November 27, 2003
Different Yet Identical
Parshat Toldot (Genesis 25:19 - 28:9)
In introducing us to the patriarchal family of Isaac, son of Abraham, this week's Torah portion of Toldot begins: "And these are the offspring of Isaac son of Abraham -- Abraham begot Isaac." Since Torah is not given to redundancy, this opening passage raises the question: Once we're told that Isaac is the "son of Abraham," what is the point of then stating "Abraham begot Isaac?"
The Midrash explains that the statement "Abraham begot Isaac" represents Divine testimony that Isaac was indeed the biological son of Abraham. That in the face of ridiculers and rumormongers who sought to claim that Isaac had been fathered by the Philistine king, Avimelech, God formed the physical features of Isaac in striking resemblance to those of Abraham so that there would be no room for doubt -- "Abraham begot Isaac."
Another midrashic comment extrapolates upon this point by saying that this physical resemblance between Abraham and Isaac was a reflection of their spiritual resemblance; that the merits, the lofty pursuits, indeed the spiritual DNA, of father and son were likewise completely identical.
Now this declaration of spiritual similarity -- let alone resemblance -- is most curious.
We're taught that Abraham's primary mode of service was via the attribute of chesed (loving kindness). This was repeatedly and poignantly demonstrated by his incessant acts of hospitality, compassion and benevolence. He opened his home to hungry wayfarers. He reached out and taught others with delicate softness and patient sensitivity.
Isaac's primary service, on the other hand, was via the attribute of gevura (severity and restraint). He was a much more demanding sort of fellow. This was demonstrated by his defiant and relentless digging of wells. Even as his enemies kept filling and destroying them, Isaac dug away the rocks and the dirt to uncover the waters beneath. With sharpness and strength, he dug away at the shmutz -- the evil and the falseness that was seen on the surface -- so as to unearth the reservoirs of goodness and truth buried deep within.
Indeed, everything we learn about Abraham and Isaac seems to cry out: Different! That if ever there was a father and son who seemed so unlike one another, it was these two highly individualized personalities. Yet the Midrash states that, in fact, Abraham and Isaac resembled one another -- in every way!?
Within this paradox, seen at the inception of the family of Israel, lies the true beauty of our people. Different situations require different solutions. In the days of Abraham -- during which unawareness of a Divine presence was rampant -- the world needed an Abraham-like personality. In the days of Isaac -- especially with hostilities looming on the horizon -- the world needed an Isaac-like personality. Yet, these very different individuals -- firmly embarked on their very different missions with their very different methods and characteristics -- are deemed spiritually (and essentially) identical because their ultimate focus and goals were one in the same. Their core principles, values and underlying devotion to God were completely indistinguishable from one another. They blazed different trails, but both trails led to the same place: toward making their environment a more holy and moral place to live.
The great Chasidic master, Reb Zushe of Hanipoli, once remarked that when he thinks about the interrogation that might await him after his days on earth are done, he is not worried that he might be asked: "Zushe, why could you not attain the heights of an Abraham, a Moses or a King David?"
Such concerns did not trouble him. His one and only source of trepidation was that the question would be posed; "Zushe, why were not as great as Zushe?"
You are expected to rise to the heights of your own very special and unique potential -- no more, no less.
Judaism, and its Torah way of life, celebrates individuality. We are each endowed with our own gifts and talents, our own passions and modes of expression. In terms of personality and character, none of us are truly alike. This is the way God created us for it is only through the diverse expression of the multitudes that His true intent in creating this world can be realized.
Each and every Jewish man, woman and child plays his/her own special instrument within the symphony that is Yiddishkayt. Within the context and framework of halacha and tradition are endless means and modes of service to the Almighty. From the intellectual to the emotional, from the ritualistic to the artistic, we are called upon to experience it all, even as we shine in some areas more than others. What inspires, stimulates and intrigues some may not do the same for others. Yet, at the pinnacle of it all, is that special place in which we are, and must remain, identical. Within the essential goals -- of living and being true to the principles of our Holy Torah -- is where there is beautiful resemblance among all of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Let each instrument of the orchestra contribute its own special notes with its own special sound and rhythm. Yet, let us make certain that we are playing the same piece of music -- as guided by that One and Only conductor -- so that rather than a cacophony of disjointed noise, we have a beautiful symphony of harmonious diversity.
Rabbi Moshe Bryski is executive director of Chabad of Agoura Hills and dean of the Conejo Jewish Academy.