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On Being a Good Follower

November 18, 2015

I’d like to offer a new answer – at least it’s new for me – to an old question:

Why did Yitzchak love Esav so much and want to give Esav the bracha. We know that Esav is the “bad guy.” So what did Yitzchak see that the rest of us didn’t?

One common answer to this question is that in Esav, Yitzchak saw many of the traits that Yitzchak himself was lacking. Yitzchak, as we discussed last week, was traumatized by the Akeidah. He appears to be timid. Esav is the opposite.

Genesis 25:28:

וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.

The explanation goes that Yitzchak saw the strength, confidence and aggression of Esav. Even if Yitzchak did see that Esav had many spiritual and religious shortcomings, he nonetheless saw that the potential was within Esav to be a strong leader and continuer of the tradition started by Avraham. Yitzchak favored Esav because Esav was the anti-Yitzchak.

But today I’d like to suggest the opposite. I’d like to suggest that Yitzchak favored Esav because Yitzchak saw himself in Esav. What do I mean?

I think that the fundamental quality of both Yitzchak and Esav is that of a follower.

We know that Yitzchak was a follower. The Midrash haGadol (Breishit 26:1) observes:

בוא וראה שכל מה שאירע לאברהם אירע ליצחק. אברהם גלה ויצחק גלה. אברהם נסתקפו על אשתו ויצחק נסתקפו על אשתו. אברהם קנאו בו פלשתים ויצחק כך. אברהם הוליד לבסוף ויצחק כך. אברהם יצא ממנו צדיק ורשע ויצחק כך. אברהם היה רעב בימיו ויצחק כך, שנאמר: ‘ויהי רעב בארץ’.

Note that all that happened to Avraham, happened [also] to Yitzchak. Avraham had to leave his place, and [likewise] Yitzchak had to leave. The identity of Avraham’s wife was questioned, and likewise the identity of Yitzchak’s wife. The Philistines were jealous of Avraham, and likewise of Yitzchak. Avraham eventually had a son, and Yitzchak also eventually had children. Avraham had a righteous son and a wicked son, and likewise Yitzchak. In Avraham’s time there was a famine, and likewise in the time of Yitzchak, as it is written: ‘There was a famine in the land.'”

Yitzchak is celebrated for his ability to literally follow in the footsteps of Avraham. Everything that Yitzchak does in the parsha, in his life seems to be an exact replication of Avraham.

  • They both had to leave their place of living in Israel because of famine
  • They both tried to pass their wives off as their sister to avoid punishment
  • They both have tense dealings with the פלשתים over wells
  • They both make treaties with Avimelech
  • They both have one son who is righteous and one son who is wicked.

Even the wells that Yitzchak digs in our parsha are the same wells that Avraham had dug previously.

Yitzchak is a great follower of Avraham.

What about Esav?

The Talmud and Midrash offer a fascinating insight into Esav. We know that on the day that Esav agrees to sell his birthright to Yakov, Avraham, their grandfather had just died. This is the reason for the lentil soup that Yakov was preparing. The Talmud tells us (Bava Batra 16b) that as long as Avraham was alive Esav did not sin. But on that same day he committed five egregious sins:

אמר רבי יוחנן, חמש עבירות עבר אותו רשע באותו היום: בא על נערה מאורסה, והרג את הנפש, וכפר בעיקר, וכפר בתחיית המתים, ושט את הבכורה.

R. Johanan said: That wicked [Esau] committed five sins on that day. He dishonored a betrothed maiden, he committed a murder, he denied God, he denied the resurrection of the dead, and he spurned the birthright.

According to this, Esav had the desire to sin for a long time, but he knew that it would crush his grandfather Avraham. So Esav held his desire in check until Avraham was no longer around and then Esav let it all go. Avraham, the first Jewish grandfather succeeded in instilling Jewish guilt in his grandson!

The midrash (Breishit Rabbah 63:11) makes his rebellion more philosophical in nature:

יא ויזד יעקב נזיד, אמר לו מה טיבו של נזיד זה אמר לו שמת אותו זקן אמר באותו הזקן פגעה מדת הדין אמר לו הין, אמר אם כן לא מתן שכר ולא תחיית המתים, ורוח הקדש צווחת (שם /ירמיהו/ כב) אל תבכו למת ואל תנידו לו, זה אברהם, בכו תבכה להולך זה עשו.

