Many years ago there lived a man who was the paradigm of love. He loved G‑d, and he loved all G‑d's creatures. His home was open to every wayfarer, his heart to every needy man. It is of this man that the divine attribute of love said: "As long as he was around, there was nothing for me to do, for he did my work in my stead" (Sefer HaBahir, cited in Pardes, portal 22, ch. 4).
This man had two sons. The elder son was a loving, sensuous and outgoing man. The second son, however, was of a more introverted nature: a silent and reserved man, with a self-discipline that verged on harshness. The difference between them was further accentuated when they married and had children: the elder son fathered a clan famous for their unbridled passion and munificent hospitality, while the second son had a child who took his severity to its extreme, becoming a heartless warrior and cold-blooded murderer. The elder child is his father's son, people said. The second son seems to have acquired his nature elsewhere.
They failed to distinguish between likeness and semblance.
The Torah section of Toldot (Genesis 23-26), which recounts the life and progeny of Isaac, begins: "And these are the offspring of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac."
But if Isaac has already been identified as the son of Abraham, why does the verse repeat that Abraham fathered Isaac? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, author of the most basic of Torah commentaries) explains:
The cynics of that generation were saying that Sarah had become pregnant from Avimelech, since she had failed to conceive in all the years she was with Abraham. What did G‑d do? He formed the countenance of Isaac to resemble that of Abraham, so that all might attest that Abraham had fathered Isaac. This is the meaning of the verse: Isaac (is certainly) the son of Abraham (since there is proof that) Abraham fathered Isaac.
There are several puzzling things about Rashi's explanation:
a) The Torah clearly states that Avimelech did not so much as touch Sarah. Why should we be concerned with what the cynics of the generation were saying?
b) On the other hand, if the Torah, for whatever reason, finds it necessary to allude to this proof, should it not have done so in its account of Isaac's birth? Why does it wait until its account of Isaac's marriage and the birth of his children, many decades later?
c) The implication is that Isaac's resemblance to Abraham was an extraordinary event, engineered by G‑d to attest to Isaac's paternity (What did G‑d do? He formed the countenance of Isaac...). But isn't it quite natural for a son to resemble his father?
Three Patriarchal Elements
Our sages tell us that the three fathers of the Jewish nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, embodied the three attributes of chessed (love, benevolence), gevurah (severity, restraint) and tiferet (harmony and truth). Abraham's chessed was exemplified by his prodigious love of G‑d, his charity, his campaigning on behalf of the condemned, and his lifelong effort to enlighten his fellow man. Isaac's gevurah was expressed in his great awe of G‑d and his exacting self-discipline. Jacob's attribute, tiferet, was his capacity for harmony and truth: his ability to integrate the diverse traits of his soul into a cohesive whole. In Jacob, the polar drives of chessed and gevurah were synergized in an all-embracing, all-enduring character--a character with the consistency and persistency that are the hallmarks of truth. Thus Jacob was able to persevere and prosper under the great diversity of conditions he was to encounter in his life, including his years in the Holy Land under the tutelage of the great scholars of his time, in the employ of the deceiving Laban, his confrontation with Esau, and his sojourn in depraved Egypt.
From our three fathers we inherit these three components of the Jewish character. From Abraham we inherit our legendary philanthropy and social consciousness. From Isaac stems our inborn yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven) and moral restraint. Jacob imbues our souls with the gift of truth: our commitment to the learning and scholarship of Torah, the ultimate harmonizer of the diverse forces of the soul and of creation, and the secret of our perseverance through the convulsions of history.
As Jacob's example demonstrates, chessed and gevurah are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary: when properly applied, each complements and strengthens the other. In fact, chessed that is not restrained by gevurah, or gevurah that is not tempered with chessed, is actually contrary to its own aims.
To illustrate: a father hugging his child is an express act of chessed, but if he were to embrace the child with a force equal to the intensity of his love, he would fatally crush him, G‑d forbid. So for his act of chessed to be truly loving, it must be checked with the restraint of gevurah. The same applies to every love: there must be an undercurrent of mutual awe, modesty and restraint in the relationship, lest it disintegrate into an exploitive and alienating pseudo-love that is anything but the coming closer of two individuals.
By the same token, the execution of justice is a classic gevurah endeavor, with the aim of establishing a law-abiding society. But a legal and penal code that is not tempered with compassion will crush the society it is aiming to preserve. Or, to cite another example of gevurah, submission to authority is crucial to the productivity of any communal institution, be it an army, a production plant or a classroom, but a soldier, worker or student would be intimidated to the point of incompetence unless his superiors relate to him with a certain measure of affinity and compassion.
This is why harmony and truth are the two faces of tiferet. Uninhibited love is not more loving than restrained love, nor is uncompromising justice more just than justice mitigated by compassion. On the contrary: a thing is most true and enduring when it encompasses elements of its opposites and incorporates them as the validators of its own principles and purposes.
Therein lies the deeper significance of the speculation by the cynics of that generation as to the paternity of Isaac.
Ishmael, Abraham's son by Sarah's Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, seemed to them a true son of Abraham: lusty, outgoing and generous, he was obviously cast in the Abrahamic mold; indeed, he was even more passionate than his more restrained father. On the other hand, the introverted, stoic Isaac hardly seemed his father's child at all.
And then Isaac married and fathered twin sons. The younger, Jacob, was a gentle, studious young man, and one could discern in him both his father's reserve and the kindliness of his grandfather. But Esau, the elder, was a full-blown product of Isaac's severity, just as Ishmael had inherited and exceeded his father's passion. The disparity between father and son now seemed even more clearly delineated: Abraham's true heir in chessed is Ishmael, while Isaac's gevurah, later amplified by Esau, represents a new, anti-Abrahamic strain among his descendants.
The truth was the very opposite. Ishmael's lust was a corruption, not an amplification, of Abraham's love--just as Esau's cruelty was a perversion of his father's introversion. Abraham's true and only heir was Isaac, for although Isaac's emotional character was different, even opposite, from his father's, both were committed to the dedication of their respective traits to the service of their Creator and purpose, rather than the fulfillment of their own particular drives. Indeed, it is only through Isaac that Abraham could develop into Jacob, the perfect synthesis of love and awe, expansiveness and restraint, passion and commitment.
It was to this truth that G‑d attested by making Isaac's face identical to Abraham's. This was a supernatural phenomenon, since Isaac's resemblance to Abraham was not an external one--externally, they were quite different--but one that went beyond character and temperament to the very essence of will and soul. Nevertheless, G‑d desired that their appearance should reflect their quintessential likeness, and the Torah relates this to us as an eternal lesson: that as children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we, too, have it in our power to unite our diverse characters and drives to their common, intrinsic end, and express this unanimity of purpose on the face of our lives--our most external level of behavior.