Top ten biblical characters – go!
You never who never makes this list? Yitzchak.
And you know why? Because his life, excuse me for saying this, is boring.
I gave a lecture on Thursday explaining how Yitzchak gets a bad rap. People assume he was emotionally stunted, and I demonstrated from the text of the Torah how he was anything but; he was the most emotionally intelligent of the forefathers.
But boring? I’ll give you that. His life story is just not that exciting. The exciting narratives in his life, the Binding of Isaac, finding him a spouse – which we read about today, and the blessings that he attempts to give to his son, Eisav, in all those exciting stories – Yitzchak is entirely passive. It is Avraham who leads the way for the Akeidah, Yitzchak remains at home, his future wife, Rivkah is the one running around, demonstrating her greatness, and the stolen blessings is more a story of Yakov than it is Yitzchak.
The remaining stories are absent any drama – they are boring. Not only boring, but they seem downright repetitive. His father, Avraham, dug wells – Yitzchak digs the same wells. His father, Avraham travels to Gerar, Yitzchak travels to Gerar. It’s almost like the Torah could have saved a few lines by just writing, “Yitzchak was born, etc.” and then called it a day.
I believe that when we compile our top ten list of biblical characters, we are making a grave mistake by not including Yitzchak. We all crave the excitement of an Avraham, the revolutionary, who changes the world. We admire the Yakov, who stands up time and time again against all adversary. We applaud the courage of Sarah and Rachel, iconoclasts, creating a new understanding of a woman’s role in society. Our imagination is captured by the drama of Moshe’s life, the strength of Devorah, the emotions of King David. But how many of our lives are comparable to theirs?
I’d venture to say none. Their stories are exceptional, captivating, but entirely unrelatable.
Yitzchak was the most boring life, but it’s also the most consistent. This coming week, we are observing the Yahrtzeit of our former executive director, Max Jacob. He would come to shul every morning and every evening to pray. He would go to his office after Shacharis, make calls to those who had upcoming life cycle events and arrange the honors for the week ahead. He would head home and go work out. And then he did the same thing again. And again. And again. Virtually, until the day he passed. That’s Yitzchak. Boring? Maybe, but beyond impressive.
In the words of Rabbi Adin Steinzalth, zichrono livracha: “It has often been said that “all beginnings are difficult,” but continuation can be even more difficult. The capacity to persist is no less important that the power to begin. In all the significant revolutions of history it is evident that the first generation – the “founding fathers” – usually have to struggle against formidable objective forces.. But the verdict of history … whether it was a glorious victory or merely a passing episode, lies with their successors – the generation who have to fix and stabilize the revolution.”
Yitzchak, in Kabbalistic literature, is described as a man of strength. And that’s because it takes superhuman strength to live a life of consistency, of not needing the drama, and showing up every day to do the same thing.
So often I hear from people who feel like that their religious life has gotten stale. This is especially true for people who have made major life changes to become observant or people who have spent some time studying in Israel. It once was so exciting, and now… meh. Prayer in the morning, prayer in the afternoon. The same words, the same rituals. And so, we look for something new and exciting. “Wouldn’t it be so much more meaningful if we just meditated instead?” “Wouldn’t it be so much more exciting if we created our own rituals?” Or worse, this whole spiritual enterprise is just not worth pursuing. It doesn’t do anything for me anymore.
Someone reached out to me the other day and suggested that we incorporate the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd into our Ashkenazi calendar. It takes place on the 29th day of this Hebrew month, Cheshvan. One of the arguments for incorporating this holiday into our Jewish life is that this month of Cheshvan has no holidays. There is actually a custom to call this month, Mar Cheshvan. Some suggest that the reason it has this title of Mar, is because Mar means bitter; there are no holidays, nothing special during this month.