Esau asked Jasob: “What is the stew for?” Jacob answered: “That old man [Abraham] has died.” Esau said: “That onld man has been struck down by fate!?” He answered, “Yes.” Easu then said, “If so, there is no reward and no resurrection of the dead.” The Holy Spirit cried out, “’Do not cry for the dead and do not lament for them’ – this refers to Abraham; ‘Weep rather for him who is going’ (Jeremiah 22:10) – this refers to Esau.”

Aviva Zornberg elaborates:

The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. P. 60

For Esav, Abraham has been the test case for meaning in absurdity. If he too is subject to the fatality of death, then Esav abandons all belief in an ultimately intelligible reality.

 

The common theme in both of these explanations is that Esav’s connection to Judaism was only because of Avraham. Esav went through the motions to appease his grandfather, but not because he felt a personal connection. Esav’s love for his grandfather, Avraham, ran very deep. But his love for Judaism was non-existent; his connection was superficial.

We know that Esav was similarly praised for his display of the mitzvah of kibud av va-em. He was a devoted son and grandson but he did not internalize any of Avraham’s or Yitzchak’s values.

But Yitzchak, blinded or scarred by his own life experiences only saw the positive in his firstborn. He saw the same loyalty and commitment to Avraham that was the hallmark of his own life.

And let’s be clear. Though our community puts a primacy on leadership, there is great value to being an effective follower. Rabbi Linzer writes (http://www.rabbidovlinzer.blogspot.com/):

“It is easy to dismiss [the life of a follower] as mundane and meaningless, but in fact, without Yitzchak we would not have survived. Yitzchak took all of Avraham’s creativity, all of Avraham’s innovations and vision, and ensured its continuity…. As a people, we have had a few Avrahams: Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Ari, Rav Soloveitchik, and Rav Kook, to name a few. But had Yitzchaks not followed them…their legacies would have been lost to us.”

So Yitzchak favored Esav because he saw himself in Esav. A loyal follower. But there is a key difference between the two. We have already seen that Esav was a superficial follower. He did not accept or internalize any of Avraham’s values or commitments. Yitzchak was a different type of follower. Rav Amnon Bazak has a fascinating shiur (http://etzion.org.il/en/differences-between-avraham-and-yitzchak) where he shows that while it appears that Yitzchak’s actions exactly mirror those of Avraham, there are actually fundamental differences. To give two quick examples:

When Sara is unable to conceive, Avraham seems to accept this fate at face value. Yitzchak, on the other hand, when confronted with the infertility of Rivka enters into heartfelt prayer on behalf of his wife.

When faced with famine, Avraham – who had just arrived in the land of Israel – immediately departs for Egypt.

Genesis 12:10:

וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land.

The Ramban is very critical of Avraham:

גם יציאתו מן הארץ שנצטווה עליה בתחילה מפני הרעב עון אשר חטא כי האלהים ברעב יפדנו ממות ועל המעשה הזה נגזר על זרעו הגלות בארץ מצרים ביד פרעה במקום המשפט שמה הרשע והחטא

Also his going out from the land – of which he had been commanded at the beginning – due to famine was a transgression that he committed, because Elohim would have saved him from dying (even) in a famine. And because of this deed it was decreed that his seed would be in exile in Egypt under the hand of Pharaoh.

 

Yitzchak, when confronted with famine does not go to Egypt but rather to the land of the Plishtim, which is in Israel:

Genesis 26:1:

וַיְהִ֤י רָעָב֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ מִלְּבַד֙ הָרָעָ֣ב הָרִאשׁ֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָיָ֖ה בִּימֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֵּ֧לֶךְ יִצְחָ֛ק אֶל־אֲבִימֶּ֥לֶךְ מֶֽלֶךְ־פְּלִשְׁתִּ֖ים גְּרָֽרָה׃

And there was a famine in the land, beside the first famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went unto Abimelech king of the Philistines unto Gerar.

Yitzchak escaped the famine without leaving the promised land.

 

Our community and our society value leadership to the extreme. While leadership is important, we cannot focus all of our energy on creating and praising leaders. Most of us are followers. We must focus some of our collective efforts on foster good followership. Followership in the model of Yitzchak, where the values of the leader are internalized and applied appropriately to the given circumstance, and not in the shallow, superficial model of Esav.

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