The greatness of Yitzchak – An alternative approach to parenting

When you teach your son, you teach your son’s son. Talmud Kiddushin


Yitzchak (Isaac) is the patriarch that mystifies us. His actions and thought processes leave us perplexed and confused. He is characterized by our sages as having the virtue of gevurah – strength, yet to the casual observer his essence seems to be quite the opposite. He is systematically referred to as the obedient son who blindly follows his father up the mountain, too meek or too weak to confront him. Furthermore, in this week’s Torah portion he decides to bestow the blessing upon his son Eisav (Esau), seemingly oblivious to his evil nature. The Torah continues by expressing Yitzchak’s feebleness, his blindness, old age, and general weakness.      

It may not be the golden rule, but the concept found in Pirkei Avot should certainly rate as a silver rule. “V’hevey dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf z’chut – and you should judge each person favorably and with an open mind. It is a mainstay of Judaism, yet it is an ideal that is more easily promoted than actually achieved.

Thus, let’s begin our study of Yitzchak with rose tinted glasses. The Hebrew language has a plethora of words for strength including koach, tokef, and oz, yet Yitzchak is referred to only by the accolade of gevurah. Perhaps the word gevurah implies a strength of character indicating that Yitzchak was a principled individual. He wasn’t swayed by popular opinion and he didn’t comply with what was expected of him. He was a man of conviction who allowed his heart to propel him forward. It may also be noteworthy that the term for man in Hebrew is gever, perhaps indicating that man’s greatest strength is his conviction and determination to be principled.

Many are bothered by Yitzchak’s decision to bless Eisav and question his place among our patriarchs. However, Yitzchak’s parenting approach is one that is often lacking today. Many a parent may be embarrassed if their children refuse to heed their traditions and observances. Sometimes the path they choose in life is diametrically opposed to the model their parents desired for them.  Yet how do we relate when confronted with these challenges? Do we shun them? Do we ostracize or alienate them? Do we forbid other family members from interacting with them lest they follow in their footsteps? We know how our matriarch Sarah behaved; she made certain that Yishmael was thrown out of his father’s house. She did not want her step-son to jeopardize her biological son’s adolescent naiveté. Perhaps Yitzchak understood that one should support their children unashamedly. He may have calculated the different needs of his children, realizing that Eisav had a much greater need for the love, admiration, and respect of his father. He may have wanted to use the blessing as a lure, slowly casting out hook and line with the hope of eventually reeling in the ultimate reward.    

Yitzchak’s strength may have been his ability to ignore the advice of his peers and not be intimidated into submission by his wife. On Rosh Hashanah we ask the Almighty: Rachameinu K’rachum h’av al haben –have compassion like a father has compassion on his children. The child that lives up to their parents’ expectation isn’t the child in need of compassion. It is usually the child that wreaks havoc in our lives that requires more love and understanding. If it is immediate gratification that is craved, then it may be easier to allow your emotions to justify your resentment. But is that the true representation of Yitzchak?  Is that how you characterize a person with real Gevurah – real strength? Remember it’s not only the Yitzchak of yesterday that we have to judge favorably; it’s often much closer to home. It is so much easier to be judgmental and to find fault and criticism with our child, grandchild, in-laws, or friends. Yet, the euphoria is short lived, slowly descending into a vacuum of emptiness and discontent.  Conversely, the potential to change a life and to create a brighter future is a MasterCard moment – priceless.

Perhaps Yitzchak initially mystified us, but in the truest form of critical analysis, the perplexities of life are often immortalized only by our stubbornness.  Paradoxically, we could start the demystification process by re-examining the Talmudic phrase: ma’aseh avot siman l’banimthe actions of our patriarchs are intended to be a lesson for their ancestors. This lesson could give hope to the myriad of children with severed relationships from their parents. If we had the courage to be a gever, to be a man, we could assure our children who have wandered that their blessing awaits and they are always welcome home.  


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Jack Engel

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