But that perspective is fundamentally mistaken, it’s a misunderstanding. True creativity is born out of ritual. True novelty is formed form within the tightest of places. I’ll give you some examples. There’s a book that came out a few years ago, called, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work. And it shares some unbelievable examples: Ludwig Van Beethoven would start his day, every day, with a coffee, with exactly 60 coffee beans. He would then sit at his desk and compose until 2 or 3 PM. He would then go on a daily walk, come home for dinner, have a beer, smoke a pipe, and go to sleep early. Every day.
It was said about Immanuel Kant, probably one of the most creative philosophers in the modern world, that when he would outside with his cane, all the neighbors knew that it was exactly 3:30 PM and he had finished writing for the day.
My favorite, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Wallace Stevens took a job as insurance lawyer. A poet and a lawyer! And he explained that it introduced discipline and regularity into one’s life.
I’ll tell you a little secret. On Simchas Torah, we auction off the opportunity for someone to choose a sermon topic. And while some may think that it is challenging to have someone tell you what to talk about it, I love it. You know why? Because every week, I could talk about anything. Anything at all. But when someone gives you framework, it takes all that creative energy and it focuses it. If you ever go white water rafting, you’ll notice that the rapids are found when the water rubs up against the rocks. That tension, that limiting of space, is the source of even more energy.
We just observed the first Yahrzeit of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l, this past week. He was undoubtedly the most creative Jewish mind of our generation, and yet he understood better than anyone that to live an engaged, fiery life, does not mean innovating something new, it means finding something fresh from within.
In his words: “Much of Judaism must seem to outsiders, and sometimes to insiders also, boring, prosaic, mundane, repetitive, routine, obsessed with details and bereft for the most part of drama or inspiration. Yet that is precisely what writing the novel, composing the symphony, directing the film, perfecting the killer app, or building a billion-dollar business is, most of the time. It is a matter of hard work, focused attention and daily rituals. That is where all sustainable greatness comes from.
We have developed in the West a strange view of religious experience: that it’s what overwhelms you when something happens completely outside the run of normal experience. You climb a mountain and look down. You are miraculously saved from danger. You find yourself part of a vast and cheering crowd… You are awed by the presence of something vast. We have all had such experiences.
But that is all they are: experiences. They linger in the memory, but they are not part of everyday life. They are not woven into the texture of our character. They do not affect what we do or achieve or become. Judaism is about changing us so that we become creative artists whose greatest creation is our own life. And that needs daily rituals: Shacharit, Minchah, Maariv, the food we eat, the way we behave at work or in the home…”
That’s Yitzchak. He does the same things as Avraham. He is a copy-cat. He is boring. And that is his greatness. That is his strength.
But the truth is, if you read closely, if you read between the lines, you’ll notice that like Beethoven, and Kant, and Wallace Stevens, while we fell asleep watching their boring routine, they came up with something new. Maybe it was subtle, but it was also earth-shattering.
The book of Bereishis is a book of homelessness, or in the ancient world, landlessness. Adam is kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Cain, the farmer, is cursed to not be able to cultivate the land. The land is destroyed in the time of Noach. And our forefathers are promised land, but their profession is shepherds, because they don’t receive the land in their lifetime. And so, the book of Bereishis ends with our ancestors as shepherds in a foreign land.
But there is one exception, and his name is Yitzchak. He is a farmer. “וַיִּזְרַע יִצְחָק בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים; וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ, יְהוָה. And Yitzchak planted that year and reaped a hundred-fold. And G-d blessed him.” Through his routine, through the boring consistency of life, he was able to accomplish what no one else, none of those exciting Biblical characters were able to accomplish – a blessed connection to the holy land. (Based on an observation by Rabbi Alex Israel)
The B’nei Yissasscher suggests that Mashiach will arrive in the month of Cheshvan, this month bereft of holidays. This will teach us once and for all that there is nothing bitter about a lack of excitement, there is nothing lacking in the absence of innovation. On the contrary, routine, perspiration, finding excitement within the existing structure, that is where the greatness lies.