Of all our forefathers, we know very little about Isaac—and what we do know doesn’t seem too impressive. His father Abraham is an advocate for justice and a pioneer in teaching monotheism to the world. His son Jacob is a wanderer, a dreamer who wrestles with Gd and the father of a great nation. Both Abraham and Jacob are transformed in the course of their lifetime and each given a new name by Gd: Abram becomes Abraham and Jacob becomes Israel. But Isaac begins and ends his life as Isaac—he never seems to change much.
Isaac is, perhaps, the least understood of our 3 patriarchs. He allows himself to be sacrificed by his father—although Gd, in His mercy stopped it. He had to have his father’s servant Eliezer find a wife for him. Who needs someone to find a wife for them at age 40? And Isaac lived his life avoiding conflict and confrontation whereas Abraham stood up to the 4 kings that captured his nephew Lot and Jacob wrestled with the guardian angel of Esav. Isaac—whenever there was a confrontation—just picked himself up and left.
The Torah (Gen. 26:13) tells us, Vayigdal ha-ish, “and the man [Isaac] grew great.” He became very wealthy with flocks and cattle and wells. One day Avimelech, King of the Philistines, says to him: Leych mey-imanu ki atzamta mimenu m’od, “Jew, go away. You are more successful, stronger than we can stand.”
By the way, did you hear the doubling of the letter mem in that verse—ki atzamta mimenu m’od? The sages use this as the master verse for the lesson of the end-letter mem. All the end-letters were established by the prophets to represent a key verse and concept that tells us what will be in the end. The end-letter mem was formulated so that we would never forget that as Avimelech said this to Isaac, there will come a time in the end when we will be told: Leych mey-imanu ki atzamta mimenu m’od, “Get out of here, Jew. You are too successful, too strong for us. You’ve made too much off of us.” The lesson is that we should never become too comfortable, too complacent outside of our own land.
So what does Isaac do? He leaves…he moves on. He settles somewhere else, digs a well and finds water. The people come and say: “Get out of here; that’s our well”…and Isaac moves again and again. Why?
Isaac looked death in the face when his father was about to sacrifice him, and so, he didn’t let the small stuff or even the big stuff get to him. He would rather let others take what is his than risk facing death again. “Life is too precious,” he reasoned, and so, when threatened, he gave others what they wanted.
Isaac goes back to one of his father’s old homes in the valley of Gerar. There he finds that the Philistines have stopped up the wells that his father Abraham had dug. He opens the wells of his father and digs a new well and finds a b’eyr mayim chayim, “A well of living water.”
But the herdsmen of Gerar protest and threaten Isaac saying, “The water is ours.” But Isaac is not discouraged. He digs another well and another. He dug 7 wells until they left him alone to live in peace. So he called that last well, B’eyr Sheva, “the 7th well,” for it was the 7th that he had dug (Sforno).
What accounted for his great persistence? I think if it was me, after 2 or 3 times of people taking what I worked hard for, I might have given up. But Gd made Isaac a promise and he held on to the promise Gd put in his heart (Gen. 26:3,24): “I will be with you and bless you and to your children I will give all of these lands.” If Gd put that promise in his heart, Gd will certainly make it come true.
Here’s the master lesson in all this: If we’re able to intuit what is our proper path in life, what we should be doing with our lives, we should not fear and go for it, no matter how many obstacles are thrown in our face. From this story of Isaac, the number 7 became a symbol of perseverance and Beersheva became a well of inspiration, courage and determination not to give up on our shlichut, on our path in life.
I counted the obstacles that Jacob, Isaac’s son encountered in finding his path and they also came to 7: the purchasing of the birthright from his brother Esav; the stealing of his father’s blessings; fleeing to uncle Laban’s home in Mesapotamia because Esav threatened to kill him; working 7 years to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel; fleeing back to Canaan with his 12 children and 4 wives; wrestling with an angel where his name was changed to Israel; and confronting his brother Esav as he returns. You might make an even longer list if you follow his life carefully. But neither Isaac nor his son Jacob gave in to despair. They persisted until they were able to fulfill their holy mission.
When we’re faced with obstacles upon obstacles in life, let’s call upon their strength to persevere for we are the children of Isaac and Jacob. And just as Gd gave Isaac and Jacob the strength to persevere, He’ll give it to us as well if we ask for it.
Let me conclude with a brief story of perseverance:
Years ago in Illinois, a young man with 6 months schooling to his credit ran for an office in the legislature. As might have been expected he was beaten. Next he entered business but failed in that too, and spent the next 17 years paying the debts of his worthless partner. He fell in love with a charming lady and became engaged—and she died. He had a nervous breakdown. He ran for congress and was defeated. He then tried to obtain an appointment to the U.S. land office, but didn’t succeed. He became a candidate for the Vice-Presidency and lost. 2 years later he was defeated for Senator. He ran for office once more and was elected. That man was Abraham Lincoln.
It took Winston Churchill 3 years to get through the 8th grade because he couldn’t pass English—of all things! Ironically, he was asked many years later to give the commencement address at Oxford University. His now famous speech consisted of only 3 words: “Never give up!”
So here’s the key. Look within to find your path—what is it that you need to be doing with your life—and, as Nike tells us, “Just do it!” When confronted by obstacles, call upon Gd to give you the strength of Isaac and Jacob to persevere and you will—even if you’ll need to try over and over again 7 times. As King Solomon teaches (Proverbs 24:16): “For a righteous man falls 7 times and rises up again.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis