On Not Being First - Parashat Ḥayyei-Sarah
There’s a certain pride that comes with being the first to do something. History books record firsts: we tend to know the names of the first person to walk on the moon, or to fly a plane. Being second is still good, but it just isn’t as glamorous. These last few parshiyot, these last few Torah portions, we’ve been focusing on an important first: Avraham, the first Hebrew - the man who heard the call of God and walked out into the wilderness, and by doing so, changed the world. Avraham’s story is filled with drama and intrigue, with promises and arguments with the Divine, with love and loss. And this week, we begin the transition from Avraham’s story to the story of his son. In today’s Torah portion, Parashat Chayei-Sarah, we read about the death of the generation. Sarah goes first, and then Avraham starts preparing for the end of his own life - he finds Isaac a wife, he organises his estate, and finally: he leaves the world.
Isaac, Yitzchak, is the second. His is no longer the generation of the trailblazer. And Yitzchak is a quiet kind of character. One might imagine he is still reeling from the events of last week’s portion, in which he was almost sacrificed by his own father. He’s also a character whose life has been filled with the drama of the favourite child - a drama he will play out once again with his own children. Tune in next week for more of that. His story gets overshadowed by his own quiet nature, and by the action-packed narrative of his sons. He is easy to overlook, and it is easy to forget that he was only the second generation of this relationship with God.
And while being second is not usually recorded in the history books, is not usually considered the place of merit, there is actually - I think - much to learn from Yitzchak’s place in history. Yitzchak’s story is the story of every Jew who came afterwards. It is the story of having a spiritual legacy, being the child of the promise, grappling with what it means to inherit a relationship with God!
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidut, touches on this when he asks why we refer to God as ‘the God of Yitzchak’. In the beginning of the Amidah, we say: ‘Elokeinu vEilokei Avoteinu: Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, vEilokei Ya’akov’ - Our God, and the God of our ancestors: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. The language there is not intuitive. One might expect us to refer to the God of our ancestors as ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’. So why do we split it up? - asks the Baal Shem tov. Why God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak? Well, according to the Ba’al Shem Tov, this is because Yitzchak - the inheritor of this relationship with the Divine - also had his own relationship. The God of Avraham was not simply the God of Yitzchak. A relationship was inherited, yes, but a relationship also had to be formed.
When we refer to God in the Amidah, we start with Elokeinu - our God - and then we continue with vEilokei Avoteinu - the God of our Ancestors. The story of that, the idea of a God who is both ours and our ancestors’, starts with Yitzchak. And while, yes, he is a quiet kind of character - the fact that he kept that alive, kept that balance, is the reason that the Abrahamic project still exists. The whole project would have failed had he fallen into either of these extremes. Yitzchak could have wanted to be the trailblazer himself, could have shrugged off tradition for the sake of personal spiritual quest, and Avraham’s work would have been lost. So too, Yitzchak could have clung to Avraham’s narrative of the Divine so tightly that he never developed his own relationship, and the covenant would have gone stale and slipped away in the next generation.
That is the challenge of each generation that has followed. It is like the classic proverb about love and butterflies: hold too tightly and it will be crushed; too loosely, and it will fly away. Hold the tradition of our ancestors too tightly, and we will never internalise it - we will never really live it, it will never become ours. And if we cannot make it ‘ours’, we cannot hope that those following us will be equipped to make it ‘theirs’. Hold it too loosely, and it will slip away from the world forever. All of its wisdom and depth will be lost, and we will be left constantly reinventing the wheel. In the words of my teacher Rabbi Feinstein: ‘Denying a place for personal spiritual seeking leaves us stagnant. Cutting off tradition leaves us with a terrible sense of weightlessness and a painful hunger for authenticity.’
Avraham was the first. His challenges were real and vital and new. But it is Yitzchak who decides whether or not it survives. And Yitzchak’s challenge is our challenge. Every time we sit with the siddur, we hold an inheritance in our hands, and we are invited to bring that inheritance to life. In that moment, in that interaction with Jewish past, present, and future, we are all Yitzchak. And those small moments might not have the glamour of being the ‘first’. But they have a greater impact than we might be able to imagine.