Bible students have often noticed that the Torah discusses the lives of Abraham and Jacob in great detail, yet Isaac receives significantly less attention. In fact, there is only one Torah portion, Toldot, in which he is the central character, yet he lived a longer life than his father and his son. It seems we know the least about Isaac, the middle patriarch. What, therefore, are we to learn from him?
There is something interesting in the Talmud that may give us a clue. Each of the Patriarchs described the Temple in a different way. Abraham called it a mountain; Isaac, a field; and Jacob, a house. The commentaries explain that these different descriptions teach us many lessons about how each Patriarch understood the concept of serving God.
A mountain provides a fascinating view from its lofty heights. This symbolizes the remarkable life of Abraham, a man who stood alone against the entire world in proclaiming the truth of One God. He was a spiritual giant, a mountain, if you will.
A house represents one’s daily, mundane life. It symbolizes the fact that for much of Jacob’s life he was forced to be involved in very mundane activities and working for many hours in the fields. However, Jacob succeeded in elevating these seemingly unholy activities and making them holy.
But why does Isaac describe the Temple as a ‘field’?
Unlike a mountain, a field does not offer a fascinating view with great variety, and unlike a house, it is not a place of comfort at the end of the day. Instead field is a flat area of ground, yet a highly significant place. It is in the ‘field’ that intense work takes place to produce abundant crops.
Now we begin to catch a glimpse of why the Torah tells us little about the events in Isaac’s life. His calling was not to teach hundreds of people, as his father Abraham did, rather to devote himself to moral and spiritual development. This kind of ‘work’ by its very nature is not exciting; it’s slow and difficult, sometimes tedious and discouraging. And yet in a certain way Isaac’s calling is perhaps the most important of that of all the Patriarchs for it speaks of the stage in all of our lives that defines our spiritual success or failure.
Rav Akiva Tatz in his book, ‘Living Inspired’, writes that there are three stages in many aspects of life. The first is the ‘inspiration’ stage, whereby a person begins a certain endeavor or relationship with great enthusiasm. When the initial inspiration wears off and is replaced by the realization that this endeavor is not so easy after all, we enter the second stage which demands a great deal of persistence and hard work, often without seeing tangible fruits to one’s hard work.
The third and final stage takes place after the hard work, where a person finally begins to enjoy the fruits of his efforts. A good example of this phenomenon is the relationship of man and wife. At the beginning of a relationship both people feel a great deal of excitement about the relationship and ‘feel’ that they are in love, when in truth they are infatuated. The second stages takes place when that initial excitement wears off and the couple faces the realization that marriage involves a great deal of hard work and self development. If both spouses do exert the necessary effort then they will at some point reach the third stage of a genuine feeling of deep love.
The three Patriarchs correspond to the three stages: Abraham represents the exciting beginning and Jacob relates to the final phase of perfection. Isaac embodies the middle stage, where the excitement has faded and now a lot of hard work is required. This pattern is extremely pertinent to each one of us.
The beginnings of a spiritual journey are very exciting and exhilarating, yet soon after comes the realization that in order to be ‘holy as I am holy’, one must work very hard. This is the relevance of Isaac to our lives: He represents that stage of life which is not necessarily exciting and does not involve dramatic events, rather it involves self-development.
The significance of Isaac is relevant to every person regardless of his stage in life. For a younger person, it teaches him that in order to achieve greatness he must first be willing to put in a considerable amount of time and effort into developing his Torah learning, character traits and relationship to God. For people who are in a later phase of life, the lesson is that it is still essential that he find some time in his daily life to focus on his spiritual development, which includes a fixed time for Torah study and personal prayer and meditation.
In Tune with Torah this week = May we all follow the example of our father Isaac and make the necessary efforts to achieve the third stage where we can really appreciate the fruits of our hard work.