers who could have performed this task, but He wanted to make a point. Dear G-d, was his point, don’t suspect that my children, who work for a living, are lacking in faith. I too work for a living and you know that I trust you implicitly. If I can trust in you implicitly and still work as a matter of principle, so can they.

A Hundred-Fold
The Torah goes on to tell us that Isaac’s success was a hundred times greater than projected. The Midrash tells us that Isaac’s field was not on fertile land. Furthermore, there was a terrible famine in the region that year. In other words, Isaac was in the wrong place at the wrong time. People would see Isaac working the land and chortle that he was wasting his time. The assessment was that his yield would be minute, yet he exceeded their expectations a hundred-fold.

This detail is also instructive to us—those of this generation who live in exile from our Holy Land. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and Jews lived upon their land, they saw the hand of G-d verily in their daily life. They saw that good deeds were rewarded, and bad deeds were punished. Their prophets communicated messages directly from G-d. They were taught Torah by sagacious teachers of wisdom. They entered the Temple and could feel, sense, and intuit, G-d’s presence.

Such people were able to connect with G-d spiritually and transcend the pettiness of material entanglements. Compared to them, our ecclesiastic worship is a joke. We are the laughing stock of history. If we study Torah for an hour a day, we claim it as a mark of pride. If we give a hundred dollars to charity, we boast of it as a great achievement. If we pray with a modicum of concentration, we feel as if we have climbed the spiritual mount Everest. Compared to our forebears, our worship is a joke,

The diaspora, compared to Israel, is not a fertile spiritual ground. Compared to our forbears, we are living in a time of spiritual famine. In that sense, our situation is like that of Isaac. The location is harsh, and the timing is harsh. We are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet, just as Isaac succeeded spectacularly compared to the projections, so do we. The Midrash teaches that if we study Torah when we are wealthy and then become impoverished, we should continue to study Torah because good deeds performed under harsh conditions are a hundred times more precious to G-d than good deeds performed under prosperous conditions.

Isaac wanted us to know that though we do much less than our forbears, the little that we do is precious to G-d because we overcome many obstacles to achieve it. One of our good deeds, is the equivalent of a hundred of their good deeds.

Isaac did not contend himself with comforting us with these soothing words. He made sure that this passage would be included in the Torah so that it would be ratified by G-d. By using G-d’s own words, Isaac mounted a defense of his children that even G-d cannot overcome.