Yitzchak: The First Follower

Parashat Toldot begins with Yitzchak's geneology. The commentators notice something strange in the verse. There seems to be repetition.

(יט) וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק׃
(19) This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac.

David Kimchi (Radak), a 12th century commentator explains it this way:

(יט) אברהם הוליד את יצחק, אמרו (ב"מ פ"ז) כי קלסתר פניו של יצחק דומה לאברהם, עד שהכל אומרים אברהם הוליד את יצחק, שלא יאמר אדם לפי שנולד לעת זקנת אביו ואמו כי אסופי הוא. ויש לפרש עוד שהיה ישר ונאמן והולך בדרך טובה ואוהב לבריות כמו אביו עד שהכל אומרים אברהם הוליד את יצחק:

(19) אברהם הוליד את יצחק, we are told in Baba Metzia 86 that Yitzchok’s facial features were so similar to those of his father that anyone ever encountering Yitzchok immediately knew that he must be the son of Avraham. The reason that this had been arranged so by G’d was that when someone claims to have become a father in his old age, some people tend to doubt the “father’s” claim, assuming that the woman who had born that child must have been unfaithful to her husband, or that at least the baby now presented as this father’s was in fact a foundling. Yitzchok’s amazing similarity to his father precluded anyone from making such spurious accusations. Another reason that the Torah repeated something which we all knew, i.e. that Avraham had sired Yitzchok, was that Yitzchok possessed the same virtues and wonderful qualities which Avraham excelled in, so that it was clear who must have been his father not only physically, but that the same father also transmitted a spiritual legacy to his son.

In fact, as the parasha continues, we see that Yitzchak lives a life that is very similar to his father's. He deals with a famine, he encounters Avimelech, he says that his wife is his sister and, in the verse below, he re-digs his father's wells.

(יח) וַיָּ֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃
(18) Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

(18) כשמות, with the same names in order to maintain unbroken continuity of ownership.

In fact, some are critical of Yitzchak for not taking the initiative to create something new, as his father had done. He even seems a bit boring.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, sees another aspect to Yitzchak's "boring" life.

Isaac is the least original of the three patriarchs. His life lacks the drama of Abraham or the struggles of Jacob. We see in this passage that Isaac himself did not strive to be original. The text is unusually emphatic on the point: Isaac "reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them."

Normally we strive to individuate ourselves by differentiating ourselves from our parents. We do things differently, or even if we don't, we give them different names. Isaac was not like this. He was content to be a link in the chain of generations, faithful to what his father had started.

Among people who study leadership, there is a concept called the first follower. Watch the video below and think about Avraham, Yitzchak and all of us. Why was Yitzchak's job so important? What are some of his actions from the text that made him the perfect first follower?