The Work Was Unfinished

Isaac experiences frustration when he discovers many of his father's accomplishments were not fully realized.

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As an activist, learning about the work of previous generations can be inspiring--and terrifying. I begin to wonder if I will ever be able to accomplish what the leaders of eras past did, or be willing to take the same risks. For example, when I was in elementary and middle school, the fight to end South African apartheid was often in the news and many of the young activists were not much older than I was. I remember thinking: "What would I be able to do to show such strong moral leadership and live up to their example?"

I imagine that the patriarch Isaac felt the same anxiety, as he is often seen as living in the shadow of his father. Abraham was a trail-blazer, taking his clan to a new land to establish a monotheistic religion and forming an everlasting covenant with God to found a new nation. He did not leave a lot of space for the son born to him late in life, Isaac, to do more than continue his legacy--much as the achievements of earlier activists can feel limiting to today's aspiring leaders.
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Yet our awe for these accomplishments is often tinged with disappointment when we find that our predecessors' work was left unfinished. We sometimes feel as though we're fighting the same battles, still struggling for a renewed and repaired world despite their best efforts. In Parashat Toldot, Isaac experiences this frustration, discovering that some of his father's achievements were not fully realized.

In one example, a conflict over the digging of wells that Abraham had attempted to resolve in his day reignites when Isaac comes to dwell in the same land. Abraham's tenuous treaty with the local Philistine king, Abimelech, collapses when Isaac begins to prosper, and the Philistines stop up the wells that Abraham had dug, forcing Isaac from the land.

I can understand how Isaac, re-entangled in a conflict of the past, might be discouraged, tempted to give up on finding his own resolution. Indeed, at first he tries to avoid conflict by moving--three times--to dig new wells, comforting himself with the thought that God has blessed everyone with a lot of space in which to live.

But when the quarrel over water follows him to Beer-sheba, God appears, launching a turning point for Isaac: "I am the God of your father Abraham," God says. "Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring…" The blessing, simultaneously invoking the greatness of his father and foreseeing Isaac's future as his own man, gives Isaac the courage to secure the lasting peace that Abraham failed to achieve.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of education and outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights--North America. She was ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she also received her MA and BA in Midrash. She is a contributor to The Jew and the Carrot and serves on the boards of Hazon and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.