Sunday, October 31, 2010


The Torah devotes three whole Torah portions to the lives of the forefathers, Abraham and Jacob. In contrast, only parshas Toldos focuses on Isaac. And even in this parsha, there is only one story which involves Isaac and no other forefather; that is the story of his time living in Gerar, the land of the Philistines. This is an account of how Isaac is forced by a famine to move to Gerar where he says that his wife, Rebecca, is his sister, like his father had done many years earlier. Then the Torah goes to considerable length describing how the Philistines sealed wells that Abraham had dug, and how Isaac re-dug them. He endures considerable hostility from the native Philistines and finally makes a treaty with their King, Avimelech. On superficial analysis it is very difficult to derive any significant lessons from this story, but in truth, it provides the key to understanding Isaac. The most striking aspect of Isaac’s actions is that they very closely followed those of his father. When there was a famine in Abraham’s time he headed for Egypt; Isaac planned to do the same thing until God told him not to leave the land of Israel. Then he returned to the wells that his father had dug but were now sealed and he dug them again, and called them the same names that his father had called them . Rabbeinu Bachya states that from Isaac’s actions here, we derive the concept of mesoras avos, following in the traditions of our fathers for all future generations of the Jewish people. Isaac did not want to veer one inch from the path trodden by his father. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon explains Isaac’s role among the forefathers: Abraham was the trailblazer; he set the precedents and established the guideposts. Isaac’s job was to consolidate everything that his father had done, to follow precisely in his father’s footsteps and thereby establish for all future generations the primacy of following the mesora (tradition). Isaac’s life work was not to seek new ways and new paths but to follow faithfully on the path trodden by his father. Therefore, when a famine came to the land, he immediately thought of going to Egypt because his father did so. And when he came to Gerar he dug the same wells and gave them the same names that Avraham had given them .

However, there is another key aspect to Yizchak Avinu that seems to contradict the idea that he followed his father in every way: Chazal tell us that they possessed very different personalities; Avraham epitomizes midos hachesed, overflowing with kindness to everyone. Yitzchak, in contrast, is characterized by midos hadin and gevura. Indeed, a great part of his greatness is the fact that he was not a mere clone of his father; this is illustrated by Chazal’s explanation of why Yitzchak’s tefillas for children were answered before those of Rivka. The Gemara, quoted by Rashi, tells us that there is no comparison between the tefillos of a tzaddik ben tzaddik to those of a tzaddik ben rasha . This is very difficult to understand, a person who overcomes their negative upbringing to become righteous seems to deserve greater merit than one who is born into a righteous family. The answer is that a tzadik ben tzadik faces an even more difficult challenge - not to become a carbon copy of his father. Avraham was the greatest role model a person could have, and it would have been natural for Yitzchak to try to emulate his father’s every action. However, Yitzchak did not content himself with that; he forged his own path in his Avodas Hashem.

We have seen that on the one hand, Yitzchak represents the mesora, not deviating from the path that his father had set. And, on the other hand, he possessed a totally different character to his father! How can we resolve these two aspects of Yitzchak? In reality there is no contradiction; All Jews are born into a line of tradition that goes back to Avraham Avinu; we are obligated to faithfully adhere to the instructions and attitudes that we receive from this line of mesora. A person cannot mechadesh his own set of values or hanhagos; there is a mesora that guides him how to live his life. But, at the same time, this does not mean that each person in the chain of mesora is identical in every way - there are many ways in which a person can express himself in the fulfillment of the mesora. The Chofetz Chaim zt”l asks why the Torah emphasizes that the Etz HaHcahim was davke in the middle (‘besoch’) of Gan Eden. He answers that there is one central point of truth but that there are numerous points surrounding it, each one standing at an equal distant from the centre. So too, there are many approaches to Judaism that emphasize different forms of Avoda and different character traits. However, as long as they remain within the boundaries of the mesora, then they are all of equal validity .

