Yitzchak’s life-story, although longer than that of his father or his son, is decidedly less detailed in the Torah’s account. He is usually more passive than active; the significant moments of his biography - his birth, the Akeidah, his marriage - may have him as their focus, but he does very little initiating. And yet, together with Avraham and Yaakov, he is a Patriarch. What is Yitzchak’s contribution to the founding generations of the Jewish people?
In one area of his life, Yitzchak is very active and successful, namely the material. When he lives in the area of Gerar, on the southwestern edge of the land promised to Avraham, and although it is a year of famine,
As a result of this envy and resentment, the Philistines seal up the crucial wells that had been dug in the days of Avraham.
By sowing the land, Yitzchak is undertaking a new endeavor. While Avraham’s family had long worked as shepherds, and Yaakov and his sons later fall back on shepherding, Yitzchak is the only one of the Patriarchs who diversifies into agriculture.
(Indeed, it might be argued that Yosef’s dream of all the brothers “binding sheaves in the midst of the field” [37:7] is an expression of his desire for the family to return to grandfather Yitzchak’s agricultural experiment!)
VA’AVUDAH RABBAH: ‘AVUDAH derives from the root word ‘A-V-D, “to work”; it is the source of ‘EVED, “servant.” Rashi understands ’AVUDAH RABBAH as a general term meaning “much activity.” However, Rashbam explains it as “work in the fields and vineyards.” Other commentaries see this term as referring more specifically to “a large staff of servants,” as in Iyov 1:3. Even according to this view, as Malbim points out, the Torah wishes to emphasize that Yitzchak’s wealth was so diversified as to require workers of very different types, both for shepherding (the “family business”) and agriculture, Yitzchak’s new venture.
Yitzchak often thinks in agricultural terms, connecting it with the spiritual:
And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field towards evening (24:63),
which our Rabbis connect with the establishment of the Mincha prayer (Berachot 26b), as well as the building of the Temple (Pesachim 88a).
In his blessings to Yaakov and Esav, Yitzchak looks forward to a life of tilling the land:
Later, to Esav,
The Zohar (Bereishit 143b) teaches that Yitzchak intends by his blessings to undo the curses placed on the earth after the sin of Adam: “Cursed be the earth because of you” (3:17), which were repeated to the farmer, Kayin
Noach was a farmer, with disastrous results (9:20-27). But, perhaps Yitzchak wishes to recover the blessing in working the soil that existed prior to the sin of Adam and Chavah.
Rabbi Mordechai Breuer (1921- ), winner of the Israel Prize for Torah Literature, 1999, in “Chapters of the Festivals,” argues that Yitzchak’s contribution went beyond merely maintaining what his father Avraham had begun. Avraham acquired the land by walking through it; Yaakov by returning to it. Yitzchak acquired his connection to the land by remaining in it, precisely by not leaving it. The same can be said for their spiritual contributions. Yitzchak is the Patriarch of stability and permanence.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik (1903-1993), in his essay “Sacred and Profane,” develops the notion of “place-consciousness,” contrasting the nomad and the settler:
Our Father Yitzchak bequeathed to us our everlasting connection to the land of Israel, which is our source of identity and sanctity.