There was one Yeshiva in particular that stressed the idea that each person should not be forced into one specific mold - Slobodka. The Alter of Slobodka placed great stress on the uniqueness of each individual. He was very weary of employing highly charismatic teachers in his yeshiva for fear that they would overwhelm their students with their sheer force of personality . Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l, the great Mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva, once visited the Alter. On the first day of his visit, the Alter reproved him so vehemently that the whole Yeshiva could hear the shouts from closed doors. This reproof continued day after day for nearly a week. What had upset the Alter? He felt that Reb Yerucham was so charismatic that he was turning the Mirrer bochrim into his ‘Cossacks’ - each one in Reb Yerucham’s image - rather than allowing each to develop their own unique expression .

This emphasis on encouraging a student to develop his individuality permeated the teachings of Slobodka talmidim. Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l, always emphasized the importance of independence in learning. While not denigrating the importance of a talmid’s devotion to his rebbe, he stressed that this should not prevent the student from developing independently his own powers of analysis and reaching his own conclusions. He used to say that Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l, would have made even greater contributions to the understanding of the Torah if he had adopted his own original approaches in addition to developing the ideas of his Rebbi, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l. Reb Yaakov related that as a young man, Reb Baruch Ber destroyed all the chiddushim that he had written prior to studying under Reb Chaim .

Reb Yaakov adopted a similar approach in the area of hashkafa - he felt that if a person had a tendency towards a certain valid stream of Torah then he should not be prevented from looking into it even if it contrasted the traditional outlook adopted by his family. A family close to Reb Yaakov was shocked when the youngest of their seven sons informed them that he wanted to be a Skverer Chassid. They went together with the boy to Reb Yaakov expecting him to convince their son that boys from proper German-Jewish families do not become Chassidim. To their surprise, Reb Yaakov spent his time assuring them that it was not a reflection on them that their son wanted to follow a different path of Avodas Hashem. Obviously, their son had certain emotional needs which, he felt, could be filled by becoming a chassid and they should honor those feelings. Reb Yaakov even recommended a step more radical than the parents were willing to consider - sending the boy to a Skverer Yeshiva !

The idea that there are many different valid ways for an observant Jew to express himself is relevant to many areas of our lives, one is development of one‘s personality: There is a tendency in many societies for certain character traits to gain more praise than others. For example, being outgoing and confident is often seen as very positive, whilst being shy and retiring is often viewed in a negative light. An extroverted parent who has a more introverted child may be inclined to see his child’s quiet nature as a character flaw and try to pressure him to change his ways. However, the likelihood is that this will only succeed in making him feel inadequate. It is the parent’s avoda to accept that his child may be different from him, accept him for who he is and work with his strengths. Similarly a child may find it difficult to sit for long periods of time and focus on learning. If a parent or teacher places too great a pressure on the child to learn, then it is likely that when he grows up he will rebel . Even within the curriculum of learning a person may feel unsatisfied if he only learns Gemara all day long. Many people enjoy exploring other areas of Torah such as Navi, hashkafa and mussar. It may be advisable (with Rabbinic guidance) to encourage one’s children or talmidim with such leanings to learn these areas instead of making them feel inadequate for not learning Gemara to the exclusion of everything else . And as we have seen from the story with Reb Yaakov, there is no need to be afraid if one’s child or talmid chooses to express his Yiddishkeit in a different way from his parents. It should be noted that whilst chinch habanim is the area most effected by this message, it also applies greatly to our own Avodas Hashem. We too may experience feelings of inadequacy in some area of our lives because we do not ‘fit in’ with the consensus of the society that we live in. However, sometimes, we may be able to find more satisfaction in our Avodas Hashem, midos or learning, if we allow ourselves to express our strengths. Of course this should be done with guidance and strict adherence to the mesora.

What are the benefits of encouraging a person to express his individuality in Torah? We said earlier that the Yeshiva that most stressed this idea was Slobodka. If one were to look at the products of all the great Yeshivas he will see that Slobodka produced by far the greatest number of Gedolim . And what is striking about these great people is how different they were from each other. By stressing the uniqueness of each individual the Alter was able to bring the best out of each of his talmidim. If we can emulate him then we have a far greater chance of enabling ourselves, our children and our students to live happier and more successful lives.

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